A few days ago I was at the airport waiting for my connecting flight back to Estonia when I saw a group of men gathered around a sort of big pod, which had a strong resemblance – at least from a distance – to a totemic object. Initially, I thought that they were smoking. They all had their heads down on the pod as if they were putting out their cigarettes, which I knew could not be the case. As I drew closer, I saw that they were not holding a cigarette in their hand but a smartphone, and that the pod did not provide an ash bin but plugs for charging their electronic devices. I whipped out my iPod touch, captured the moment and, since there was a good Internet connection, in a few seconds the scene was uploaded to social media with the caption “the four horsemen of the e-apocalypse”. Ironically, I could have joined the four gentlemen, when one hour later the battery of my device came to a sudden death.
Curiously enough, this episode was in stark contrast to the one that I had experienced exactly one day before. I was attending a European project meeting in Athens. We were in a school and right after the kick-off we were given a username and password to the local Wi-Fi network. We were also told that access to Facebook and other social media websites was blocked, and the same applied to mobile phone signals. That was the policy there. We indeed complied. The school was not led by a bunch of crazy Luddites, though, as we found out during a tour around the school a few hours later, during which we could see the rather impressive equipment available to students and teachers for the science classes.
The two episodes reminded me of the sort of ambivalence characterizing the way in which we try to come to terms with technology. On the one hand, we experience unrestricted freedom to play with it, exploring new habits and, to some extent, new ways of being human among other humans, which, though, might eventually lead to addiction and an impoverished sense of being together (see Sherry Turkle’s books “Together alone” and “Reclaiming conversation”). On the other hand lies the more paternalistic and restrictive attitude epitomized by traditional institutions like schools, in which the use of technology is regulated – if not over-regulated – and this is done allegedly for people’s own good (in this case students).
Such ambivalence is at the very core of the discipline I am working in, which is educational technology. Educational technology partakes in the world of technological inventions, which provides an almost incessant flow of opportunities to make learning and teaching more affordable, attractive, and effective. For example, my colleagues at the Center for Educational Technology in Tartu have been involved in another European project called Go-Lab, which created a portal that provides students and teachers from several different countries in Europe with access to virtual laboratories and other learning applications, helping renovate the way in which science is taught at schools.
Yet educational technology is meant to be something more than an echo chamber for tech-enthusiasts ready to pitch the new gospel of the latest hype. In the Go-Lab project, for example, the portal provides the kind of pedagogical support that teachers often need not to go astray from the very educational goals of helping students understand science. Thus, more generally, educational technology has the quite unique and even more challenging task to imagine what it means to be learners and teachers in the present time, which has been defined by some as the time of technological entanglement. In plain English, this means that technology is not just an add-on, something that we simply add to learning and teaching; conversely, it is already part of what we do. In some cases it happens without us being fully aware of the meaning technology has and indeed the potential negative consequences that we might eventually deal with.
As I was waiting at the gate for my flight with my mobile device now defunct (the magic pod was far behind), my mind started wandering, which is often the case when we decide (or are forced) to cut the umbilical cord connecting us to the digital world. The two episodes reminded me of a story that the great theoretical physicist Richard Feynman tells in his What Do you Care What Other people Think? In February 1986, Feynman was invited by the US government to join the presidential commission that was supposed to investigate the causes that had led to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster a few weeks before. I was a little boy, but I remember the tragedy. The Challenger disintegrated soon after launch, leaving the big crowd gathered at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in anguish. Feynman contributed to unveiling the cause of the accident, which turned out to be due to a small component composed of two rubber rings, the so called O-rings. Because of the very low temperature on the day of the launch, the O-rings did not expand fast enough to secure the sealing and the fuel leaked out, causing the big explosion. As Feynman himself discovered, that was just a part of the story, because it turned out that the engineers in the project were well aware of the problem with the temperatures, but they were ordered by NASA’s top managers to proceed with the launch without any further delay. And the reasons were “presidential” reasons, so to say.
The story ends with a Buddhist proverb, which says: “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell”. This made me think about the gates we are trying to open in educational technology and, indeed, where they could lead. While filling up classrooms with the latest technological gadgets is not in the end necessarily so educational, I don’t think that the questions and issues related to technology in education can be addressed by simply coming up with codes and rules trying to restrict its use. This approach simply offers a patch or quick fix to issues that might have already caused big troubles. Such fixes always come too late, as it is not possible to predict the kind of trajectory that the actual use of technology will take in the actual practice. We can only see it afterwards. For example, when the iPad was introduced, we could not expect that its use (or abuse) in some schools might lead to what some have called digimürgitus – digital poisoning.
Athens also reminded me of one of the greatest inventions ever made, which is democracy. Perhaps, the key – pun not intended – is to think together about how to create and then maintain what the great thinker Ivan Illich called “convivial tools”, and making that the way of doing educational technology. Illich defines convivial tools as those that do not reflect and thus deepen asymmetrical relations of power between people. But those that in his own words “give each person who uses them the greatest opportunity to enrich the environment with fruits of his or her own vision… They can be easily used, by anybody, often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user”.
I was so immersed in thinking about how to open the gates of educational heavens that I did not see that my gate was closing right in front of me. I quickly stood up, collected my things and ran to catch my flight.
Emanuele Bardone is one of the lecturers in University of Tartu’s new international Educational Technology MA programme. The one-year programme, which is mostly web-based, is intended for people working in the field of education who wish to use educational technology more effectively in their work or support the work of their teams by introducing solutions offered via educational technology. You can apply until 15 March 2017. See more at ut.ee/edutech.