The good, the bad and the not so ugly after all: educational technology and collaboration in a pandemic

Janet Lord, Head of Education, Faculty of Education, The Manchester Metropolitan University

Janet Lord, Head of Education, Faculty of Education, The Manchester Metropolitan University

As the education sector crashed into a Covid world where teaching and learning very suddenly could no longer be delivered on a face-to-face basis, a huge cultural shift in the sector was called for.  And for a sector which is used to working on problems that are ever-changing, this was just another challenge to add to the list.

We know that students in many schools and colleges are not as IT-savvy as either staff or indeed students themselves might like to think they are; the notion of ‘digital natives’ would appear to be a myth. Students might be great on TikTok or Snapchat, but navigating their way round a large virtual learning environment with multiple demands on them is a different matter entirely. And many schools, colleges and universities have not had the IT infrastructures to deal with a rapid move to online or blended teaching, particularly in disadvantaged areas. I am often told of families with more than one child where all the children are trying to do their homework on a parent’s smartphone with limited and unreliable WiFi. In these circumstances, however good the sessions that teachers and lecturers have planned, they are simply not accessible at a very basic level. So access to appropriate hardware is a key consideration when we are thinking about educational technology.

The shift to online teaching and learning has also been a cognitive and practical challenge for teaching staff.  In any educational institution, there are some staff who are more au fait with educational technology, and some who are less so.  And there are some staff who have a strong belief in the values of educational technology and of the possibilities that it can bring, and others who are much less comfortable with these ideas.   One way of thinking about this is like this:

The people in the top right quadrant are the ‘Cheerleaders’ for educational technology.  Nonetheless in many institutions they were caught ‘on the hop,’ as were the institutions themselves. Huge investments in hardware, support, training and infrastructure were needed in a very short space of time when educational institutions moved online – in the Uk this was at the end of March 2020. The cheerleaders could cheer all they liked, but investment, and speedy investment, were needed. The Gloomleaders in the bottom left quadrant were scared.  They were not prepared for the demands on them and on their understandings of educational technology in the new Covid world.  

The job of the Cheerleaders, of educational institutions, and of the EdTech community was to reach the Gloomleaders. And that was going to be no mean feat; at a time where much work was already online and where we knew and were rediscovering that building and developing community was one of the biggest challenges for the EdTech community as we moved towards an online world.

So how do we do this? The answer is in collaboration and in community itself. The particular type of communities that are useful here are what are known as ‘Communities of Practice’. Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour – in this case, the need to ensure our young people did not miss out on vital learning, essential learning experiences and on all the other experiences and skills that they get in face-to-face education. Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.  Communities of practice, both formally constituted and less so, and both intentional and unintentional, have been the saviour of the education sector in regard to EdTech over the last months. They have allowed people to interact in relation to their domains of interest. In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. It’s key to note that a  community of practice is not merely a community of interest. Members of a community of practice are practitioners; they are teachers and other educators, learning technologists, and other EdTech practitioners. This develop a really useful shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, and ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. We know that listening and communication are the mainstays, in almost every way,  of a post-digital world, a world where being digital is not enough – instead  and as well, we need to focus on our humanity. So the way forward in this post-digital, human, scared but brave new world is and has to be community and collaboration.  A commitment to community and to practice will empower everybody from Gloomleaders to Cheerleaders.    

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