I am interested in developing a vision of educational technology (edtech) that does not fall prey of what we may call “functionalism”. Which is, in short, the idea that views a piece of (educational) technology as a (neutral) means-to-an-end. Functionalists reduce a piece of technology to the function that it allegedly plays, for example, in class. I say “allegedly”, because very often such “functions” are mere declarations – well, hot vapor (Mark Johnson drew my attention to that).
While I can see why functionalism is deadly wrong in edtech, I struggled finding a way to express a viable alternative. The first idea came from a colleague of mine, Mario Mäeots, who repeatedly told me that the use of technology in education should be meaningful. Or perhaps a better way of putting it would be “pedagogically meaningful”. I started using this label in my courses.
When I presented this idea, I used music as an analogy to convey what I meant by “meaningfulness”. So, I played two pieces. The first was a random beep noise, after which I played Erik Satie’s Once Upon a Time in Paris. The idea was to make them experience that only with the latter we experience meaningfulness. The beep noise is just noise. Nothing we can really make sense of. That was, as I said, to try to convey what I mean by meaningful or meaningfulness. I actually wanted to avoid to give the impression that by “meaningful use” I meant, again, that a tool had a function and that it was the function that gave meaning to it. To be honest, I don’t think that my attempt was successful. I think that it was largely a failure. (At least students did not think that I lack imagination.)
However, something was working somehow in my mind – perhaps unconsciously, because a month or so later, I got a better idea. Or at least that’s how it looks now to me. The idea came to me after I watched a clip on YouTube, where a famous drummer – Jojo Mayer – described how digital technology changed his way of playing drums.
The idea that came to my mind is that making music has a lot in common – at least analogically – with teaching&learning, which I consider a pair. Meaning, you cannot have one without having the other. Now, the first interesting thing to notice is that music cannot be done without “instruments”. We may lack a piano, guitar – whatever. But we can still make music. For example, we can use our vocal chords or our chest and our hands. The same with teaching&learning. There is no way to teach&learn without instruments.
Second source of analogy, the type of instrument one uses to make music affects the way in which music is experienced. The same very piece of music played with the guitar sounds different when it is played with the piano. That’s because, the instrument is never neutral. The same in teaching&learning. Writing something on a blackboard is not the same as projecting the same thing on a screen. The content might be the same, but not the pedagogical experience.
Thirdly – and this is about functionalism: we say that we play the guitar. We don’t say that we use the guitar. Indeed, we use the guitar. We use our hands, our voice. But the result – what comes out – is “played”. This is a fascinating thing, isn’t it? I think that it’s so because we want to capture some kind of emergent dimension – what we do together with the instrument. Or we want to stress that playing music is not just about pushing buttons. Is it the same as in teaching&learning? Yes. I have experienced on several occasions that good teachers actually play their educational instruments. Because in the end you see that it’s not about using technology for its own sake: technology is integrated smoothly into their practice. Actually, I should say that both teachers and their students are the actual players. (There is in my opinion something mystic in seeing a class that performs. And the performance can be compared to that of an orchestra.)
Fourthly, we are used to identify certain instruments as music instruments. Yes, we can pretend to play pots and pans (I did it) as if they are drums. Yet a drum set is something different. Why? Because a music instrument is not just any instrument. There is a practice that provides the sort of backbone needed to experience it as music. The same in teaching&learning. There are educational instruments. For example, the blackboard is one of those. Have we managed to create new educational instruments? Well, I think that answer is yes. Although we are still playing with pots and pans in a way. I mean, we are still tinkering.
There is a last point I want to bring up. Music is organized in genres. So, for example, there is a genre called electronic music. Is there something similar in teaching&learning? I think so. I mean, I don’t think that teachers and students necessarily need digital technology to have a pedagogical experience. But it’s true that there are people who don’t like, for example, pop music or classic music. They have different preferences. So, it’s harder for them to have a good experience, if their favorite type of music is not played. Perhaps, we see something similar in teaching&learning. Students are used to a certain type of tools. That is, they expect a certain type of “music” to be played. So, it is perhaps convenient to get closer to them and “play” some instruments that they like.