I have being doing a bit of fishing and thinking about uncertainty – specifically in relation to technology use in education. One of the recurrent narratives that one can find is that education is still lagging behind when it comes to what is called “technology integration”. So, essentially, there are so many tools out there, and yet we have not seen change happening.
One the reason is that is often brought out is teachers’ resistance. Basically, teachers tend to resist to change, as they stick to their habits. There are reasons to call this into doubt. My take is that we are simply misrepresenting the actual problem. To cut the long story short, we simply take for granted that the integration of new technologies (mostly, digital) into the educational system is inevitable (it must happen) and that it proceeds in a linear fashion. Conversely, my take is that technology use in education is riddled with uncertainties. And that’s the issue we should address.
But what is exactly uncertainty (of technology use in education)?
We tend to mistake uncertainty for what uncertainty is often accompanied by: fear, anxiety, lack of confidence, ignorance, avoidance, etc.. But uncertainty is none of those “things”. This is important to state, because I have seen that the sort of solution that is often proposed is to simply help people reduce their uncertainty. That’s a mistake.
Von Mises in his Human Action makes a fundamental step towards defining uncertainty by connecting it to acting. In Chapter VI he writes:
The uncertainty of the future is already implied in the very notion of action. That man acts and that the future is uncertain are by no means two independent matters. They are only two different modes of establishing one thing.
Then he adds:
If man knew the future, he would not have to choose and would not act. He would be like an automaton.
We may say that what von Mises is pointing at is that, ontological speaking, uncertainty means that things are not yet settled. They are not already determined, fixed, set in stone already. In other words, uncertainty pretty much overlaps with the idea of indeterminateness. As Von Mises argued, if things were settled already, we would not need to act. We would be just like automata.
Interestingly, this is very close to what Sartre writes in his Existentialism is a humanism:
To choose between this or that is at the same time to affirm the value of that which is chosen.
What does that mean? In a way we may say that we ourselves are called to settle things by deciding, choosing and acting – all these are in the end synonyms. In other words, we resolve uncertainty by acting and deciding. The reason why we experience anxiety, fear, dread, anguish, avoidance, lack of confidence is that decision is essentially groundless. We make decision and we bring things into being.
That things are or can be uncertain essentially means that they are not set in stone once and for all. They are changeable, because there is no user guide to rely upon. Indeed, from time to time things are somehow settled. Negotiations, agreements, and expectations slowly appear in the horizon. There are things that become certain. However, that is the case but only temporarily. As time goes by, new happenings inevitably come to disrupt the precarious equilibrium of our own habits, which derive from decisions that we had made in the past and that we keep “endorsing”. Stafford Beer refers to the notion of relaxation time to describe the amount of time that is necessary before we reach stability once again. During such periods, uncertainty kicks in.
I should probably now provide an account of why technological change seems to be so related to instability and uncertainty. Again, the short answer is that the field of technology is where we basically mess around with the world, as it is rooted in making as well as affecting what we can do. So, multiple ways of relating to the world are continuously created. This is where I see the connection with variety, which I have tried to clarify in a previous post. Uncertainty is there because, to put it simply, the variety of the system in which we live is always greater than the variety we can handle.
We are certainly living in a time in which the pace of technological change – how much we mess around with the world – is frantic. This does not lead, though, to progress, as some think. It makes things more unstable. That is, more uncertain. We actually see that it’s not settled that using digital technologies in the classroom improves learning or teaching. New toys and gadgets keep coming. Research cannot keep up with such a frantic pace and often researchers themselves prefer to play the game following hypes and fads. Teachers may adopt new tools, but they often end up using them to do the same very things they were used to. Students may carry a smartphone in their pocket all the time, but that does not mean that they actually know what to use it for when it comes to their learning – especially, when learning-to-the-test and performing well in standardized tests is the only game in town.
If this is a correct diagnosis of the present situation, it follows that technology use in education is (and will increasingly be) more and more uncertain. In other words, there are more and more issues that cannot be treated as black&white kind of issues. In other words, more and more issues are essentially open. Open to decision. That’s what we should acknowledge.