Pedagogy and technology – three half-truths – In conversation with Professor Ian Moll

| September 22, 2010

Professor Ian Moll, Head of the Division of Educational Information Technology at Wits, shared with Independent Education his contribution to a recent public seminar hosted by the Wits School of Education, entitled ‘The Gauteng Online and Offline experience: What schools need to be able to use Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in teaching and learning’.


In the seminar, I wanted to explore how pedagogic issues get enabled by technology, which was the case in terms of the Gauteng Online project. The emphasis was on technology, and the teacher development issues – the pedagogy – fell by the wayside. I believe that the technological tail should not wag the pedagogic dog, but this
is exactly what often happens in schools.

People get excited about the ‘wonderful’ technology that they’ve seen, and salespeople will generally market the technology on the basis of the ‘amazing’ things that it does. I am interested in exploring these kinds of half-truths. My own starting point is, if we begin with pedagogy, where do we go with technology? In this context I suggested that, if you look at the following three claims from the point of view of technology, they are absolutely correct. But if you look at them from the point of view of
pedagogy, they are false claims that need to be carefully interrogated when we talk about technology in schools.

Claim 1: Computer-based learning enables unprecedented access to knowledge

This much is true: there is more information out there than we could ever have imagined possible, and we can gain access to it in unprecedented ways, thanks to technology and the information super-highway. I think that’s partly why people get excited by technology. But the way that one works on the Internet (or in any kind of technologydriven environment) is through hyperlinking to other sites. It is horizontal movement in terms of knowledge; constantly fanning out wider and wider, to
make other kinds of connections.

In a school environment, we should teach students not to be too interested in the horizontal knowledge links. The really important knowledge links are the vertical
ones. For example, if we make an assertion, we should be interested in finding out the history of that assertion, to what other kinds of theoretical traditions it relates, and where it came from in terms of its justification, its development and its verification in the past. That’s what we understand by deepening one’s understanding of a particular concept, and I would argue that the fundamental project of teaching and learning in schools should be depth.

So yes, computer-based learning gives us unprecedented access to information, but it doesn’t give us much access to depth, unless there is careful and knowledgeable mediation on the part of the teacher. Therefore, claim one is true – but dangerous – from the point of view of technology, and false from the point of view of pedagogy.

Claim 2: Technology offers us radically new forms of pedagogy

The renowned academic Lee Shulman pioneered the concept of pedagogical content knowledge (PCK), emphasising not only the importance of teachers mastering the subject they teach, but also understanding how the content fits together and how to present it in such a way that is meaningful to students. Within this theory, says Shulman, there are three kinds of knowledge with which a teacher works and, by implication then, there are three kinds of knowledge with which we need to be concerned
when we train teachers.

The first one is content knowledge, which is knowledge of a discipline, whether it is Mathematics or History. That’s specialist knowledge about a particular part of the world, and it’s the knowledge the aspirant teacher should acquire in a basic undergraduate degree. Clearly teachers need to have that knowledge, although one cannot
expect a Physical Science teacher to be a physicist, for example. The teacher should have sufficient working knowledge of the commonly accepted principles of physics.
The second is the knowledge of what it means to teach a particular discipline to a particular group of learners, given what they require at a specific point in their development. So, how do you teach geometric principles to a six-year-old? And what is important for that child to know about geometry at that point in her development?

The third kind of knowledge is pedagogic knowledge: the general principles of teaching and learning that apply to any discipline. Then there’s a whole new field called technological pedagogic content knowledge. In technology, the phrase ‘pervasive computing’ is often used to refer to different digital devices linked to each other in a
network. Across that web of working knowledge provided by modern technologies, there are radically new ways of representing knowledge in what is called a multimedia context. The example I use is the experience a colleague had of trying to teach a group of children in Soweto what a waterfall is conceptually, in the context of geomorphology and the Geography curriculum. How do you get them to understand the concept of a waterfall when, in fact, they have never seen one?

Of course, what modern technology does very quickly and very easily in an organised, cheap and accessible way is to supply multiple representations of a waterfall. So in a multimedia context, one can create understandings for learners to which they otherwise wouldn’t have access. This is, I believe, the central potential of ICTs in education, if they’re harnessed properly by a good teacher. There will only be success if the teacher is using technology perceptively and critically
in relation to the concept of pedagogic content knowledge.

I would argue therefore that technology doesn’t give us access to radically new forms of pedagogy, but what it does do is give us ways of realising pedagogies of depth that weren’t really possible using only books. That is not to say that reading books is not important. We must never get to the point where we argue that books and book-based learning are not the central project of education.

Here we can refer back to the method used by government regarding the Gauteng Online project. Those who maintain that claim two is true would argue that, when we move from policy to implementation with regard to technology, we should first put the computers in the classroom or laboratory. Once teachers know how to use computers, then one can teach them how to use certain software.

I am saying that’s the wrong way to proceed from a teaching and learning perspective. I advocate a different approach. Once teachers understand content knowledge in a particular discipline, then it is possible to ask questions about what possible technologies may enhance that understanding. Back to the second claim. Again, I want to say the same thing: from the point of view of technology it’s correct, but from the point of view of pedagogy, it’s misleading.

Claim 3: The computer is just a tool

In an education context, I have often heard people say “It’s the pedagogy that’s important. The computer is just a tool.” In a certain sense, that’s correct. But the problem is that people think that computers as technologies are just neutral. They are just the means to allow you to achieve whatever end you have in mind. In fact, embedded in the means are all kinds of cultural practices, assumptions, ways of doing things, motives, drives, passions and forms of knowledge that come to us from history, our own as individuals, and the history of our culture. If you’re a teacher, you have to understand that the technological means is not neutral in relation to the ends.

In terms of the world our children inhabit, technology is all-pervasive. It’s a different world, a different cultural space regulated by a different set of practices, and to assume that the computer or the cellphone is just a tool in that context is to make quite a significant mistake. As a teacher, one has to try to understand what the potentials are of that environment. How could you break the horizontal emphases and find the depth?

So, in terms of claim three: from the point of view of technology, yes, it is a tool in some senses, but from the point of view of pedagogy, it’s more like a loaded weapon.
The education community learned a lot from the Gauteng Online experiment; about the implications of putting the technology in first, and then worrying about what the educational uses might be. But from government’s perspective, what else can be done? From a teacher training perspective, you cannot really start doing what needs to be done, until the technology is in place.

It’s the perfect example of a paradox.

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Category: e-Education, Spring 2010 Edition

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