You Must Have an Answer

Regular readers of my blog, Twitter or podcast listeners will know that I'm a fan of Adam Greenfield's work. Perhaps, more precisely, I'm a fan of the way he thinks. We work in substantially different areas - I in education and he in urban studies - but I always find value in what he writes.

Adam recently posted a powerful essay on Bluetooth beacons and their implications. While I'm interested in beacons generally, I got the most out of the early part of his piece:

If you’ve been reading this blog for any particular length of time, or have tripped across my writing on the Urbanscale site or elsewhere, you’ve probably noticed that I generally insist on discussing the ostensible benefits of urban technology at an unusually granular level. I’ll want to talk about specific locales, devices, instances and deployments, that is, rather than immediately hopping on board with the wide-eyed enthusiasm for generic technical “innovation” in cities that seems near-universal at our moment in history.

My point in doing so is that we can’t really fairly assess a value proposition, or understand the precise nature of the trade-offs bound up in a given deployment of technology, until we see what people make of it in the wild, in a specific locale. ...

And if anything, information technology is even more sensitively dependent on factors like these. The choice of one touchscreen technology (form factor, operating system, service provider, register of language…) over another very often turns out to determine the success or failure of a given proposition.

I feel similarly in my approach to technology. I'm not altogether interested in debating whether or how much technology should be used in schools. Like Greenfield, I recognise that technology is here to stay whether we like it or not.

Where I feel I converge with Greenfield, and why I get so much out of his writing, is that we both wish to argue for a more humane, more human-focused, more considered and thoughtful use of technology that empowers people rather than merely strengthening existing institutions.

The debate and the art here is not really about whether technology should be used in schools as much as whether and how specific technologies should be deployed for specific schools in specific areas.

If you've listened to our "Deploy 2014" podcast series on Out of School, you'll know that my approach all the way through has been to say this: the decisions you make and the solutions you propose to problems will be specific to your school ... but you must have an answer.

If you're going with iPad, you should be able to articulate exactly why. If you're not, you need similarly strong arguments. You need to be able to say what happens when it gets broken. You must know how to provision the right amount of network capacity, filtering, wifi and charging. What's the "right amount"? Well that depends on the situation.

Like Greenfield, I don't buy the line that all technology is great in school. The committed, enthusiastic and technically capable teacher can see the learning in anything but that doesn't mean it's going to serve the needs of the whole school community. At the same time, you must balance the best-tool-for-the-job argument against the costs of specifying, managing and working within a heterogeneous technological environment.

For more on this topic, I refer you to both the ongoing Deploy 2014 series on my podcast and specifically Episode 58: Against the Smart Classroom in which Bradley and I explore the parallels between Greenfield's book Against the Smart City with emerging "smart classroom" trends as embodied in technologies such as the Amplify tablet, Nearpod and "learning analytics".