“The internet: probably the most important human invention since the printing press…”
A long-overdue technological revolution in education is at last under way, says The Economist.
This week, The Economist ran a briefing on education technology. As long ago as 1913, Thomas Edison predicted the motion picture would make the book obsolete in the classroom. Though it ‘has been on the verge of transforming education for over a century, this time it looks as though it will’. This time is different, The Economist argues, because of high-speed networks, cheap tablets, big data, online gaming, adaptive software and private equity. In 2012, around $1.1 billion of venture capital was invested into edtech in the US alone. Pearson has spent over $9 billion in the past decade on technology. As Bill Gates said in 2013, ‘this is a special time in education’.
History tells a different story. ‘This time is different: eight centuries of financial folly’ by Reinhardt and Rogoff provides salutary lessons about repeating history. Larry Cuban in ‘Teachers and Machines: Classroom Use of technology since 1920’shows how moving pictures, film reels, TVs, radio and computers were all loudly proclaimed to herald a new paradigm for education. He observes that there is usually a similar pattern: plans for a massive overhaul in the end result in only marginal differences. Another example is this BBC program from 1959, replayed last week, which held overly optimistic predictions for learning machines. As Tom Bennett says, ‘novelty will always present an irresistible appeal to those who have no concept of antiquity.’ Andrew Old has written eloquently about the clash between techno-zealots and techno-sceptics here.
Teachers, who recognise its tendency to fail at the crucial moment, recognise that technology is a good servant, but a poor master. Teacher remind us that learning counts more than apps; technology not a solution, but perhaps a starting point; not an arrival, but a beginning; maybe it’s not so much the vehicle that matters, but the content; less the particular platform, than the broader culture. With those caveats, in this blogpost I want to ask just one question:
How are teachers using social media?
‘Teaching without twitter is like playing tennis with a golf club’
Here is a great mass of examples of how teachers talk about the way they are using social media:
‘To get a range of views’ @DavidBirch
‘Keeps me up to date, read blogs/articles/books I may not have found otherwise, great ideas for class, support/encouragement’ @SerenaDawson
‘To engage in debates in education, get ideas, get motivation and get advice Anne Bradshaw
Access to a wide range of ideas and advice’ @ekebell
‘Just 1 minute per month (on average) is spent discussing teaching in the staff room’. Craig
‘It’s like a massive staffroom that’s always open!’ @ajep
‘The best staff room in the universe!’ @BarrySmith
‘To begin with, I was a twitter magpie: collecting all of the educational gems that the ‘big hitters’ were putting out there. A brief amount of time spent looking will lead you towards some prolific and hugely influential people… It wasn’t long before I realised that twitter works best as a collaborative tool. The more you put in, the more you will get out of it. Twitter has completely changed the way I work. The trick is to spot the diamonds and to not follow too many. Something I am working on! @HoDTeacher
‘I was massively skeptical. How on earth could a social network be of benefit professionally? Since I’ve started this whole twitter & blogging activity I have rapidly become converted to the benefits: Discovering ideas; Generating enthusiasm; Organising ideas; Sharing ideas across schools and across countries; basically writing this blog and being on twitter is making me better at my job.’
‘Not only has twitter provided me with inspiration, support and challenge, it has also offered me opportunities I had never previously thought possible. I have been learning, growing and blogging ever since.’ @BenKeeling
‘Twitter has opened up so many opportunities for me and it keeps growing. That is the beauty of Twitter; it is an ever-changing form of communication. In many ways, it is the future of teaching for me’. @Xhris32
‘Twitter is a provider of pedagogical nectar’. @PeteJones
‘Introduce as many colleagues as possible to twitter. Professional development doesn’t get much better’. @Sydedwards
‘Writing an essay on why twitter has been really helpful CPD for me this year. How does twitter affect my teaching practice? It provides me with unlimited inspiration when I’m having a bad day! As a new teacher it’s been really useful for lesson ideas when I’ve been stuck. As the year has progressed sharing on here has given me the confidence to share within school. It’s made me think critically about how I plan. I think it’s what’s developed pedagogical knowledge over and above what I’ve covered at uni/inset. Exposure to experts who I would never have had a chance to speak with/read about through traditional ITT or CPD now we have @researchED2013, twitter did that’.@monkeyofscience
‘The removal of hierarchy, faster spread of good practice, incessant stimulus of thought, sharing & challenging of ideas – very powerful’ @hfletcherwood
‘The advent of teachers using social media to exchange ideas, views and resources is probably the most significant change in the ten years I’ve been in teaching, is. The proliferation of thoughtful bloggers and Twitter users has probably done more for the CPD of those teachers lucky enough to follow them than any other kind of more traditional INSET. Indeed, in the 10 months or so that I have actively been reading blogs and Twitter feeds, I have learnt a great deal that I might otherwise have missed – from current ideas about good practice to educational research and policy’. @Joeybagstock
‘Writing the blog has inspired me professionally: it has helped make me more disciplined with my working habits and it has undoubtedly made me more creative. It can make you more efficient and even work less! It can make you a better teacher. In one year I have undoubtedly learnt more than my last six or seven years in the job combined. It engages you in disciplined deeply self-reflective examination of failure, marginal success and barely perceptible improvement’.@huntingenglish
‘When I blog I always try to say something new. I am not writing to try and get hits just for the sake of it, but to say something useful, to add something to the debate. What I can do is tell you what it is like to be in a classroom and to think through how a policy might work if it does come in. I can look at it and say: ‘This is what has been intended but from my experience this is the likely outcome.’ @missMcinerney
‘I wanted a place to stop and stare. I wanted a sounding board for all my wild, untamed ideas. And, I confess, I did want a bit of an audience as well. I’m constantly blown away by the flattering and thoughtful feedback I get on my posts.I have been changed by Twitter. The quality of my thought is different (better?). I had no one to speak to about this stuff before Twitter. It’s a revelation to find out I’m not alone. For me Twitter has been life-changing. The garbage in/garbage out bit chimed particularly. You’ve got to contribute… I am opting for Twitter as my universal panacea, which might have the capacity to transform teaching … if all teachers take charge of their own professional development and sign up’. @learningspy
‘The fact that I use social media at all IS changing me!’ @JillBerry
‘As courses and CPD opportunities in school seem to dry up, I’ve quickly discovered that actually the best bits of those courses – the opportunities to ‘network’ with other colleagues – are now much more easily and constructively available online through Twitter and blogs’. @MichaelTidd
‘I love blogs: can’t get enough of ‘em. I reckon I probably read somewhere between fifty and a hundred a week to get my daily edufix…. I started blogging to create a semi-private space in which to generate some genuine debate about important issues in education…. I blog because I am as inspired as I am frustrated every single day I enter my school … to carve out a semi-personal space in which I could vent my frustrations with my school and the system. The blog rush had begun’. @TessaMatthews
‘If you’re not on twitter, you’re dead.’ @SophieCoulombeau
‘We are living in a golden age of teacher blogs! One of the great joys of Twitter is being introduced to “big” names in education’ _ @DMCk
‘Cathartic or caustic, informative or indulgent, writing online about life in schools is soaring in popularity: the rise of the teacher blogger.The rise of Twitter has had the biggest impact on the teacher blogger’s reach. Before Twitter was created, setting up a blog and tapping away about your thoughts and feelings was akin to popping a message in a bottle and dropping it in the ocean. But Twitter changed that, giving people direct access to journalists, politicians, policymakers and, of course, other bloggers’. @tes
Before Twitter, blogging was akin to popping a message in a bottle and dropping it into the ocean
There are a lot of teacher bloggers out there who list their favourite blogs. Here are just some of these metablogs – send me others if you have them:
Bloggers’ Favourite Blogs
- Tom Bennett’s nominations
- Tessa Matthews’ regular reading
- Old Andrew’s kiss of death
- David Didau’s favourite blogs, most influential blogs and top ten education blogs
If the litmus tests are longevity, consistency and readability, here are my predictions for endurance, quality and productivity over the coming years. If I’ve got any stats wrong, please correct me, but I’ve put together the teachers (not including headteachers) who blog best in the form of a top trumps card set. Their blogs are listed at the end of this post.
A Golden Age?
Whether we are entering a golden age, nearing a tipping point, or living through a digital revolution, what’s for certain is that we are undergoing an unprecedented, explosive proliferation of accessible opinion about education.
Great headteachers like Tom Sherrington, John Tomsett, Rachel de Souza and Sally Coates are sharing ideas and shaping practice. As just one example, John says:
‘Writing my blog clarifies my thinking. I have lots of material in my head like bits of space debris; blogging melds them into the satellite which directs my personal satnav. The synergy between Twitter and blogging is crucial to the success of the latter. Bloggers are the best source of the best CPD I know, but it’s Twitter which signposts me to their blogs.’
Teachers are coalescing and organising using the web. Blogsync’s aim is to ‘fuel the explosion in educational blogging’. The Echo Chamber is another metablog, ‘a blog collecting together blogposts about education’. The annual Edublog Awards recognise bloggers mainly from the USA. Teach for All, a global network of around 20 Teach-First-style educational enterprises, has set up a Synergies e-zine for insights from teacher bloggers around the world. A group of headteachers in the UK has set up The Headteachers’ Roundtable to influence education policy. Teachers are coming together to organise the first ever teacher-led research conference this September in London,ResearchEd. There is even advice about how to write blogs from the top of the bloggers: from Tom Bennett and Old Andrew.
‘Is your smartphone a bicycle for your mind?’ asked Steve Jobs.
There are three trends driving this explosion: demand-side forces, supply-side forces, and the natural force of evolution.
1. Mobile Smartphones
Social media is becoming more accessible as computing goes mobile. When almost every teacher has a smartphone, and gets in the habit of using it more hourly than daily, the ability is there to access new ideas in their pockets and at their fingertips.
2. Free Publishing
Platforms such as WordPress have minimised start-up costs in time, effort, energy and money for new authors. Anyone can start writing, and as Sam Leith says, ‘anyone with a hooked-up computer can communicate remotely and instantaneously with a potential audience of millions’.
3. Natural Selection
With such proliferation comes the anxiety of saturation. Will we drown in an outpouring of unsolicited opinion? We can borrow from the naturalist Charles Darwin the evolutionary mechanism of natural selection to explain that organically, the fittest blogs will survive; or borrow from the economist Schumpeter the concept of creative destruction, which reduces bloat when organisations no longer serve a purpose. Undoubtedly though, and to borrow a concept from another discipline, design, we need better systems for distinguishing signal from noise.
Next week, I’ll be posting on how social media might help teachers to improve education.