Last week I visited a school here in Tartu with the students of our master’s programme in educational technology. While we were leaving, one of the students had an interesting remark. He said that an educational technologist is not a technician. One day later during the course “use of technology in education” a colleague of mine engaged the students in a very interesting task. Students were divided in three groups. Each of them got a little robot to play with. One of the group was asked to think what an Art teacher could do with it. Another one was asked to think what a Music teacher could do with it. And the last group got the Math teacher.
Do the two episodes have anything in common?
One thing that I observed during the task was that students spent a fair amount of time getting familiar with how to program the behavior of the robot, which meant how to use the application in the tablet that came along with the robot itself. In common parlance, we say that they were learning “how to use” the robot. After they got a bit more familiar with how to use the robot, the students, assorted in the different groups, started thinking about how the music teacher, the art teacher and the math teacher, respectively, can use it.
In both cases we use the expression “how to use it”. Yet that bears a fundamental ambiguity, which is in my opinion at the core of philosophy of educational technology or of any attempt to understand a bit more what kind of role technology could have in education (and perhaps in society too).
If we wanted to use a better terminology, we could say that, when the students were getting familiar with the application that controlled the robot, they were trying to understand how to communicate with it to do something. In other words, they were trying to find a “common language”. What happens if I push this? What happens if I push that? – that sort of things. In other words, what they were tying to understand were the “functions” of the robot.
All this that I briefly described is not what my colleague had in mind when he asked the students to think of how, for example, the music teacher could use the little toy in his class. One way to disambiguate the term “use” is to add the adjective “purposeful”. Purposeful use does not refer to the fact that we are able to interact with a robot using its functions. But that we are able to connect the use of a robot to some educational purposes, that is, to show something that is good to know about music, different types of rhythms, for example.
I believe that this is a distinction that most of people would not have any problem to understand. And it is captured by several different other concepts. For example, Heidegger’s distinction between ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. That is, a more practical/pre-reflective approach to things and a more theoretical/reflective one.
But let’s try to make a step forward. When we interact with a piece of technology – a robot, for example, we are bound to the type of “language” that the piece of technology “understands”. And that kind of language gives us access to its “functions”. So, for example, I am now writing in a form and there are buttons that allow me to mark some part of the text in bold. I can do that by going with the mouse over one of those buttons – the one marked with the letter “B” – and click on it.
Now, the question is: can we deploy the same kind of mindset for purposeful use? Can we talk about functions on a different level – the level of purposes? The answer is yes. Yet…
Interestingly, when my colleague asked the students to think of how a music/art/math teacher could use the robot in her/his class, which was “purposeful use” to stick to the terminology introduced above, the students – by their own admission – started tinkering. What does that mean? If we stick to the sort of definition that tinkering has, it means that they are sort of messing around or playing McGyver. At first approximation that’s what students started to do. But this is not the whole story.
Tinkering has several characteristics. One of those is its open-endedness. When we say that we start tinkering, this means that we try to figure out how we can actually use something without having a specific idea in mind: we start playing and build on top of that. It is a meaning-making process through doing . Interestingly enough, this happens at both levels described above. The level of using the functions of a piece of technology and the level of using a piece of technology purposefully. The difference, though, is that in the latter case the degree of freedom is way more vast. As I mentioned above, a device comes with certain functions (e.g., marking this word bold). We can explore the functions via tinkering, yet the degree of freedom for playing would be very small if non-existent. In this case, tinkering would characterize the process, not the result.
Things are different with the second level. The reason is that what we are engaged with is no longer the exploration of the possible functions of an object. But the meaning/purpose that the object can have in a specific cultural practice. In this case, the kind of use we talk about is ontologically different. It’s no longer about the piece of technology, but the kind of things we can often creatively do as members of a practice. In other words, the device ceases to be a “technical” object, as it becomes “cultural” – for lack of a better term, that is, fully embedded in the particular cultural practice.
This that I am trying to elaborate is somehow connected to the comment that the student made during the school visit. An educational technologist must indeed be familiar with how to use a piece of technology. To suggest a music teacher how to use a robot during one of her/his class, one must know how to make the robot move. Yet the technical aspect is not the constitutive of being educational. And this is the biggest challenge that this particular professional figure is facing at the moment: how to tinker and tinker well.