I’ve just finished reading Daisy Christodoulou’s new book Teachers vs Tech: The Case for an Ed Tech Revolution.
It is, as everything Daisy writes seems to be, outstanding: clear in untangling complex issues; profound in unexpected ways; grounded in logic and research.
Here are three ideas I found profoundly useful from it:
1: To understand how to use technology start by understanding cognitive science.
Her primary argument is that as a profession we misunderstand or undervalue the science available to us about how learning works. This includes the critical importance of attention, background knowledge and the ways in which working memory, long-term memory, and perception interact, (e.g. cognitive load theory). Because of this, our efforts to employ technology to improve education go awry.
If you do not understand how knowledge shapes learning you will overvalue discovery learning which presumes erroneously that teacher expertise and student background knowledge are relatively unimportant; your goal will be to immerse students in rich and unstructured technological environments without prepping them with background knowledge and without mediation of a teacher on the premise that this will help them learn. It is unlikely to and what learning does occur is likely to have a disparate impact.
Technology accelerates. You cannot use it well if you are using it to accelerate faulty conceptions of learning. Start by understanding the brain.
2. The most useful applications are often less visible
Daisy is not a technophobe. Hers is a book about using technology not fighting it, and she has some really useful suggestions. One of her simplest and best is the use of flashcard apps to aid students in studying and building memory through retrieval practice. One of the smartest things a teacher or school could do would be to build a set of bespoke flashcards for students to use in reviewing and studying on their devices. These might be aligned to a knowledge organizer if you have one, perhaps, or upgraded regularly with key course insights.
Another great suggestion (pages 84-91, sports fans) is about design rules for visual information… visuals and videos are far more prevalent and can add immense value but combining words and images effectively is a science. Eliminate all extraneous information from the visual. Cut the text up into small chunks and insert it into the visual (video or image) to explain it in small manageable, sequential chunks. Basically it’s a section on how to do what you’re already doing much better.
3. It’s a battle for attention
The most powerful part of Daisy’s book for me was her discussion of the research on attention and distraction.
One thing that is obvious but that I hadn’t really thought of is that in the current world of remote teaching, students almost always have BOTH a laptop and a phone accessible in their learning environment. This is relevant because 1) people use phones and laptops differently and 2) it allows them to ‘multitask’ [in quotes for a reason… see below] even more.
My littlest described this to me over the dinner table last week. “I look at the screen during my zoom calls and I can see the blue light shining up at so many of [my classmates’] faces. It’s so obvious they’re on their phones but my teachers don’t (or can’t) look closely enough to see it.”
Anyway, the book provides a summary of some of the research on attention:
“In a 2016 study by Carter, Greenberg and Walker, students were allowed to bring devices to some sections of their course, but not to others. They did better in the sections with no devices.”
“In a 2018 study by Glass and Kang, students were randomly split into two lecture groups. One group were allowed to bring devices to their lectures…the others… could not bring a device to the lecture. Students in the no device class did better on the final assessment…”
“When undergraduates at the University of Texas were asked to do a series of cognitive tests. They did better if they left their phones in another room and worse if the phones were on the desk in front of them. The effect held even if the phones were turned off.”
”The research suggests we are not capable of true multitasking. Instead what we end up doing is task switching, that is, switching our attention back and forth between the two tasks in a way that makes performance on both slower and more error prone…. Even the websites and applications [eg zoom] that aren’t trying to distract you are part of an ecosystem that is. It’s clear too that this kind of distraction is bad for learning as it promotes multitasking (or task-switching) and reduces the working memory resources going toward the topic being studied.”
“Other studies have asked students to place screen recording software on their laptops and monitored their media use during lectures [these are undergrads]: 94% of them used email during the lecture and 61% used instant messaging. Another similar study found that in a 100 minute lecture on average students spent 37 minutes on non-course-related websites.”
“Another study from 2017 showed that in their general daily use of their laptops, undergraduates switch on average from one window to another in their browsers every 19 seconds.”
On Net: “When we use a connected device, we are using a device that is plugged in to a distraction engine.” We should do that with caution. One of the other wise suggestions she makes–beyond the control of teachers alas–is the development of context-specific devices, designed for schools that would limit access to the distractions that mean an instant downside to the introduction of any connected device.