What are the benefits?

Image Credit: Derek Wenmoth

I have a T-shirt that’s now well past it’s best-by date that has printed on the front “I’m older than the Internet“. While some will equate the Internet with the World Wide Web which had it’s beginnings in 1989. The Internet was actually developed in the late 1960s by the United States Department of Defence’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) as a means of communication that could withstand a nuclear attack. It created a global network of networks that connects millions of computers and other devices, while the World Wide Web (WWW) is a system for accessing and displaying information over the Internet using web browsers that came a couple of decades later.

It always gets a groan from my family when I wear it – but it reminds me of the privilege I have of actually having lived through the extraordinary developments in digital technologies over the past 60+ years, and the impact this has had on the way we live, work, communicate, recreate etc. Lots of reminiscing to be had – but that’s not the point of this post. It’s really about taking time to consider the relentless rate of change that has occurred since the world ‘went online’, and how we can’t ever consider anything to be ‘static’ and unchanging.

I’ve been having a number of conversations recently about this evolution in online technologies, and the implications for how we embrace that in education. A common theme in these conversations is the concern that we’re failing to ‘keep up’ with the changes that are occurring, particularly in understanding the impact they are having on us as human beings, and that includes the learners in our schools.

The recent politicisation of cell phone use in schools is a case in point. It’s yet another example of where some feel it is important to introduce standard practices across society in order to preserve public order and in the interests of all concerned. It could be argued that this is no different to the actions that were taken around the beginning of the last century when motor cars were introduced and there were concerns about the speed at which they were being driven, putting public safety at risk, and banning them was seen as an option to correct this.

While it’s inevitable, and indeed necessary, that we engage in debates about our adoption and use of technology in this way, it’s also important to ensure that not all of our responses are restrictive or constraining. We need to understand the future potential and to be able to monitor and respond to this as the changes occur. The reaction to the advance of AI is an illustration of what’s happening here at the moment.

In the past couple of years we’ve seen a number of reports that highlight just how important it is that we engage with what’s happening rather than (a) uncritically embracing every new and shiny thing that comes along or (b) resisting it and attempting to control, manage or even ban it.

So back to my conversations in the past week, about the need to not only ‘keep up’, but somehow ‘get ahead’ of where technology is taking us as individuals, school systems and society as a whole. While it’s highly unlikely we’ll every be able to say we’ve ‘gotten ahead’ of where it’s taking us, we can do a better job of anticipating what some of those changes might be.

A key thing to consider here are the potential benefits that a particular technology or technological advance may bring – alongside consideration of the downsides, of course. By focusing attention on the benefits we create space to begin thinking about the future we want to see emerge from our technology use, and to then plan more strategically about where we put our efforts in order to see these benefits realised.

So the overarching question is, ‘what are the benefits of engaging with digital technologies in education?’ – for teachers, students, administrators and for parents and whānau? When considering any form of technology it’s useful to start like this as it helps confirm the purpose behind what we’re considering rather than focusing immediately on the problems or concerns about doing so.

All of which was prompted today as I discovered a document in my files that I put together a few years ago to help the group I was working with to understand the benefits there might be to some technology decisions being made by them as they were considering to create a digital learning ecosystem, integrated a range of digital platforms and services within a “Connected Learning Environment” (CLE).

The specific components of the CLE being considered were:

  • Digital Identity – How users are recognised online. Authentication of users essential to ensure safe, secure and reliable access to online services.  Digital identities and access systems are foundational elements of our shared digital future
  • Filtering Services – Vital for ensuring protection agains viruses, malware and ransomware affecting a user’s computer and leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.
  • Learning Management – A software application or combination of applications used for the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of educational experiences (courses, programmes etc.)
  • Student Management – (Also known as a student information system or SIS) Maintains a record of all student information, and helps a school manage data, communications, and scheduling etc.
  • Learning Record – The combination of applications that provide a record of each learner’s educational journey.  Includes applications used for assessment and reflection. Generally student-owned and managed to provide evidence of learning and achievement through their learning lifetime.
  • Curated Content – An online system that enables the process of organizing and consolidating pieces of content (text, graphics, and multimedia clips) and tagging schemes (XML, HTML, etc,) in the most efficient way and storing them only one time in a repository.

The chart I created to help focus on the benefits that might be accrued for different user groups are illustrated in the chart below, which you can download by simply clicking on it. I’m sharing it here as I believe it would be useful to apply our thinking in this sort of way to many of the things we are wrestling with currently, so that we are able to identify (or not as the case may be) the benefits we are seeking to provide. Working like this means that the way we address and mitigate the risks or concerns becomes framed within the view of the benefits and allows us to approach the task of finding solutions quite differently.

Click on image to download a PDF version

As the statements on the chart illustrate, by considering the positive outcomes (benefits) of having these technical solutions in place we can create a far more compelling story about why it is we are pursuing these initiatives in the first place.

In some cases it might be that we are unable to identify any tangible benefits, and so it becomes easier to make the decision not to pursue this or to rate the implementation of that particular solution lower down our list of priorities.

Like the advantage I have of looking back to the beginnings of the Internet, it’s all about the bigger picture – the advantage of age and being able to look across a broad spectrum of activity and appreciate the benefits that may accrue, rather than becoming focused purely ‘in the weeds’ of the immediate and often distracting, detail.

Perhaps more importantly, as the chart above illustrates, the focus on benefits in this way is also an opportunity to ensure what we’re doing aligns with the broader philosophical direction we want to pursue. In this case you will note the focus on learner-centredness, life-long learning, participation and collaboration etc. The argument made here is that the development of a digitally connected learning environment, composed of these technological elements, will support the sort of future-focused teaching and learning we want to see more of in our schools and community.

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