A bad worker blames their tools – does the same apply to learning technology?

The old proverb ‘a bad workman blames his tools’ refers to an individual who, in doing something poorly, decides to blame the tool they have used rather than accept their own failings (OED definition). How many times have we (learning technologists) heard grumblings from colleagues and students (and indeed grumbled ourselves) at the inadequacies of virtual learning environments, the privacy controls on social networking sites, the features we need on an online platform requiring a ‘premium’ plan, or wifi-dependent tools that flunk out on shaky infrastructure not designed for mass-use of mobiles by 300 students simultaneously…? OK, so it’s mainly about VLEs, but there comes a point where we just have to accept that technology cannot do everything by itself and users of technology need to know something about it to get the most from it.

The old adage rings true then. Just like you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to put a nail in a wall, neither would you want to use Word docs attached to emails for a group of five students to work together on a 2000 word report. Whilst you might be able to bash it in, you’ll probably bend a few nails, stab yourself with the pointy end and bruise your thumb in the process. All in all, the group of students would be better off using Google Docs.

Whose responsibility is it?

Let us replace the word ‘worker’ with ‘educator’ in our proverb above. If the product of their educating doesn’t come out right, is that the fault of the tool or is that the fault of the educator? I think it would be grossly unfair to educators across the world to put the blame on them for the ineptitudes of some of the tools that have been used for technology-enhanced learning. In many cases, tools and platforms are institutionally managed, imposed or coerced into teaching practise. However, whilst the palette of tools may be limited, how they are used and incorporated as part of a whole learning and teaching experience is the responsibility of the educator.  Compromises are always made, but this is where decisions over the choice of tool and approach utilising them must be informed. This is where digital capability comes in.

Admitting a lack of skill

The JISC Digital Capabilities project provides a framework that outlines areas where educators and students could focus their energy in developing aspects of their digital skills. At the core, intersecting four areas of digital skills, is ‘ICT proficiency’, which covers both functional ability to use IT and the capability to select and learn appropriate tools. Surrounding the use of digital tools is the idea of ‘digital identity and well-being’ and it is this aspect which I think goes to the heart of the proverbial blame game. Our use of IT exposes our abilities and lack of abilities in a very open way. Particularly in online spaces, social networks and with public profiles, an individual’s professional (or personal) practise is exposed and captured. This is their identity, and their well-being is determined by their confidence and interactions in the digital space. The JISC framework tries to suggest that a level of skill which begins with ICT proficiency and is developed through one or more of the four themes, contributes and is informed by an individual’s digital self. The skills and the person belong to each other. The problem with any sort of skills framework is that you need a sense of ‘where you are at’ to begin with and an honest view of where you need to be. On your own you may not be able to get that true picture of what you could or should know about, perhaps blaming the tool instead?

But technology-enhanced learning isn’t about the tool

Strangely enough, I am not of the view that every educator needs to be well-versed in every learning technology. It’s just not practical and not effective use of their time. Not even learning technologists can keep up with all the different tools and platforms available. However, educators and learning technologists do need to think about what they want to achieve with a learning technology. I’m talking here about defining learning objectives and learning experiences. Without that direction to begin with, and to go back to the proverb, it would be like trying to put a nail in a wall without knowing what wall to bash it in. The choice of tool in this case is irrelevant; the nail has nowhere to go.

As a starting point to define your learning objectives and/or specific learning experiences, the JISC / University of Ulster ‘Viewpoints’ resources are great to start with. In particular the ‘learner engagement’ cards provide a summary of different learning experiences that can be mapped onto a course plan or storyboard.

Choosing the right #edtech

Once you have your learning objectives and know what type of learning experience you wish to create for your students, you can then start to explore the range of tools available. As intimated above, no tool is going to be perfect as there are always considerations such as accessibility for disabled users, cost, functionality, security and availability that will impact your decision and use of the tool. I am not going to list a range of tools (you can see something like this in the York TEL Handbook instead), but pose questions to ask yourself as you take a look at what tools you have available and how your answers will enable you to judge whether you are using that tool appropriately.

  1. Is this tool intuitive and if not what support will I need to seek or provide to students?
  2. How does this tool enable students to access content (material I provide, they share or available online)?
  3. How does this tool facilitate the level of interaction I require (with each other, with me or with the content)?
  4. How will students know they are undertaking the learning activity using the tool correctly?
  5. Do I feel confident demonstrating this tool to students?
  6. Can I justify the use of this tool as supporting the learning objectives and learning experience I wish to create for my students?

Example: seminar discussion

Let’s look at an example, use of an online space to extend a discussion that took place in class. If you are not familiar with this approach, take a look at the University of York Online Intervention Walkthrough (courtesy of Wayne Britcliffe):

In my example, the intended learning experience is for students to address knowledge gaps and develop a deeper understanding of issues being discussed. During the seminar, students are required to note one or two key questions that surface. These may be questioning a particular line of seminar discussion or something they didn’t understand. Online, students are expected to post their answers to these questions.

Learning is intended to take place through the act of researching, writing a response and also considering the responses of other students.

Motivation comes from subsequent seminars highlighting ‘good’ posts and addressing any misconceptions. As there is value in structuring deeper engagement with course content, other forms of motivation, such as requiring responses to be drawn upon as a component of summative assessment (but not simply tokenistic credit), could also be explored.

Now let’s consider two online tools for this task: a VLE discussion board and a Blogger public blog space. Both could validly be used, depending on the context.

Intuitive/guidance

Both platforms will need clear steps for posting a response. However, whilst the VLE is regularly used, Blogger is not and will introduce a technical hurdle to enter the space. Once in the online environment, the process of posting is similar: write then click some sort of submit button (students won’t be expected to use the bells and whistles).

Access to content

A link to the discussion board or Blogger will be available within the VLE module site. Both platforms will enable students to view other students posts, however additional set up is require to create a group Blogger blog where all students contribute to the same space. For larger groups this may be impractical.

Interaction

Both platforms allow students to contribute, view other contributions and the instructor to respond to posts. The discussion board allows threads of posts, perhaps by week, whereas use of Blogger could involve tags to allow collections of posts by topic across different weeks.

Students undertaking the activity correctly

Feedback comes in the form of comments on posts, but primarily in the face-to-face session, therefore the tool has no effect on this criteria. In the guidance, students will need clear task instructions aside from any technical guides.

Demonstration

The tool will be introduced in the first seminar to allow students to familiarise themselves with the space and expected learning behaviour. The instructor should dry run this.

Justified against intended learning experience

We started this activity design with specific outputs for the students to create. Either tool enables students to meet the intended learning objectives. However, there are other factors such as the public nature and perhaps unfamiliarity of Blogger, which will impact on students’ successful use. Conversely the public Blogger space me also be a motivator as it represents the students ability to write and surface their understanding for a wider audience. If writing for a wider audience was a key learning outcome then clearly Blogger would be a better choice than the private space of a VLE discussion board.

Which space the students prefer in this case may be determined by how comfortable they are with writing publicly and adopting new online spaces. A VLE-based discussion board may be better structured (a starter post could be written by the instructor) and feel like a ‘safer’ space for the students.

Conclusion

The effective use of learning technologies, in particular choosing the right tool for the job is something that comes with consideration of the learning experience, but also innovation, practice and iteration. Not everything will work first time, but thinking about the questions above, and importantly, thinking about the students experience of the learning activity, will go some way to creating an effective learning designs. Educators should not be afraid of new technologies, but do need to develop the digital capabilities to assess, select and implement right technology for the intended learning.

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