Friday, 2 September 2011

Interactive Whiteboards, Personal Technologies and the Cybernetics of Classroom Engagement

One of the biggest challenges we have in the iTEC project is thinking why teachers would adopt new technological practices with widgets, mobile phones, etc. The problem is quite simple and can be expressed in cybernetic terms (this is one of Oleg's slides which does the job very well!)

Learners are curious, want access to employment, personal development and empowerment. Teachers have knowledge, expertise, experience and understanding. The VARIETY (i.e. the collective complexity of something, or the number of possible states it can exist in) of the learners is greater than the VARIETY of a teacher. According to Ashby's Law of Requisite Variety (see the only way a relationship between teachers and learners can be managed is if the two sides of the VARIETY equation match. That means amplification of the teacher's VARIETY (maybe through technologies like the blackboard or indeed the classroom itself) and attenuation of the learners' VARIETY (through rules of the class, assignments, lectures, timetables, etc). To manage a viable relationship in the classroom, teachers must manage the variety (i.e. the collective complexity) of learners through coordinating activities, upholding rules of engagement, ensuring the provision of adequate resources, continually monitoring the state of the learners and adapting their approaches as necessary.

The problem iTEC has is that it wants to encourage teachers to attenuate learners less in 'traditional ways' (i.e. boring the pants off them, sitting them in rows, etc). Instead iTEC wants teachers to allow learners to empower themselves with cool technologies, using widgets and other tools for learning journeys which are more learner-driven. But the problem is this unbalances the VARIETY equation.

The viable relationship in the class cannot be maintained because with personal technologies the learners' VARIETY has increased even further, but the teacher has nothing to amplify their VARIETY to match it, and in giving pupils personal technologies they have surrendered some of their powers to attenuate the VARIETY of learners (and any school IT teacher will tell you how difficult it is to keep kids on task in a traditional computer room with PCs, let alone phones!). I think the ultimate consequence of this is that only a brave teacher who is prepared to take the risk of surrendering control in the hope of finding new ways to organise classrooms will allow new technologies into their teaching.

The pressing question for ITEC then is "what can we do for teachers?" Either giving them new ways of attenuating the variety of learners who are using new tools, or amplifying the teacher more to give them more VARIETY"

I wonder if technology itself suggests a possible approach. Over the last 20 years there has been a tussle between server-based systems and client-based systems. More power to the client gives control problems at the centre; more power to the server creates blocks on creativity with clients. But this can be seen as a fluctuating pattern of variety management where Ashby's law is seen in all its glory.

The Interactive Whiteboard is generally seen as a 'client with a big screen'. Consequently it doesn't really have any more power than any of the other 'clients' in the class (i.e. laptops, tablets, phones, etc). But this needn't be the case. If the Interactive Whiteboard was a server, and the clients in the classroom clients of the server, how would that change things? Technically it would amplify the teacher's variety allowing them to control the clients from a central point. That would of course have the converse effect of some attenuation of the client, but it would be a compromise that might work.

Thinking through this idea, I've been exploring the possibility that Wookie Widget technology might provide a way where ready-to-hand widgets might act as classroom 'servers', with student widgets connecting to those servers. As Wookie develops inter-widget communication functionality, this seems to be a clear possibility. It would overcome some of the major technical hurdles to establishing local client-server networks. Currently local client-server networks are tricky: UDP messsaging might work within the classroom - but only if the Whiteboard machine was set up as a server, and the clients all connected to that server. But there would be no way of 'packaging' such a solution so that it could be made to work easily in any context.

Inter-widget communication with server widgets would get around this problem - and I've been experimenting with some simple local client-server widget based solutions to test it out.. watch this space!


Paul Hollins said...

Mark , as ever a thought provoking post...

I have one question in your thinking you assume the learner "demands" the technology we propose that teachers should use, do we have evidence that this is the case , that learners crave the "educational or other technologies we espouse in projects like iTEC or do we just assume. Do we also assume that technology enhances the educational experience in question.

I was talking to a teacher the other day about technology , a very experienced Maths teacher about learning maths (or specifically times tables and the Nintendo DS ) by rote , he argued,quite rightly that he had used the DS (as in the consolarium project) to support his (rote) teaching of times tables in his view this did not enhance the experience or improve performance over the established group work , pens and papers and games he would normally deploy, equally his students in his words questioned the "authenticity" of the learning experience ... and there was little "demand" for the use of technology ...anecdotal I know but any thoughts ?

and I'm not advocating that we should not constantly challenge existing practice /pedagogy ...

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