Don’t Fear the Reaper!

Posted on February 15, 2010


Edtech Death : Don’t Fear the Reaper!

The Grim Reaper

I was a 14 year-old skateboarding punk when I saw one for the first time. I think it was a Thursday morning in the late 70’s and my monthly copy of Skateboard magazine had just dropped onto the doormat. On the front cover was written the grim slogan “The Skateboard is Dead!” Not surprisingly, it turned out to be the last ever issue of the magazine. It happened again a year later. This time it was the NME announcing that “Punk is Dead!”

At that time, these soul-destroying slogans contributed greatly to my teenage angst. But in hindsight, they needn’t have. Punk didn’t die, and Skateboarding is well on the way to becoming an Olympic sport. So, when I started seeing similar certificates of defunction being doled out by edtech experts – “PowerPoint is Dead!”, “The VLE is Dead!” – I decided to take them with a rather large pinch of salt. It’s not that I particularly like PowerPoint or Virtual Learning Environments, and obviously technologies are superseded and become obsolete all the time. It’s just that sometimes you get the feeling that death is being announced rather prematurely, and with a bit too much morbid pleasure. Here are four reasons why we shouldn’t necessarily fear the edtech reaper.

1. Edtech reapers often get it wrong

Last year marked 25th anniversary of PowerPoint and the edtech reapers had their scythes out. After a quarter of a century, PowerPoint was declared definitively “dead”. Along with its “death” came a plethora of new presentation tools, the king of which was probably Prezi. But, did the reapers speak too soon?

The Kiss of Death

I must admit that I had a lot of fun with Prezi when it first appeared, and there is no question about its ability to wow. But, when I’d had my fill of zoom-zoom, I found that its appeal began to wane. Among other things, it has rather a steep learning curve, an original but confusing navigation menu and a very limited range of graphic elements to play with. It can also induce nausea if used too enthusiastically. But what’s more important, as maybe you’ve already experienced, is that death by Prezi can be equally as unpleasant as death by PowerPoint. Just like Powerpoint, Prezi is more often than not (though not always) a prop for bad speakers … and it has bullet-points too! What I soon realised was that if you were already using PowerPoint badly, you were almost certainly going to do the same with Prezi – and the ‘wow’ element would probably only make things worse.

But, we were told that Prezi offered a revolutionary way of presenting information. We could now jump freely from element to element in a non-linear fashion. This sounded liberating. But in reality, being flung from left to right  and top to bottom turned out to be a disorientating, if not stressful, experience. Prezi’s added value of depth (being able to zoom in and out) doesn’t help things much either. Often, it merely adds a third dimension in which to lose your audience. For the Prezi designer, there are simply so many ‘narrative’ options that it takes considerable skill and practice to create something which is clear and logical. All in all, it’s far easier to create a confusing Prezi than a confusing PowerPoint. And while you might get away with boring your audience a little, confusing them is definitely a no-no.

The truth is that even after 25 years, PowerPoint is still very much alive. You only have to look at the number of presentations being uploaded to Slideshare everyday to get an idea of how popular PowerPoint continues to be. It’s fast and familiar, and that’s OK for most of us. Like myself, a lot of teachers still rely on PowerPoint for the majority of their day-to-day presentations, leaving Prezi for those special occasions when a bit of bling helps to keep the punters on the edge of their seats.

More generally, most “older” technologies don’t tend to die overnight when a new pretender appears on the scene. Instead, they overlap and coexist with their newer cousins and then may take their time to fade away. PowerPoint will obviously be superseded, but my guess is that there are a few more years in the old dog yet. Having said that, as prop-free rhetoric seems to be making a comeback, maybe neither of them has a particularly bright future. But that’s another question.

2. Edtech reapers often get carried away

Most edtech reapers love technology – as long as it’s the latest. They are enthusiastic, passionate, evangelical people whose mission it is to adopt the new and bury the old. One of the negative results of this must-have-the-latest zeal is that shiny brand-new software applications are often accepted wholesale, without much further ado. Sometimes, time and energy is spent trying to make something of questionable pedagogical interest fit into our teaching simply because of its newness. This may be heresy, but in my opinion Twitter is a case in point. I use Twitter on a daily basis as a means of sharing and exchanging information with other teaching professionals. However, having read dozens of blog posts on “X ways to use Twitter with your students” I’m still not really convinced that it’s worth trying to find room for it in my students’ already crowded learning environment – but it’s shiny and new, so maybe I should!

3. Edtech death can demotivate

Most teachers are neither technophiles nor technophobes. They are more likely to be teachers who are willing to experiment with new technology, but who don’t want it to make their life more difficult than it already is. They want technology to be functional and user-friendly, and do not want to spend hours at the cutting edge. Although they probably find the speed of technological change excessive, they do their best to keep abreast of the most important innovations and make an effort to incorporate some of them into their teaching.

For these teachers, it must be profoundly demoralising to be told that the PowerPoint training course they are attending is in fact a waste of time, or to hear that the efforts they are making to get to grips with their VLE are worthless. If we want to keep these teachers with us and prevent technology from becoming a divisive factor among teaching staff, we need to encourage their efforts, not frustrate them. So, if you’re considering doing a PowerPoint course, my advice is go ahead. And if you’re an edtech reaper, take a good look at what your institution’s VLE offers, you might even find that it allows you to embed your favourite third-party web 2.0 application. Maybe it’s not such a creativity-stifling environment after all.

4. The causes of edtech death are often not what you expect

One of last year’s edtech highlights was the debate held on the Virtual Learning Environment at the Alt-C Conference in Manchester. It was titled “The VLE is Dead” and starred some of the leading lights of the British edtech scene. Those wishing the demise of the VLE argued that they were merely Content Management Systems which strait-jacketed creativity in an inflexible and institutionalised learning environment. A valid argument, and one for debate sure enough.

But, when you listened more closely, you couldn’t help getting the impression that this was more than a debate about education technology. It was also about ideology. The VLE was deemed to be conservative and authoritarian, the PLE progressive and libertarian.  This ideologised way of seeing things is also related to the tendency of some edtech reapers to criticise success. When a tool or technology becomes widely-used it is often shot down in flames whether or not it still serves the purpose for which it was designed. It appears that good technology not only has to be new and ‘cool’, it also has to be used by a minority and have an anti-establishment feel to it. Good technology has to be the underdog struggling to break with the status quo … until, of course, it becomes the status quo itself, and the cycle begins again.

But it wasn’t just an ideological question, it was a moral question too. Yes, you guessed it, the VLE was declared evil. We are to have no truck with it. It is inherently evil and must be done any with forever – even if it was the bees knees a few years ago.

I know the debate was meant to be taken as a light-hearted exchange of opinions. But, arguments like the above do rather get away from the important practical issue of whether a particular technology actually does the job we want it to do in a certain context. To pass an ideological or moral judgement on the tool itself, rather than on the use to which it is put, is to be on slippery ground at the very least.

To conclude

Ministry of Defence

Maybe I’m exaggerating the importance of all this. Maybe it’s just teenage trauma revisited at middle age. But, I just had to get it off my chest!

Last Christmas, the best present I got was from my mum. It was a red t-shirt with the classic wartime slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On!” This for me should be our guiding principle as regards technology.  In the face of frighteningly rapid technological change we should indeed carry on – and be encouraged to carry on. However, it is equally important to keep calm. Let’s try and get there together!

And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Blue Oyster Cult and their classic 1976 smash hit Don’t Fear the Reaper … Thank God Prog Rock is Dead!  ;-)

Posted in: Opinions