Island of ICT Experience

This is the third of my series of posts taking a nostalgic look at work I did with Dr Vince Ham more than 15 years ago with research into the use of ICT in teaching and learning. In the post titled Where’s the Evidence? I shared a little of the three year research project we worked on and the key findings upon which a lot of our subsequent work was based, and in What does ICT integration look like I shared the liquorice strap as an example of one of the evaluative models that were created on the basis of those findings.

This post focuses on another tool that we then developed that takes into account all five criteria that emerged from our research. The intent of this tool was to assist teachers and schools in their efforts to become more reflective in their journey towards integrating ICTs more effectively into their teaching and learning.

The educational value of ICT use in classrooms is influenced and affected by a range of complex and often competing factors, meaning there is no simple example of “best practice” that can be applied in all situations. A metaphor is a useful way of making meaning of such complex issues.

We created the “Island of ICT Experience” is a metaphor to assist in developing the understandings a school might gain from its use of a survey tool designed to aggregate input from across the range of participants in the school community (teachers, students, parents/whānau). An island metaphor was chosen because:

  1. it is an ecological model, rather than a transactional or process oriented model
  2. the features of the landscape and the environment are affected by many factors that cannot be controlled and some that can
  3. the landscape is in a constant state of change as a result of the affects of these factors
  4. an island provides a self-contained environment that has discernable boundaries, while still being part of the global ecosystem
  5. the terrain of an island can be mapped, providing a visitor or resident with an overview of the island and the features on it, the ability to locate their position on the island when they are on it, and the means of planning how to make their way to another part of the island should they wish to do so.

A graphical impression of the “ICT Island of Experience” was imagined as follows:

Of the features on this island, the following were particularly relevant in making sense understanding the use of this metaphor:

  1. Mountains of philosophy – as teachers we all work from a philosophical position. Our educational philosophy is informed by theory and experience, and is continually shaped by our exposure to new ideas and the process of reflecting on our own practice. The mountain of your philosophy could be tall and imposing, with well-defined spurs and gullies from which the river originates. Or your mountain may be more rounded, with the water flowing down in whatever direction and taking whatever route it likes.
  2. River of practice – flowing from the Mountains of Philosophy are the rivers of our practice. This may, in fact, be a single stream, or a number of streams, running down from the mountain. The flow of the river(s) will depend on the rains falling on the mountains. Rivers may run as a trickle or a torrent; they may remain in one channel, keeping to a well-worn path, or they may spread out as a mass of tributaries, spreading their waters evening over a large part of the island’s surface.
  3. Rains of Reflection and New Ideas – Rain must fall on the mountain to ensure a constant source of water for the river. On the island of our ICT experience, this rain comes through participation in a variety of professional development opportunities and learning communities; by keeping up to date with professional publications and ideas; and by constantly reflecting on our own practice.
  4. Wells of experience and intuition – joining the rivers that originate in the mountains is water that wells up from beneath the ground. This water can contribute beneficially to the flow, or it can ‘taint’ the pure mountain streams, depending on the quality of the well. In some cases, when the flows from the mountain ‘ dries up’, the water from these wells is all that sustains growth on the island.
  5. Desert of ICT – some areas of the island may be considered a desert, where, despite the potential to be lush and productive, there is not the right mix of soil, nutrients and plant life. Simply put – there’s too much of just one thing – the ICT sands! Any river flowing into the desert region will eventually dry up, with the thirsty desert simply soaking up all the water that comes its way. Too much water flowing into the desert may cause a flood that spreads the desert sands into neighbouring pastureland.
  6. Pastures of Teaching and Learning – other areas of our island may be flat and fenced as pasture, with rivers flowing through these regions keeping the grass growing lush in fertile soils. These are the areas where powerful teaching and learning experiences can be found, constantly being fed by the ‘rain’ described above. Rivers flowing through the pasture lands and into the desert regions may carry with them both seeds and nutrients that may, in time, establish pockets of growth in the desert.
  7. Jungles of inquiry and innovation – adjacent to both desert and pasture lands are the jungles of inquiry and innovation. The rivers that run through this area sustain the growth of large forests with lush undergrowth. Journeying through these jungles is far more difficult than simply staying in the pasture lands, there are few established routes, and a number of hidden dangers. Yet for many on the island, passing through the jungle is a necessary step to reach their destination.

On the basis of the survey input from a wide range of school community members, a different ‘view’ of the island was generated. This then became the focus of professional dialogue as staff and community groups could use the maps to share their perspectives on what they reveal and why that might be the case – rather than being presented with a ‘fixed’ or ‘statistical’ view of the data that leaves no room for interpretation and the exploration of any bias or assumptions that might exist. Some examples of these view are shown below…

Scenario One: practices are linked to the philosophy of the school, but infrastructure and the narrow use of ICTs lead to outcomes in a limited area.
Scenario Two: Practices linked to philosophical frameworks and increasing curriculum coverage, but some infrastructure impediments may contribute to the lack of developed outcomes
Scenario Three: Good use of ICTs across the curriculum, but outcomes not well developed as a result, possibly as a result of no obvious connection between espoused theory and theory in practice.

As can be seen, the ‘maps’ don’t provide specific information (at this level) explaining why the features show as they do, but instead invite further engagement and inquiry on the part of educators to want to ‘dig deeper’ by first speculating on the reasons based on their own experience and observations, and then by examining the patterns of feedback from the data used to generate the particular map.

The tool was accessed fully online (quite radical in the day!), with the ‘map’ being generated as soon as the data had been gathered. Unfortunately support for its ongoing use dried up, and so the tool itself was left in a ‘back drawer’s somewhere, with different priorities emerging to take the interest of policy makers and funders. But it remains one of the success stories I’m proud to have worked with Vince on, as it provided an opportunity to fully explore the use of ICTs within the full educational and cultural context of the school and its community, rather than simply report on what was wrong with the school’s internet connection, its software support systems or the number of devices available to learners. I also liked what we did because it didn’t attempt to ‘tell’ people what to do or provide a specific set of steps or direction, instead it provided a view of what the data was saying from which users could establish their own understandings and design their own solutions – calling on expert advice or support when and where appropriate.

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