Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Innovation and Emerging Technologies: Perspectives and Provocations

This was written by Dr. Phil McRae, an executive staff officer with the Alberta Teachers` Association. Dr. Phil McRae’s Biography, Research, Writing, Scholarship and, and you can follow him on Twitter here. This post first appeared here.

by Phil McRae

The world’s education systems are in the midst of change (aka informed transformation) unlike any other time over the past century. It’s a historical moment where governments, teachers, parents and school communities are exploring visions of an education system that would embody innovation (technologies and pedagogy), increased flexibility (curricular and otherwise) and more individualized and self-directed approaches to student learning. Within this 21st-century tsunami of change, innovative teaching and learning practices that employ emerging technologies are sweeping into our collective imaginations with the broader goal to transform education. Too often, however, the space for dialogue about the truly innovative practices that learning and technology can enable is non-existent, superficial or uninformed, and thus more thoughtful considerations and questions remain unasked or answered. This blog post is meant to share some of the perspectives and provocations around innovation, emerging technologies and educational practice.

Innovative teaching and learning with technology is a dynamic, challenging and creative act. In assessing how digital technologies might be used appropriately to engender more innovative learning experiences, educators might consider using the well-conceived Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) model (Koehler and Mishra 2009). TPACK tries to reconcile the complexity and dynamics of student learning as it relates to technology and the multifaceted nature of teachers’ knowledge. Rather than conceptualizing content knowledge (CK), pedagogical knowledge (PK) and technology knowledge (TK) as isolated entities, TPACK focuses on the interplay between these knowledge sources. TPACK asks educators to consider how the various knowledge sources apply to a particular learning situation. No single pedagogical approach applies to every teacher or every student. The teacher must traverse the elements of content, pedagogy and technology and understand how they interact in the context of learning. A more thorough explanation of TPACK can be found in the thoughtful work of Koehler and Mishra (2009).

Technology should not, however, be considered the principal driver of innovative educational transformation (as technological determinists would argue), nor just a neutral and innocuous tool (as technological instrumentalistsmake claim). The reality is far more complex and it serves the profession of teaching well to dig deeper into the dialogue around innovation and emerging technologies in education.

On the more mechanistic side of the conversation related to innovation resides the technological deterministic view that envisions technology as the primary determinant of human experiences. As Selwyn (2011) notes, technological determinism has influenced discussions about innovative educational change for many years. In their day, filmstrips, radio and televisions were characterized as having the power to radically transform public education and offer the most innovative solutions to educational challenges. In the early 1920s, for example, Thomas Edison predicted that the motion picture was “destined to revolutionize our educational system and … in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks” (Oppenheimer 1997). This prediction was followed 40 years later with psychologist B. F. Skinner’s assertion that the dawn of the machine age of education had finally arrived and that “with the help of teaching machines and programmed instruction, students could learn twice as much in the same time and with the same effort as in a standard classroom” (Oppenheimer). In our contemporary setting the buzz is around the iPad or the ‘holy grail’ of digital textbooks vaunted as pedagogic panacea. The proliferation of motion pictures has not fully withdrawn the desire for educational print, and the teaching machines (whatever you imagine those to be) have not yet displaced the will for teachers and students to gather together to learn in inquiry oriented classrooms. History offers perspective and provides us with at least two important insights: (1) there have always been, and always will be, strong and weak educational practices and (2) technologies in education, as Selwyn (2011) establishes, rarely live up to the utopian forecasts of their most enthusiastic advocates. Rarely is the imagined future of innovation accurate; more often than not the predictive space tilts heavily in either an overly optimistic or a deeply pessimistic direction.

More commonly, at the other end of the spectrum, lives the technological instrumentalists deception; technology is just a “tool”; an innocent object; value-free and in the service of whatever subjective goals we chose to ascribe the device. According to this view, technology is culturally neutral and innocuous (Kelly 2005; Levy 2001). Such a view ignores Marshall McLuhan’s (1964) caution that, just as we shape our technologies, so they subsequently shape our habits of mind and physical selves. As educators champion the visible promise of technology to engage students and enhance their learning experiences, we must also recognize that technology is not neutral, nor is it “just a tool”. The more invisible perils of pervasive media exposure and its psycho-social and physiological impacts are beginning to surface in the research on public health. With the developing minds and bodies of children and youth there is an increasing need to be cautious of the impact of online digital activities for offline health and mental wellbeing. When implementing technology, teachers, as pedagogical leaders, should take into account such factors as the age, gender and education level of students, the socioeconomic status of the community and the beliefs that a student’s parents and peers hold about the value of technology both in and outside a school setting (McRae 2011).

School leadership, an important part of the visioning for how technology lives within a learning context, is constantly being (re)shaped in an era full of contradictions and paradoxes around emerging technologies. A sea of questions are constantly ebbing and flowing for school leadership (broadly defined) around how to engage students with the innovative uses of digital technologies. Some of the most pragmatic questions emerge for school leaders around how to effectively and efficiently navigate the costs, complexity, access and supports required to place information and communication technologies into the numerous imaginative learning scenarios put forward by parent communities, superintendents, students and teachers. The most challenging systemic issues, however, reside in the larger context and include poverty and inequity, a lack of parental engagement (or conversely hyper-parenting), large class sizes and complex compositions that impede more personalized learning experiences, and student readiness to learn bound up in the numerous digital and popular culture distractions impacting society.

As we swim in a sea of emerging technologies and envision their power to transform our public education system we must not forget to ask ourselves what it is that we ultimately hope to achieve. Here are two questions related to innovation and emerging technologies as a force of educational transformation that I hope you may take up in professional conversations, at the Destination Innovation conference or perhaps even on this blog.

1) How might educators engage with digital technologies so that students can become empowered citizens rather than passive consumers?

2) What technological innovations will help to create a society where people can flourish within informed, democratic and diverse communities, as opposed to a culture of narcissists that are fragmented by a continuous partial attention?

Note: This blog post is drawn from a new chapter I recently published in book entitled Rethinking School Leadership: Creating A Great School for All Students available at (


Kelly, K. 2005. “We Are the web.” Wired Magazine (8)13. Available at March 20, 2012).

Koehler, M J, and P Mishra. 2009. “What Is Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge?” Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education 9(1): 60–70.

Levy, P. 2001. Cyberculture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McLuhan, M. 1964. Understanding Media. New York: Mentor.

Oppenheimer, T. 1997. “The Computer Delusion.” Atlantic Monthly 280, no 1 (July): 45–62.

Selwyn, N. 2011. Schools and Schooling in the Digital Age: A Critical Analysis.London and New York: Routledge.


  1. The hype about technology in education just obscures the fact that our greatest tools are our heads with good brains for thinking, tongues for talking and sharing learning etc. If there is a power failure , the computers may be down , but does that mean that ' learning ' stops.

    If we want to minimize the negative side of technology – pornography , internet bullying and other anti-social activities educators have to help kids see the technology, smart phones ,the internet etc as more of a learning medium than just as a social medium.

    I think we can also learn from Dr Sugata Mitra's ' Hole-in-the wall ' project where it was shown that learning in groups the greatest factor leading to kids' engagement and learning. This was facilitated by not having ' one laptop for every kid ' but kids sharing a computer.

    Learning in groups helped with pornography and inappropriate use of the internet

    How do think we could counter the perils of pornography and the known risks of net-life to which kids are most vulnerable?

    Dr Mitra: Most of these risks are non-existent in public hole in the wall computers. Visibility of the screen to passing adults and the fact that all usage is in groups ensure social control that prevents both misuse and vandalism.

  2. Phil and Joe,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and I would like to point you to an example.

    If you look at Martha Payne as an example, as outlined on Ewan McIntosh's blog (and countless other sites), you see a 9 year old student that is giving an answer to both of your questions. Here is a child creating through her blog a movement on improving the quality of food that is served in her school's cafeteria. Because of this opportunity to actually have a voice, she saw that she was able to make a change and bring awareness to something that she thought was an issue (as does Joe on his blog here daily). Even though it was something that many around the world felt was admirable, her school did not appreciate the fact that she was criticizing the food being served and tried to censor her blog. So instead of a school promoting this opportunity for a student to have a voice with a large audience and make social change, they actually tried to shut her down. I won't go into entire details of the story as Ewan shares it well in her blog posted below, but I guess my question is, do we find it narcissistic for her to write to make a change through technology? Is Joe's blog narcissistic? Does this post convey that as well? It is already shared on one space, so why in another?

    What I want to believe is that you, Joe, myself, and others want to make change for the better and we have an opportunity to have a voice more now than ever. Is there any selfishness in these pursuits? Probably to some extent as I think we all want to make a difference in the world as there is an overwhelming positive feeling that comes from this. How could it not? I think however though, it is important that we not only use a Web 2.0 technology in a 1.0 way. I watch many only share what they are doing and not really engage in conversations with others using the technology that they use to share their message. If you look at Mayor Nenshi's Twitter feed, he is engaging with constituents all of the time, sometimes on his politics, but sometimes on the new Batman movie. There is a human quality that can come out of using this technology that many of us are missing and helps to create a stronger connection to leaders that did not exist before. Is it truly authentic? Well that would depend on the leader. But I would say that it is much better than it was before.

    (Continued onto next comment)

  3. (continued)

    The problem is that it is too easy to create this culture of fear around technology. I received this email from a company the other day warning administrators of all the "bad" things kids can do because of technology.

    "Students can get into trouble on computers, especially on the Internet. And when they do, you're often caught in the crossfire.

    With LanSchool Classroom Management Software, you can watch what students are doing and even catch them in the act. Plus, you can document their actions to prove your point.

    Put an end to trouble in your classroom today."

    When people focus on all of the bad things technology brings, they can easily create this "us vs. them" mentality as opposed to actually focusing on a conversation.

    If we actually focus on giving students a voice through this technology, I think we are looking at some amazing learning and leadership opportunities for kids that goes beyond what we could have done as students in school. Ewan has a great quote in his blog post about some of the amazing learning from Martha's experience:

    "Martha shows every facet of great learning: real world change, making the environment around her better, sharing her thinking with the world, having a conscious for the world beyond her immediate horizons, and robustness in the face of incredible media and social media pressure. "

    Would any of this happened if Martha wasn't able to use this technology? it is her own pursuits that made it happen in the first place, but again, using technology in an effective way, gave her some amazing opportunities to make some powerful change. As adults, we need to continue to figure out how to continue to use these technologies to help ensure that Martha is not an outlier but the norm.

    Just my two cents.

    Link of Martha's story told by Ewan McIntosh:

  4. George, your comment is a strong one. You make some very good points about the promise of technology. I don't disagree with anything you have put forward. As you know, I very much enjoy technology and utilize it to support my students' learning and my own.

    The issues that Phil and I often bring up are how technology is being co-opted by those who have other goals in mind other than what's best for children. There are some very good intentioned educators and parents that get caught up in elements of technology that are harmful to children and public education.

    Martha's story is a brilliant! The last sentence of your comment and Phil's first question at the end of his post is where I think we need to spend a great deal of time and effort on.

    How do we ensure that more students, like Martha, use technology in an active and empowering way become the norm rather than the exception.

    I'd like to sit in a room with you and Phi and discuss all this sometime. We need to come together.

  5. Joe and George, let's arrange a lunch with the three of us in December 2012 when my travel schedule slows down and we can talk in person about some of the dimensions of the Global Education Reform Movement (G.E.R.M.), and the dangers in positioning technology as ‘the primary lever’ of transformation for education in Alberta.

    There is a movement to narrow curriculum (i.e., math, science) at play in North America along with a hyper-focus on standardization and centralization that is antithetical to what we are trying to do in creating a great school for all students in Alberta (see: It is also at odds with Inspiring Education, provincial curriculum redesign and the many other projects we have been directly supporting over the past three years.

    The profession in Alberta, and indeed teachers and principals across Canada, are being bombarded with rhetoric around technology as panacea, and striking a fine balance is becoming increasingly challenging in an corporatized era that is pushing consumer like choice, personalization (as individualization) and flexibility that is not necessarily in the public interest.

    In public education, the seductions of choice must be balanced on a continuum with equity; personalization defined as both intrapersonal and interpersonal (socio-constructivism writ large); while increased individual flexibility in any complex system must come balanced with collective responsibility.

    None of this is really accomplished at the imagined 'system' level because the structures that matter most are at the school, where students, teachers, principals, parents and the community define the context on a daily basis. Neither will the 740+ staff (note seven hundred and forty full time equivalents), hired to work in Alberta Education, or the burgeoning central office cohorts looking to transform education, ever be as influential to building the future as those closest to students.

    The rising tensions in the profession of teaching, which I have heard more and more about as I shared keynotes over the past week with about 3000 teachers and principals across Alberta and in Eastern Canada, are coming not just from increased complexity, volatility, uncertainty in society and ambiguity of expectations around notions like 21st Century Learning and ‘Personalization’, but also from the initiative fatigue of those outside the classroom often trying to impose change by taking away the professional autonomy of teachers and principals (first among equals in Alberta).

    Schools are trying to engage in their increasingly difficult and important work with children and youth, the last thing needed at this historical moment is for us to go down the path of U.S. cyber-charter schools, K-12 Inc., Pearson Publishing’s Connections Academy or the numerous corporate technology agendas looking to create markets out of the publicly funded education system in Alberta.

    I think to engage in these conversations around technology in education and society, without recognizing the other many complexities (promise/peril, is to be dangerously naive’ and risks becoming yet another of the thousands of technovangelistic agendas promoting the flash of media without any substantive critical reflection.

    Lunch would be a pleasure if we can get the three of us together (anyplace, anytime :}

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