Digitisation and digital pedagogy


On a joint edtech project with a teacher recently, I was told ‘I am happy for you to choose the pictures.’ Whether or not this teacher was intentionally insulting is beside the point –  it is not the first time I have heard the digitisation debate seeming reduced to a largely irrelevant aesthetic choice. There seems to be this relatively common misconception about the purposes and processes of digital education. This could be addressed on two levels – resource design and teaching design.

This quote from the OU Innovating Pedagogy 2013 encapsulates the importance of pedagogy for educational technology.


Digitisation and digital pedagogy in edtech design

One of the best edtech tools from my point of view is Anki. Visually a hangover from the 1990’s, Anki is a flashcard app/website that uses spaced repetition to support language learning. Card collections are made by users (although these can be shared) with an apparently not very interactive interface. Where Anki shines as a resource is

  • The nuances of labelling your degree of confidence in a term – you can choose ‘again’, ‘hard’, ‘good’ or ‘easy’ with each response tailoring the spacing of the repetition of the card.
  • The statistics option is quite sophisticated while being simply presented – you are given a series of graphs – a forecast of reviews due for the next month, an analysis of the review time taken to answer cards (whether young (new) or mature, average study time per session, number of times you have pressed the again/hard/good/easy buttons (and a time analysis – mine seem to be best between 9-10pm). So for metacognitive ‘study-skills’ then, Anki stands out.
  • For languages of more than one script (e.g. Japanese or Chinese), it creates a card for each script + the audio, so that you are testing, for example, hiragana and kanji recognition and listening skills and connecting this learning between the cards and to the English translation.


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None of these features need particularly innovative technology. There are no animations and few pictures. It doesn’t offer badges or leaderboards. It might not be the first example you might use to show someone the possibilities of the digital world. But, it serves as an excellent model for how digital tools can be designed to support learning. As a manifestation of a sound digital pedagogy approach, I think Anki is great.


Pedagogy is essentially a critical thinking exercise directed at learning and teaching.

Sean Morris

Designing edtech resources from a digital pedagogy approach is not about adding pictures, or animations or, God forbid, Word Art. It’s not even really about the digital technology. It’s certainly not about design aesthetics. Unless the digital tools, or the additions enhance, extend and inspire learning, they are at best irrelevant and at worst a distraction. I certainly add pictures and interactive layers to the content I develop. But as with any educational decision, this is based not on any aesthetic choice, but rather on how much educational value these layers provide.


This is where the critical thinking aspect of pedagogy comes in, both for tool and teaching design and practice. Does this interactive diagram clarify mitosis? If not, can it be made educationally relevant and useful? How can I develop this resource so that it helps students? How can I use it with students to help them learn and grow?



Digitisation and digital pedagogy in teaching design

What we must try, as schools, as educators, as learners, is not simply using tools, nor rolling out the whizz-bang jazz hands apps to impress students or observers.


If that means using a pen and paper because your students are revising something and you believe that memory and cognitive gains are promoted by written tasks, then you’re on the right lines for a digital pedagogy approach, just as much as if you choose to use some app in an innovative way to explore and extend learning. If, however, you are using pen and paper because you couldn’t be bothered with collecting in an Explain Everything task, or because you’ve always done this task with pen and paper, that is clearly not pedagogically sound. Equally, if you are using an iPad app just because they’re there, or in hopes of impressing an observer, without considering the aims, processes or consequences of using the app, that too is failing in digital pedagogy.


We need to systematically examine both tools and teaching for their learning value. In this way, teaching and learning drives the use of technology, rather than the converse.



Morris, S. (2014) What is digital pedagogy? [online] Available at: http://learning.instructure.com/2014/03/what-is-digital-pedagogy/ 


Religion in the science classroom

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Not that anyone asked, but I disagree with the above tweet. It’s not what you think though – I’m not for a second advocating teaching creationism in place of or even in parallel with evolution. Nor am I trying to placate fundamentalists. However, trying to remove religion from science is akin to trying to remove people from science – impossible and, ultimately, unscientific.


Tyson emphasises the importance of scientific literacy. Scientific literacy, although problematic to define, is a vital goal for science education. It is impossible to be fully scientifically literate without an awareness of the cultural and other factors driving the research and discoveries of science. Ignoring the contextual motivators and filters of both scientists and students neglects a crucial variable in scientific experimentation.


Take, for example, Albert Einstein, who epitomises science and scientists for many people; a phenomenal scientist and thinker. However, he disliked the concept of quantum mechanics, dismissing it with the statement below. Brought up by secular Jewish parents, he later described himself as agnostic. However, his views of God, whether explicitly rooted in a particular religion or not, may have influenced his repudiation of quantum theory, as indicated by this quote:

God doesn’t play dice.

Rather than attempting to distance science from humanity in the classroom, students should be familiarised with the gloriously messy nature of science, people and all. Quantum mechanics itself can be applied here – Heisenburg’s uncertainty principle outlines the impossibility of measurement without changing the observed quantity or object.


While the devil can cite scripture for his purpose, the creationist lobby can also quote scientific (or pseudo-scientific) studies. It is difficult to resist the seduction of figures and data surrounding us, not only from religious bodies but from businesses, governments and countless other sources. Statistics just seem so reassuringly solid, don’t they? But all is not as it seems. Critical thinking, a vital part of scientific literacy, is needed to wade through the initially persuasive numbers no matter their source. We ourselves, as readers, also carry our own preconceptions, religious or otherwise that may influence our integration of the scientific information into our world view. So, students need to be encouraged to consider cultural, societal and religious impetuses in order to fully evaluate concepts and make scientific decisions.


By all means, lets bring religion into the science classroom. Accept that scientists are people and not Gods, and are thus, sadly, often fallible. That’s okay, but instead of pretending that we shed all earthly thoughts when conducting experiments, students (and teachers and scientists and everyone else) need to evaluate external and internal influences.  It is important to aim for value-free science, of course, but scientifically literate citizens must be conscious of the potential influences of religious and other societal contexts on the scientist and on themselves. We might not be able to fully understand or control these influences, but critical assessment of these variables can only improve scientific literacy. So, in respectful disagreement with Neil deGrasse Tyson, I am convinced that, in relevant science lessons, evaluation and discussion of religious doctrine can promote scientific literacy.

A literature curriculum “cabined, cribbed, confined”

Three-quarters of the books on the government directed GCSEs, which will be unveiled this week, are by British authors and most are pre-20th century.


I am absolutely stupefied. Not so much on the specific choice of books – of mice and men, for example, has been on the syllabus for a very long time and a change is no doubt in order. But this Orwellian dictation of choice scares me on two levels.


Firstly, literary merit. There are many valuable pieces of literature from pre-20th century Britain – the Brontes, Shakespeare, Dickens and so on. Many of these texts changed forever their literary forms. However, the forms have indeed changed. Compare, for example, Wordsworth’s Daffodils with Ted Hughes’ poem of the same name. While both poems describe experiences relating to daffodils, the language and techniques result in drastically different effects. Although, almost by definition, the Conservative party wants to return to an earlier era, the techniques and themes of modern literature are never going to return to what they was, and nor should they; literature both mirrors and shapes the society within which it is formed.


We know that Conservatives are not really fans of a pluralistic, multi-cultural society. But to virtually obliterate ethnic and international voices in this way is actually terrifying. To quote from To Kill a Mockingbird (one of the books struck from the list):

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.

Books help us to experience other perspectives, other views, other cultures. To censor in this way is not just counter-productive in terms of literary study, it is morally repugnant – every culture and community  deserves a voice and every student deserves to experience cultures beyond their own.


If we want to reduce racism, instead of blindly blaming immigrants for every social issue, texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird are vital. If the only literature that students read are the patriarchal, white texts that dominate pre-20th century British literature, those one-sided views are insidiously promoted.


Mr Gove, while I recognise the importance of valuing one’s own culture, and the natural nostalgia you may feel for the texts you read in your own school days, please accept the power that literature has to shape thought and culture. Much as a democratic and open society is richer for having a plurality of perspectives and cultures, so too is our curriculum.


Gove kills the mockingbird with ban on US classic novels

Why Gove Shouldn’t Kill the Mockingbird

Teacher = parent, physician, psychologist and…

One of the most worrying trends I’m observing in the Conservative education drive is the increasing movement of responsibility from parents to teachers. While I applaud the discussion and raised profile of FGM and of mental health issues (among others), it seems that the government and media are identifying these as yet more additions to the teacher’s job role. Where do they fit?


For example, my sister teaches Early Years in a London primary. They do have a breakfast club, but a significant proportion of the students in her school are not brought in in time for this and have not had breakfast at all. It is of course impossible for children (or adults) to concentrate while hungry, so that is half an hour out of the school day to feed them, while still aiming for implausible targets. On a similar level, the school also runs a get fit club for the students that need more exercise. Again, many teachers run a club – it’s a great way to interact with students on a less formal level, so that is not unreasonable. However, this get fit club (and obtaining the funding) requires that each teacher assesses each child for levels of fitness and exercise. I’ve rang several parents in the past to request that they make sure their children go to bed earlier as they were falling asleep in class. While every member of staff at school has regular safeguarding training, how far are teachers responsible for nutrition, exercise and sleep? Given the amount of training and CPD teachers already undergo, where do we fit in what basically amounts to medical training? I don’t know any teacher that would neglect any student needs on any level of the Maslow hierarchy (or beyond). However, the responsibility for meeting physiological needs for 400-odd students is a Herculean task. The basic caregiving responsibility is not that of teachers and nor should it be.


Vince Cable tells us that teachers know nothing of the world of work (as exemplified by our selfless and hard-working politicians). Teachers should, we are informed, be able to give detailed career advice for all walks of life and not just about university choices. This is, frankly, ridiculous. Teachers come from all paths of life, not just university and stereotyping teachers in this way is incredibly insulting. Anyway, although I might not be able to give advice from personal experience about being a hairdresser or politician or many career fields, we can certainly direct students to the appropriate person or resource to learn what they need. Rather than learning reams about every career pathway, this seems a far more sensible approach. No more than politicians can teachers specialise in every career.


Many, if not most, teachers are absolutely heroic in terms of attitude, effort and time given for their students well-being, development and education. Personally, I’ve always felt that the only reason Batman was a superhero is that he knew when to take the help of Albert, Gordon and the others. Instead of burying teachers under a mound of responsibilities and paperwork, including those of parent, social worker, doctor, psychologist and counsellor, they should be encouraged to get the help they need to get the best for students.










The Lego Movie – lessons for teaching

I went to see the Lego Movie recently. I rather enjoyed it – the pathetic Green Lantern, the angsty Batman and the mockery of cat motivational posters were particularly appealing to my geeky soul. Okay, it was clearly a kids film and had the necessary saccharine moralistic ending. Bear with me!


One point really struck me in relation to teaching. It was at the end, when Emmett, the ordinary hero, was appealing to President Business, the evil OCD overlord who wanted to glue everything so that nothing would ever change or move. Emmett gestured, in a lego-like way, to all the odd vehicles and weapons that the ordinary people had made in revolt and pointed out that they were all based on President Business’ own inventions and that everything shouldn’t always be the same, shouldn’t be controlled or restricted by one person, even if they are a good idea.


One of the things that really aggravates me the most in teaching is how some educators will hoard their resources – perhaps share with a long standing colleague, but otherwise holding them close to the chest. This attitude is not, in my view, justifiable as a teacher or as a researcher. If we come up with a good idea for teaching, say, risk assessments, this should be shared, adapted and expanded freely by other teachers. For example, a teacher in my previous school took the idea of exit tickets and made end of topic bunting to decorate the classroom with. Or I made a lesson for Physics coursework teaching risk assessment by risk assessing the Triwizard Tournament. I shared this with my colleagues and on TES and another teacher in the department changed it to Twilight, as her class were particularly obsessed with the series. My class did not produce any less exemplary work because another class had access to the same resources.


I think that the hoarding attitude is prompted by the obsession with league tables. Every state school is compared with their neighbours in the competition for students, funding, teachers etc. So, it’s not only about providing a good education for your students, it’s also about trying to make sure the school does better than other schools, or conversely that other schools do worse. OFSTED criteria also add further fuel to this – to achieve an ‘outstanding’ lesson all students have to demonstrate ‘rapid and sustained progress’ so much better in comparison with other schools. This sounds nice in theory, but it is another contributor to this unhealthy competition. As with students, comparisons are simplistic and counter to the goal of improving educational standards.


No teacher goes into education thinking “I want to help students, but only the twenty sitting in front of me, so I’m going to keep all my good resources”. Some teachers have justified it to me by saying they put a lot of work into their worksheet/presentation/whatever. So what? You are not losing the resource and if everyone shares their material, you can save time somewhere else. Anyway, I don’t know a single teacher who just passively takes resources and delivers them mindlessly to their class – even a resource I made myself that I was perfectly happy with last week will receive a make over to be appropriate for this week’s students, current events and so on.


As with President Business’ Lego constructions, teaching materials can be shared and developed to make something unique and appropriate for each teachers needs. I’m not insisting that we must all be “special little snowflakes”, as President Business mocked. However, wider sharing of resources (as is happening with such MOOCS as iTunes U), as we have seen with computing and other open source developments, can help and support teachers and students alike. Share your resources and see what fantastic developments other educators might make! You lose nothing, and you could be helping hundreds of students far beyond your classroom. In the words of the annoyingly catchy Lego theme song: “everything is awesome when you’re part of a team”.