ELTM12: But, Have you Tried It?

In a previous career I was an administrator with the K-12 Distance Education System in my province (NL, CA). You can read about that if you like; the blog page “Rendering Distance Transparent” is devoted to it.  In that role I would often be contacted by irate parents who did not want their child “taught by a computer.” In each and every case I would speak to the people and would explain just how the system worked, how students were taught, what resources and supports were available and, finally what the expectations were. Guess what: in every case we parted on a good note. Once the parents understood how it worked and saw for themselves how things went on they were satisfied.

It’s not always like that with the use of technology in education and primarily because either (a) the proponent did not do an adequate job of explaining the items noted above or (b) a stakeholder (parent/guardian, student, teacher or administrator) closed her/his mind to the whole idea.

Have you ever heard any of the stories that try to explain the “Luddite” movement? There are various myths and, as far as I know, none are truly authoritative but my personal favourite is that in England, around the time that revolutionary developments in mechanization transformed the garment industry there was a social backlash from those negatively affected; that is those skilled workers who were now redundant. The story goes that a young lad—Ned Lud—organized a violent resistance against the movement. His followers—the luddites—would forcibly enter factories and wreck the machines.

It was, in the end, to no avail. The new technology produced far more cloth and, to a consistently decent quality. Most importantly it was cheaper and the financiers behind it found ready markets that permitted tremendous expansion. In time, this became the accepted way, despite the protests from those whose skills, traditions and livelihood were no longer needed on the same scale.

(As an aside, the whole popular account of the Luddite affair, including mine, is rather mis-represented. If you are interested, a decent story can be found here.)

And this brings us to the next two considerations.

The first is this: from time to time new technology—and this means all the components: devices, methods and theory—emerge and it becomes apparent that they do tasks in ways that are far superior to the ways in which they were done previously. In their time chaulkboards and hand-held slates were amazing. They were cheap, relatively safe—as long as you didn’t mind the dust in your lungs, hair & clothing—and effective. Now, though, with IWBs and with computer-projection screens, why bother? In fact, once you put a tablet in every hand, perhaps the big screen isn’t needed at all (I don’t believe this; group activities are fun and effective.). Fight it if you want, but in the end the new way is better.

The second is this: People will resist change, even when it is demonstrably better. Recall the few notes on Kuhn and Revolutionary science for a minute. This resistance to new ideas is not necessarily rational. It is, rather, rooted in a deep level of acceptance of, and dependence on, a pre-existing technology. The old-guard spent a lifetime becoming very adept at doing “it” a particular way and now new technology has not only changed the way of doing “it” but, perhaps just as important, the nature of “it” has changed. The old guard does not see the value for them in going through all the work involved in making the new change. They have to learn now skills, and don’t forget for a minute that they were expert at the old ones. What’s more, after a lifetime of making perfect sense of something, they must tear down the previous, and very strong, cognitive frameworks that supported the original concepts and build anew. For them, that rebuilding will take too much time and will likely never achieve the strength of the old one. They have judged, probably correctly, that it’s not worth the effort.

So they respond in the same way we all do. Recall the old story of the fox and the grapes? After trying and trying to reach the perfectly tasty grapes he finally had to give up. As he walked away, recall that he said, “No bother. They’re sour anyway.”

Now STOP for a second. Please.

Just revisit what the fox said. It’s far more profound than you probably realize. Not only did the fox say the grapes were sour, but after a short time he also believed they were. The story is not just about a low-bred creature responding in a dumbass way. No. It’s about a perfectly normal creature, and that includes human creatures, responding in a perfectly normal way. When we are forced to do something or forcibly prevented from doing something, in time we come to accept the turn of events as the right thing. It’s human nature.

Ok so back to the “old guard” for a second. Whenever skilled practitioners are faced with a change they rationally conclude is not feasible for them they quickly put in place a solid justification as to why the course of action they chose is the right one. Unfortunately, by extension, they then often persuade themselves that that same course of action is also the right one for everyone else and that’s where things get ugly. This is not about the welcome resistance against something that is not necessarily a good idea. That is welcome. Whenever a new ideas comes in, people should perform an honest evaluation as there’s always a real, and quite high, probability that the next big thing is, in fact, a  stupid sham being foisted upon, a public deemed by the proponent to be either too stupid or docile to resist. Yes, resistance is often a good thing but this is not about that. This is, rather, about the blind, stubborn resistance to change in spite of god evidence that change is needed. We, as practitioners face both items daily, good and bad change, but what’s perhaps most frustrating is being led around by some who refuse to accept change even when it’s obviously for the better.

So what do we do about it? If you are expecting a neat, magic bullet, style of answer, I’m afraid you are about to be disappointed. Those resistant to change are not likely to do so easily in spite of the evidence, so don’t expect a logical rationalization to work. Expect, rather, for many to remain as they are. Some will not budge, no matter what and the best any of us can do is help them as best we can, within the limits they let us have. Still others may change a bit with time, especially when they see valued colleagues reaping benefits so perhaps that’s the best strategy of all: work with those who are open to it.

In the meantime, the best advice for all is to maintain an open mind. Some change is good and some is not but wise actions can generally be divined from logical, reasoned discourse.

8 thoughts on “ELTM12: But, Have you Tried It?

  1. You do a difficult subject justice – it is really not easy to give a simple (“pro” or “con”) answer.

    Thinking about the way technology changed my workplace I always stumble upon ambiguities. Such as: I would not be able to work for clients 100s of miles away in the way I do now without technology. The very same technology, on the other hand, is allowing (encouraging) for 24/7 messaging and popups etc. resulting in a state of permanent alertness. So I traded the dread of traveling for the challenge of managing this stream of alerts.

    I have not thought it through but I believe the (my) fallacy here is to compare two states that cannot be compared. Without remote communications my work – in the way I have defined and shaped it – would not even exist. In the old times when you had to do anything onsite projects and support – all the work basically – was fundamentally different. So it is not a trade-off in the simple sense.

  2. So … is this a general statement, or do you have something specific on your mind? Have I ever told you that both our daughters were home schooled using distance methods through what is now called PACyber (the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School)? In that particular case we adapted to the technologies required (dial up modem at the time) and did perfectly well. Both attended Ivy League schools and excelled. Now, as for the ‘social’ implications of home schooling … that’s a topic for another day! Perhaps your piece is alluding to the general resistance of people belonging to my generation to adopt new technologies? If so, guilty as charged … in my particular case … although do recall that I have jettisoned the chalk board. Many of the younger faculty here use D2L to tremendous advantage. I see myself as a short-timer. I function well under the status quo. I have no doubt that moving to D2L, or something like it, would provide useful for getting lecture notes to students or to perhaps distributing practice quiz or test questions … I could also post grades this way. But I’ll admit that there is an inertia that keeps me from taking the plunge …. things work OK for me now … Luddite that I am! If I were twenty years younger and just starting out I’d be the first person inline for a D2L account! D

    1. No particular generation is targeted as it is my experience that resistance to change is something we all have in common. What’s more it’s often a good thing. Marketing specialists are getting better and better at making us purchase things that we do not need and its as true about education as is is about anything else (consider dryer sheets, for example. In relatively humid Newfoundland they are unneeded, and what’s more they add a scent to clothes that often drives allergies wild. Yet everyone on the island seems quite convinced that they’re essential.)
      This post is the bookend for the previous one. On the one hand over-zealous evangelistic types waste time by diverting attention away from the teaching and learning and on the other hand closed minded types deny students things they might otherwise have.
      Like I said, there’s no simple answers here. As professionals, all we can do is focus on what’s important (our students and the course outcomes) and draw on personal experience and the advice of peers while we seek the slight improvements that really matter–as opposed to the over-hyped window dressing that seems to get the most press.
      To answer the real question in an honest fashion, the real audience for this is probably myself. Having just walked away from a career path that I have sweated over for 35 years I’m not ready to turn it off just yet so this “out loud discussion” probably helps me face a sea of change as I move forward.
      Now, as for D2L, as a long time user of it and other LMSs I can say without hesitation that any future teaching gigs I take on will make use of it (or an alternative), whether or not the course is a distance one. It has many tools but I consider these indispensable: content, news, dropbox, grades. I also like quizzes and surveys but don’t consider them indispensable. That said, any future teaching gigs will also be contingent on me making a fairly long term commitment as it takes several years to do a proper job of moving over, unless of course, you are granted some sort of sabbatical in which you have nothing else to do 🙂 …not that that happens a lot, LOL!

  3. This change resistance and ways of the old guard appears more frequently in education than in other sectors (insurance, banking, telco, media) where people largely have to adapt or face losing their jobs. Having joined the education sector the balance of power is different – the employees don’t expect to be performance managed or dismissed. Over time I think this made some of them very change resistant, which is a shame because if we don’t change we stop learning and growing as individuals. I’ve always used the 1/3s approach when introducing change. 1/3 will be excited and help make it happen. 1/3 will be ambivalent, open to persuasion either way. 1/3 will be entrenched and accepting they won’t buy-in and are very unlikely to change is a good thing to realise early on. When leading change the group to focus most help and support on is the ambivalent 1/3 because converting them into supporters means 2/3s of people embrace the change and that’s enough to make it stick. The entrenched 1/3 will carry on but they won’t be the largest, loudest population and with time, they die out.

    1. That’s a good way of looking at things; it’s very practical. LOL–it’s very likely I’ll be quoting this!
      All change aside, I can’t blame many of those who are change resistant. Besides the endless barrage of mostly useless or unproven products being hawked by overconfident and generally annoying sales professionals it also needs to be said that education is prone to fads–half-baked educational theory followed up by unproven methods (but very persuasive pitches). The more skeptical in the profession often have the ability and the courage to ask the right questions; questions that either stop bad ideas in their tracks or, better still, which take half-decent ideas and improve on them.
      Through it all, it seems to me that, once again, it’s the journey that counts and we meet all sorts of people on it, most of whom have something to teach us 🙂

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