An innovator’s dilemmas: On the resistance to technological innovation in education


The unlikely protagonist

This post may sound like it was written by someone who opposes technological innovation or at least advocates a cautious wait-and-see approach to it.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I have always been an early adopter of both technological and pedagogical innovations. And I make a pest of myself to those who know me, constantly suggesting ways in which they could do things differently (and hopefully better).

But I am also profoundly uncomfortable with equating resistance to technology with some sort of personal failing on the part of the complainant. That doesn’t mean that sometimes the complainant cannot be told to just get on with it but only after we have considered the context.

This post is about the foundations of my discomfort. It is not to denounce constant innovation, it is to put limits on claims of its moral superiority.

This post started life as an email to the ALT mailing list on the topic of E-strategy policy. Then another email. It is quite long and may not present a continuous argument. Which is why I summarize it below.

Summary of the argument

  • It is not clear ahead of time which innovations will be successful.
  • Technological innovation is not as fast as it may seem
  • Schools are not necessary to distribute technological skills to the population so the moral panics around IT literacy education are unwarranted.
  • Resistance to innovation is not intrinsically irrational because all innovation carries a transactional cost.
  • Teachers are often asked to shoulder the burden of the transational cost. Which is why innovation is as much a labour issue as it is a technological issue.
  • As a result innovation often proves impotent in the face of the “grammar of schooling”. It may provide new vocabulary but does not change how it is used.
  • A minimalist E-strategy focusing on small innovations (with support to the economically disadvantaged) is preferable to large-scale policies.
  • A ‘hole-in-the-wall’ type funding for the spreading of innovations is preferable to blanket funding (up to a certain point).
  • But locality can also mean inequality. So there is still a need for a central safety-net.

Resistance to innovation

Gripes about all the barriers to innovation in education are not a new trope. But I would argue that resistance to innovation is a good thing. It provides essential balance to faddism (even though it may not seem to be very successful). There are many lists of innovations that have been initially resisted by those whose comfort levels they challenged. And the resisters are made to look like fools. Who could oppose things like: print, electricity, telephone, audio recording, inoculations, computers, etc.

But such lists are incredibly selective. History is full of crackpot suggestions that may have also seemed like a good idea at the time. The problem is (like with evolution by adaptation of selected mutations), you can never be completely sure ahead of time what will seem to be a crackpot idea from the future.

How fast is technology really changing?

This type of denouncement of resistance to technology is often done in the service of a seemingly good cause. There is a  popular perception that technology is changing rapidly and schools are in constant danger of being left behind. What, we worry, will happen to society if schools are not “preparing” children for the technological age. Not much, I’d suggest. Most of the people who today successfully use computers for creative purposes, business, personal communications, programming, etc. have not been taught about them in school. They learned how to use them through a complex web of non-formal education, the same way they learned about love and much of life in general. Friends, how-to books, osmosis, evening classes, trial and error, these are all the ways in which the populations of Western countries have become sufficiently computer literate to be able to take advantage of the technology that is increasingly replacing the old paper and human based infrastructure for communication, government, and commerce.

We keep talking as if the changes in technology are so rapid, that they change day to day. But that’s only true when seen from the perspective of early adopters. Some of the key interfaces (desktop, mouse, file, folder, network) are over 30 years old. We’ve seen a gradual increase of ubiquity and connectivity over the last 15 years but that has not been nearly as rapid as it may seem. In that respect, I think that the education system has done a really good job of keeping up and it broadly reflects society at large when it comes to technological advancement. (i.e. “The future is already here but it’s not evenly distributed.”)

I expanded this argument in more detail in an earlier post on the relativity of technology inspired change.

“Tinkering toward utopia”

I this context, I heartily recommend Tyack and Cuban’s “Tinkering Toward Utopia”. Which is where I found this:

“I believe, the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and that in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.”

These are the words of TA Edison from the 1920s. It’s taken almost a century for video to become a truly useful educational tool (as opposed to an occasional supplement) with the advent of YouTube and the flipping of the classroom. But we still cannot be sure if Edison will be right in the long run.

Tyack and Cuban comment:

“For over a century, ambitious reformers have promised to create sleek, efficient school machines “light years” ahead of the fusty schools of their times. But in practice their reforms have often resembled shooting stars that spurted across the pedagogical heavens, leaving a meteoric train in the media but burning up and disappearing in the everyday atmosphere of the schools.”

I once wrote a post about an example of such discourse.

Examples of “shooting star” innovations

How many of these “shooting star” innovations are there now? I can think of a many examples from recent history that fit the bill: interactive whiteboards, educational CD-ROMs, eportfolios. Which ones being proposed today will join their ranks? iPads, mLearning, VLEs, BYOD, Lecture Capture?

It is telling that many of the lists of technological innovations in education do not include the blackboard which is probably one of the longest lasting and most profoundly influential technological innovations in education. Which of the innovations of today will still be with us 2 centuries from now?

Blackboard as an innovative technology vs the “grammar of schooling”

Once an innovation becomes commonplace, we may even lose a sense of what it contributes to us, only focusing on its deficiencies. Blackboards are often associated with the prototypical image of the traditional passive classroom. They’re what the boring teacher stands in front of while they talk at students. But historically that was not the case, blackboards were a massive revolution in participatory learning. All of a sudden the whole class could participate in problem solving and information sharing in a way that wasn’t possible before.

The blackboard made mass education sustainable. And it made it possible for teachers to experiment with information delivery in ways they could not up to that point. The fact that most chose to use it as a temporary storage of information between their mouth and the student notebook is a different matter. But it suggests that this is what will happen to other new technologies as well.

Tyack and Cuban talk about the “grammar of schooling” here, and while it’s constantly evolving, many of its basic principles such as “teacher tells student”, “student listens and remembers”, etc. are incredibly durable. Often what innovations do is change the vocabulary but the grammar remains the same. For instance, you may start calling teachers facilitators. So instead of “teacher teaches students” we say “teacher facilitates student learning”. But the underlying structure of agentivity remains just as it would if we said “student is taught by the teacher”. Plus, what will even the most progressive teacher say when you’re trying to schedule a meeting and they’re busy? “Sorry, I can’t make it then, I’m teaching.”

Structure of technological innovations in education or innovation as a labor issue

So even the “actual” value of the innovation may not be what matters. It is what the innovation or rather what all innovations do to the system.

It is one of the overlooked aspects of Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions that they leave very important aspects of knowledge behind as well as introducing new valuable knowledge.

The same is true for technological innovation. A few examples:

  1. I have now switched completely to reading news through an RSS reader. But I certainly feel the loss of serendipitous discovery of information outside of my interest I got when leafing through a newspaper. I think it’s a worthwhile trade off and one I can make up for in other ways (Twitter helps), but I am now differently (if not less) informed about the world than I was 10 years ago.
  2. The one digital transition I still haven’t made is to-do lists. There’s nothing for me that beats the immediacy of ticking something off a list. I do keep an on-line to-do list for longer-term goals but the day to day stuff is still on paper. I’m not predicting doom and gloom as new generations come who do not have the option of using pen and paper but something will be lost.

Also, in my experience, all technological innovation starts with an initial loss of productivity. Some examples:

  1. I’m always trying to find more effective ways of using the computer, installing new software, changing settings, trying new hardware. This makes me (I believe) more productive at any one given task. But overall my productivity is about the same because as I learn things, I break my routines, which always leads to some slowdowns. This is well known from research on skill acquisition.
  2. E-registers make perfect sense from an institutional perspective but they are (at least initially) more cumbersome than a simple tick sheet. Once their use beds down, and new techniques develop for making them more effective, they may take more class time (particularly for teachers who are resistant to them).
  3. Everybody talks about the benefit of laptops in the classroom, but teachers also justifiably complain that they take forever to start, taking up valuable class time. Again, with things like Chromebooks and tablets, this will go away, but most teachers will remember wheeling a trolley of laptops into a classroom and spending 5 minutes waiting for them all to start and be ready.
  4. I hate marking on paper because of the impermanence but even now I feel that marking on the screen or my tablet is slower (slower on tablet than computer actually). I know from rolling out electronic marking to other teachers that it impacted their individual productivity as well.

This is all well known. Yet, we often forget this initial cost of innovation and require that it is borne by staff.

Which is why I am firmly convinced that innovation is as much a labour issue as anything else. If we believe in its intrinsic merits we should invest proper resources in its implementation.

BF Skinner, teaching machines and the disappointment of labor utopias

Skinner’s teaching machines are an example of an innovation that history has judged to be a crackpot idea but that was actually quite modern in its outlook.

Skinner, contrary to perceptions of his work, did not want to replace teachers with his machines:

“On the contrary, [machines] are capital equipment to be used by teachers to save time and labor. In assigning certain mechanizable functions to machines, the teacher emerges in his proper role as an indispensable human being.”

That is a profoundly modern statement – only the language suggests that it was made in 1968. In fact, his vision behind the teaching machines was not that different from that driving iPad adoption today although his proposed pedagogy was based on different foundations. His machines were more like apps  or interactive textbooks today, than computers.

But far more significant was his position on the labor issue:

“[The teacher] may teach more students than heretofore—this is probably inevitable if the worldwide demand for education is to be satisfied—but he will do so in fewer hours and with fewer burdensome chores. In return for his greater productivity he can ask society to improve his economic condition.”

This was obviously incredibly naive (or utopian). The common perception was that the teaching machines failed because they were a bad idea (in fact, they were probably a good idea), but I think they failed because they made unrealistic assumptions about the transactional cost of innovation and its impact on labor.

Hole-in-the-wall funding for innovation

All this should give us pause when we consider how to roll out innovation and how to train teachers in using new technologies and techniques. It takes time and effort, and we should pay people for that time and effort. Nobody would ever consider asking a computer supplier to take a cut in their profits because “it’s for the good of the nation” (in fact, the mark ups in education are probably higher than on the consumer market) but we regularly ask teachers to just that.

What would that look like? For example, I have always advocated that teachers engage in online peer communities but if that were to be required it should happen instead of something else they are doing rather than in addition to it.

If I were in charge of an innovation budget, I would spend it on giving all teachers an hour a week of “forum time” or “online research time” before I would give them gear or software, or pay for INSET. I have also proposed a microgrant scheme where teachers could apply for up to 500 pounds to try something new. Rather than forcing all of them to try this or that, let them seek inspiration and buy some time or a piece of hardware/software to try with their students (kind of a ‘hole in the wall‘ approach to funding).

I have been keeping track of ideas of what this could look like on my other blog


What should an e-strategy policy look like?

The discussion to which this post was a contribution was asking about an e-strategy policy?.In light of these arguments, maybe it’s better not to have an e-strategy policy. Or if one is needed, I’d suggest something modest:

  • Let people try new things.
  • Give them a chance to talk to other people about what they’re doing.
  • If more people are interested, let them try it too (making sure you let some people from poor neighbourhoods in on this).
  • 30 years from now, we’ll see which of these “new” things had been the right ones for the educational environment by what is still being used.

Such a policy won’t necessarily lead to “the best” but it will (like evolution) lead to the “fittest” educational system. That is one that we can argue for and one we can pay for.

Final Caveat: Central vs local :: Equal vs responsive

There is an essential conflict within all public policy. It is that between the central vs. local. Today it is fashionable to extol local control over central control as being more responsive to the needs of the people. But that also implies a loss of equality. Total equality has proved antithetical to the demands of humanity. This is because it always ends up denying the particularity of local circumstance. But total locality means that people in similar circumstance and with similar needs across locales are not treated equally. And this inequality is often distributed quite predictably along socio-economic (and sometimes ethnic) lines. “Proletarians of the world unite”, was essentially a slogan borne of recognition of this. Equally, the much maligned bureaucracy has contributed much to economic equality (while privileging our collective humanity over our individual one).

This is incredibly important when it comes to innovation. While I advocated a decentralized approach to spreading and funding innovation through local experimentation, this approach needs to come with a mechanism that ensures a certain level of equality for those who bet on strategies that prove to be unsustainable. For instance, even though I mentioned interactive whiteboards as an example of a failed innovation, insisting that all primary classrooms have one, is not necessarily a bad thing. They may not live up to the hype, but interactive whiteboards do represent opportunities for the sharing of teaching practices. Not having them available would disadvantage pupils in schools who might have chosen to invest, say, in more paper books. Up to some point, it may be laudable for a school to say, why don’t we spend all this money on books or school lunches instead. But once a tipping point is reached, the lack of an interactive whiteboard may constitute a disadvantage – even if its pedagogic benefit is less than that of the alternative.

There is no set formula when central knowledge should trump local wisdom and vice versa. One approach is not inherently worse than the other. That is, until it becomes the only approach.