The Amplification Conundrum

Photo by Jason Rosewell on Unsplash

Now that the schools here in New Zealand are beginning to return to many of the ‘normal’ practices and ways of working following the COVID-19 lockdown period, attention is turning to reviewing and evaluating the experiences of students and teachers as they coped with learning from home. Here in NZ as well as in other parts of the world, researchers are busy investigating what worked and what didn’t during this time. The disciplines of distance education, eLearning, online learning etc are under the microscope as researchers, practitioners and policy makers alike are seeking to establish answers to the question of ‘does this work?’

Clearly the feedback so far is mixed, but there is no doubt that this disruptive event has caused a significant ‘reset’ in the way many people are thinking about how learning occurs and the role of schools. A recent publication from the World Economic Forum highlights this mixed response:

While some believe that the unplanned and rapid move to online learning – with no training, insufficient bandwidth, and little preparation – will result in a poor user experience that is unconducive to sustained growth, others believe that a new hybrid model of education will emerge, with significant benefits.

(World Economic Forum: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed education forever.)

Certainly, through the window of my own experience, through conversations with a range of people in Canada, the US and Australia – and NZ, as well as the experience of my own grandchildren and the children of friends, I’ve heard stories of success and failure across the board.

I’ve heard positive stories about…

  • greater levels of interest and involvement of parents in their children’s learning
  • the greater emphasis given to learner well-being, and addressing the particular needs in each context
  • learners appreciating the ability to focus on the things that interest them, and to learn at their own pace
  • the benefits of having access to instructions that can be referred back to, and learning resources that can be re-read or re-wound to view again
  • the personal attention from teachers and support available when required – and feedback that targets individual effort and achievement
  • learners creating their own communities online to help support each other
  • learners appreciating greater clarity around assessments and what is required to demonstrate success or achievement in a particular task
  • etc.

I’ve also heard less positive stories about…

  • parents under pressure in homes with several siblings all trying to access support at the same time – and in other cases, where parents are involved as essential workers and not available to provide the level of support expected
  • technology failures – lack of devices, lack of connectivity, lack of technical support on hand to address issues as they arise
  • the ‘information overload’ with learners feeling ‘swamped’ with the sheer quantity of work to complete in unrealistic timeframes
  • the continuation of ‘whole class’ instructional approaches that leave learners unimpressed and ‘not heard’ in large group Zoom meetings for instance (and subsequent stories of students simply turning off their videos and carrying on with other tasks).
  • materials and tasks being distributed without sufficient explanation or cases where the explanations provided were unclear or confusing (for learners and parents).
  • etc.

I’m sure many of these stories will emerge in the coming months as the findings of various research projects are released. What will be of particular interest is what exactly these research projects are setting out to report on – what might their research question(s) be? I’ve heard already of a number of projects that are seeking simply to report on the experiences of learners in their homes. While such stories are really important and need to be gathered, my real interest is in what sorts of conclusions may be drawn and how might these influence or inform the way we ‘do school’ into the future?

Too often the research into the effectiveness of distance education (particularly from those with no background or experience in it at all) attempts to ‘compare’ it with face to face teaching, and to try and demonstrate that ‘it works’ – assuming that face to face teaching and learning is the benchmark that ‘works’. We clearly need to move beyond this simplistic thinking. There are decades of research that shows distance learning does indeed ‘work’ – the real questions are ‘who does it work for?” and “when and in what contexts?”

This is where scrutiny must be given to the pedagogical practices being implemented – not simply to the role and use of technology in ‘bridging the gap’ between teacher and learner. Too often the focus is on the technology, as if that in and of itself will create the change that is desired – i.e. “let’s give everyone a laptop, connectivity at home and then ‘deliver’ lots of online resource!” In our research efforts, we must be prepared to delve into and unpack the things that teachers did and in doing so, be prepared to scrutinize this in terms of how it is enacted online/remotely AND in face to face context. As I’ve read many times in the distance education literature – a poor face to face teacher is unlikely to become a good distance educator!

This is where the amplification conundrum confounds things. For many years now amplification theories of information technology have argued that technology is primarily a magnifier of existing institutional forces. In many circumstances this is what has been exposed during the COVID-19. Technology has amplified many great practices of teachers in supporting personalised learning and providing personalised feedback for example, while it has also amplified the less than desirable outcomes of some instructive practices that rely simply on the discursive approach of teachers to ‘deliver’ information.

The consequences of an amplifier theory for ICT4D are that (1) technology cannot substitute for missing institutional capacity and human intent; (2) technology tends to amplify existing inequalities; (3) technology projects… are most successful when they amplify already successful development efforts or positively inclined intent, rather than seek to fix, provide, or substitute for broken or missing institutional elements.

(Kentaro Toyama – “Technology as an amplifier in international development”)

Before becoming too harsh on ourselves we must remind ourselves that what we experienced during the COVID-19 lockdown was not distance education (incl. online learning, eLearning etc). It was an emergency response to an urgent situation affecting the whole population. It was done with little preparation for teachers, learners or parents – we all simply coped! What it highlighted was how people coped under these circumstances, and what practices enabled schools and teachers to transition easily into working in this ‘different’ environment – and which didn’t.

As we reflect on what we can learn from this experience, rather than asking ‘does distance education work?’ we need to be asking…

  • who did it work for and in what contexts? Why – or why not?
  • what practices were exposed as effective during this amplification process – and which were exposed as not helpful?
  • how might we harness the positives from this to ‘fold into’ the way we work with our learners (and their parents/wānau) as we all return to working together in our physical spaces?

One thought on “The Amplification Conundrum

  1. Kia ora Derek
    I love this thinking, and totally agree that one of the more useful and interesting. questions is not what worked, but for whom did it work? My hunch is that the answer is (as with all such questions) and incredibly complex milieu of factors and variables. My biggest worry is that those most disadvantaged will tend (statistically speaking) to be those for whom it most often didn’t work. I base that hunch on what we know in our low decile school context, which is that relationships are THE most critical factor in determining student success. Take away the F2F basis for relationship building and you quite possibly ‘kneecap’ the learning. That said, of course strong positive relationships fit into that category of /necessary but not sufficient’.
    Mā te wā

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