Friday, 21 November 2014

To Code or not to Code?

That is a good question - and one I am commonly asked by both parents and teachers.

Technically this is not code, it is script... 

There is a LOT more to this than a simple yes or no answer, but my opinion is that I'm not convinced that encouraging kids to become coders (actually computer programmers—coding is actually a slang term) is a great idea, I think they should learn to code, if they're keen, but only so they can understand it better, so they can be creative with it. You see you can employ coders, they are a dime a dozen, they're all over the web. It's the creative 'big picture' aspect that is lacking, ie what to code, not so much how.

That said... It's hard to know what you can do if you don't know how. Basically you don't need to be the best coder, you need to be good enough to really know what its potential is.
"Someday, the understanding of computational processes may be indispensable for people in all occupations. But it’s not yet clear when we’ll cross that bridge from nice-to-know to must-know."

"But is it really crucial to be able to code? Many content producers use technology virtually every waking hour of their life, and they don't know a variable from an identifier, or an integer from a string. Personally, I'm conflicted: I have a technical background, but for most people I just don't see how being able to compile code is going to prove useful."
"Coding is not a goal. It’s a tool for solving problems. [...] However, much of the “learn to code” frenzy seems to spring from the idea that you can achieve fame and riches by starting a tech company and you need to actually code something first. Programming is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Even if you do hit the jackpot, the CEOs of successful tech companies do not spend a lot of time coding, even if they started out behind a keyboard. There are simply too many other tasks involved in running a company. So if coding is what you really love to do, you probably wouldn't want to be a CEO in the first place.."

Please don't advocate learning to code just for the sake of learning how to code. Or worse, because of the fat paychecks. Instead, I humbly suggest that we spend our time learning how to …
• Research voraciously, and understand how the things around us work at a basic level.
• Communicate effectively with other human beings.
These are skills that extend far beyond mere coding and will help you in every aspect of your life. 

Clearly there is no shortage of people that want to code, and those that have the predilection will. I mean, the point is it's not hard to act on it, to make it happen, and ... if you can't, then coding is probably not an option for you.

Compare that to say … learning the oboe, well that's not quite so easy to learn if you only have a computer and an internet connection. But there are millions of people out there who do, and are honing their abilities every day, and they don't expect to be paid as much for it as you might think.

So - how do we learn this stuff?

All the people I know who are any use with IT and ICTs (yes, there is a difference) are those who basically taught themselves (including myself). It's almost a rite of passage. My instinct tells me that the kind of kids who can code WILL code, and if they can't find ways to teach themselves using the plethora of resources online, then, they probably haven’t got what it takes to code. Despite the glowing 'FUN, FUN, FUN!' messages that proliferate from some quarters of the web, the truth is, if you want to code, really code, you will need to work hard, you will need to persevere, nothing that is worth having comes easy, and coding is no exception. Simple as that.

"Top companies expect you to know what a recent comp-sci graduate would know, which could include SQL vs. NoSQL databases, the time complexity of some algorithm, or how to implement binary search. ... opportunities are few and far between."

"While there are some excellent companies willing to hire driven and intelligent self-taught engineers, they lie in the minority. Many companies pass over candidates without a formal degree in computer science before reading on; the stigma of low experience is a hard one to break in any industry but especially in those involving technical abilities."

I have never been taught 'IT' but I had to teach myself HTML to design web pages, and ActionScript to create Flash animations - at its best, that is what things like coding 'computer science' and subjects like DT teaches kids - YOU can solve your own problems, and you can teach yourself how to do it. The WWWHWW have getting from A to B, even if it means going through D, H and X to get there. The first time.

That's another argument for coding, not so much as a skills for the workplace, but the process, the rationale it demands, here's a quote from my colleague Helen Leeming who teaches IT in MS and HS, from an email exchange we had on this subject: This point about developing critical/analytical thinking through coding is powerful -

"It isn't the coding… its the critical thinking… they don't need to code any more than they need to be able to do quadratic equations - for most people either would be redundant the minute they walk out of school. But they do need to have stretched their minds, to have made their thoughts work in a different way, which both of those will. Almost none of them need to code (or indeed use a lot of what we teach them in school - ox bow lakes for example), but the ability to problem solve is essential. It could be taught through other things, it simply isn't in many cases… And people rarely choose to learn critical thinking unless they are an 'IT geek' and they are the ones that probably can already do it."

I don't understand why people question that this needs to be taught as people won't be coders, while we still do teach algebra and the periodic table to kids that will not be mathematicians or chemists. Education is not about learning a set of knowledge or practical skills that you can use later, it is about teaching you to think, to think in many different ways, to play with ideas in many different ways and to have a toolbox of techniques to address puzzles or problems you meet later. Abstract, critical thinking is one of the tools…"
It should be remembered that one the best ways to get to grips with the kind of logistical thinking skills demanded by coding is by using spreadsheet functions, such as google spreadsheets, right there in the browser, and then move on to writing your own formulae, to solve basic mathematical problems, that right there is the basis of writing code. Starting with a formula as simple as =A1+B1 to things like IF functions:

=IF(A1<B1, "awesome",IF(B1<A1,"amazing"))

So, my advice to potential coders would be learn to walk before you run, or more precisely, learn to walk (scratch) run (stencyl) jump (alice) then you can really get creative (dance) with the source code:

All of the the tools below are free, come with great support materials, tutorials, and communities to get you from A to B, even if you have to travel via N and X.

Coding for kids

Some of the iPad Apps we use to introduce kids to coding

Here's a great set of Apps you can use to introduce our child to coding, even from Kindergarten, this is my suggested sequence of progression, from games that teach the kind of logical thinking needed for coding, to Apps that allow free form creation:

  1. Daisy the Dinosaur
  2. Tynker
  3. Lightbot
  4. Move the Turtle
  5. Hopscotch
  6. Scratch Jr 

Do it yourself...

  1. Start with iPads to learn the basics of control, computer programming thinking, Apps like Daisy the Dinosaur, Hopscotch, Move the Turtle. Apps like these use a drag and drop interface will intuitively grasp the basics of objects, sequencing, loops and events by solving app challenges. 
  2. Move to,  Scratch, or 
  3. Progress to Stencyl for iOS App coding using a similar 'block' interface, or alternatively App Inventor.

Coding vs Programming

Despite the hype that is common around this area, the fact is that no matter what you may have been told, the block interface that is at heart of most, if not all the apps that purport to be teaching coding, are not really. This article from Quartz clarifies this issue:
"The light and fluffy version of computer science—which is proliferating as a superficial response to the increased need for coders in the workplace—is a phenomenon I refer to as “pop computing.” ... This accessible attraction can be catchy, it may not lead to harder projects that deepen understanding.
... an important distinction must be drawn between learning “coding tutorials” and learning “computer science.” I think of it as playing with coding apps as compared to learning to design an app using code. Building an app takes time and requires multi-dimensional learning contexts, pathways and projects. One thing is for sure, it can’t be done in an hour or two, with a few simple drags, drops and clicks." 
American schools are teaching our kids how to code all wrong - Quartz

So to avoid any confusion, I refer to the control activities that rely on blocks 'coding'—the blocks act as a code that represents the actual syntax you would normally write in a programming language. So let's call programming, programming; and while the block 'pop computing' 'coding' interface serves as a useful preliminary experience, the actual skill of programming is very different. When a student feels ready, here's a path they could take:
  1. Khan Academy has a great online course for introducing kids to programming (not coding), the introduction to JavaScript is a great place to begin.
  2. For developing apps, you can download the Xcode App for free from the App store if they feel they are ready to actually use Xcode, there are many online tutorials that can help with this, such as this one.
  3. Try for learning a range of programming languages. 
  4. Then possibly Alice 
By then you should be ready for the source code, this site hackerbuddies will help with this final stage... One-on-one mentoring for startup hackers.

… but even then, which language?


or Xcode for coding iOS Apps

And there are many more ...

But I would imagine for most kids the biggest motivator would be to create an app, using xCode (a free App from the App store). Which you can port to from Stencyl, but you have to pay $150 to enable that feature, so you can learn for free, you only need to pay when/if you're ready to put into the market place. Clearly it is the desire to create 'Apps' that is driving the current resurgence in interest in coding. For more on this phenomenon, read this article.

We now also facilitate the UWCSEA coding community through our ECA programme, for MS and HS students. If your child is in Primary and impatient to get going, learning Scratch and Stencyl will ensure they are more than ready by Grade 6, and of course from Grade 9 students have the option of choosing to follow a course in Computing, all the way through to grade 12 if they so choose. Middle school includes a module of coding through Lego Mindstorms in DT and we offer IGCSE Computing and IGCSE IT, and IB Computer Science in High School.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Transforming Talk in the 21st Century

Does this have to Facebook? No. Does it have to be asynchronous and social?Yes.

Many skills are touted as '21st century' in nature, but the reality is that many, if not most of all them, are little more than refinements of abilities that have always been intrinsic to humanity than reflective of any particular era in history.

That said, there is at least one skill which strikes me an unique, maybe not unique to the 21st Century as it has been in existence since at least the late 90s, but it is unique, it is digital, and it is easily one of the most powerful, transformational applications of digital technology I have encountered, what is it? It's the ability for groups of people to interact, and interthink, online, or to frame this in the words of the title of a thesis that is a little more academic:

The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue

The above title is taken from a 362 page thesis written by a doctoral student called Rebecca Ferguson (Ferguson, 2009) that I have recently finished reading, and that is the inspiration for this post. This is not a post about the actual pedagogical practice of using this medium for learning, that is the subject of another post here. This post focuses on the big picture, the WHY, why this medium is not only unique but actually essential, critical, pivotal, and in my experience, one of the most genuinely transformative applications of ICT that I have ever encountered. 

All quotations that follow, unless specifically cited otherwise are taken from Ferguson's thesis (ibid). The original thesis is available online, here, all other works cited can be referenced from Ferguson's thesis.

What follows is a summary of the thesis, curated through the lens of the way this looks in a TELE (technology enhanced learning environment), like those that reflect UWCSEA since at least 2010.

Critical to this entire context is the uniqueness of this medium, it is essentially unlike any form of human communication that has ever preceded it, in that "asynchronous exchanges are enriched by the use of textual affordances that are not available in speech." (p4) These online asynchronous environments are ubiquitous, mainly thanks to the unprecedented rise in society of social networks, (and to a large extent email, another asynchronous social medium, albeit not as instant) that are in their very essence 'fora', online communities where text based dialogue, often enriched by image and video are commonplace, and yet, despite it's profound presence in society as a whole, it is very rarely leveraged as tool to enhance learning, even within TELEs.

This post is in many ways a plea to change that; because I believe that in the classrooms of the 21st century, asynchronous dialogue should be the norm, in every subject, every day, just like it is in the social lives of arguably most students and teachers.

A fascinating exchange between Grade 5 students - look at the learning!

--- Page 18 ---

In the first five years of this century, the number of Internet users in the UK almost doubled, rising to 37.8 million in 2005 (CIA, 2001, 2006). For the first time, the majority of the population was able to interact, and to learn together, in virtual settings (Dutton, di Gennaro, & Millwood Hargrave, 2005). As a result, some learners and teachers who have spent years developing the skills necessary to communicate, work and build knowledge together in face-to-face settings face the challenge of adapting those skills for use in an asynchronous, textual environment.

What is asynchronous dialogue?

'Asynchronous dialogue' describes the ways in which online learners construct knowledge together in both the short and the long term without [necessarily] being co-present at the same time or in the same place."

--- Page 21 ---

Asynchronous dialogue is defined here as a sustained discussion, involving two or more people whose contributions are not expected to be produced in temporal proximity, in which language is one of the elements used to convey meaning.

--- Page 23 ---

Users of asynchronous forms of dialogue such as email and online fora make use of various structures and patterns, referred to here as discursive devices, within their communication in order to increase both coherence and comprehension.

--- Page 32 ---

Learning is fundamentally social in nature, even when individuals are separated by time and space

--- Page 35 ---

Vygotsky regarded language as the most powerful of these mediating tools and as the primary tool for thinking

--- Page 42 ---

Different media bring different resources to, and also impose constraints. Relevant factors include copresence (the ability to see the same things), cotemporality (the ability to access messages as soon as they are sent), simultaneity (whether participants can communicate at the same time or must take turns) and sequentiality (the possibility of turns being accessed out of sequence) (Baker, et al., 1999).
In an educational context, an important form of language is dialogue: a sustained discussion, carried out through speech or online, in which language is used to convey meaning. Participants in an effective dialogue are both contributors and active listeners (Moore, 1993). Through dialogue, they share knowledge and jointly construct understandings of shared experience that support learning (Crook, 1994)

--- Page 43 ---

One of the earliest recorded forms of educational dialogue is the dialectic employed by Socrates (470-399 BCE) and therefore described as ‘the Socratic method'. This was originally an open-ended dialogue, which was gradually formalised, eventually being codified by Hegel (1770-1831) as a form of logic that proceeds from thesis to antithesis and thence, eventually, to synthesis. In educational settings, dialectic is employed when people need to combine their knowledge by sharing, comparing and combining contrasting views ...

--- Page 44 ---

In schools, dialogic has been used to emphasise collaborative group work and the uptake of children's ideas, to encourage pupils to recreate accounts in their own words and to emphasise a collective, reciprocal and cumulative approach to learning (Skidmore, 2006).

Less IRF, more IDRF

Less Initiation, Response and Follow-up (IRF) [Also IRE, Initiation, Response, Evaluation] exchanges and more Initiation – Dialogue – Response – Feedback (IDRF) (Wegerif & Mercer, 1996) does not focus on the teacher's input but incorporates dialogue between students, allowing learners a more active role and supporting them in working together. (p45)

--- Page 46 ---

[asynchronous discussions help] students to participate in collaborative and critical argumentation, rather than being too embarrassed to criticise others or to state their opinions directly. Other studies drew attention to students overcoming emotional barriers such as shyness, discomfort or a lack of confidence (Ravenscroft, 2007).

--- Page 47 ---

These forms of communication may be synchronous or non-synchronous, or they may offer both possibilities; they may be text-based, audio-based or graphics-based; they may be used for group communication, for two-way discussion or for personal reflection

--- Page 48 ---

Until recently, it was rarely necessary to distinguish between physical and virtual settings and so the dictionary definitions of many English words take a physical setting for granted. The words ‘talk' and ‘dialogue', with their assumptions of synchronicity and co-presence, both make an uneasy transition to an online setting. [...] there are major differences between oral and written modes of expression

--- Page 52 ---

It is an important tool that teachers and learners employ in a variety of ways: to build social relationships, to mediate collaboration, to construct online learning environments, to supplement face-to-face interaction and to support distance learners who are working individually.

Asynchronous dialogue: distinct from writing and speech

Asynchronous dialogue should be considered as a new form of communication, rather than as a variant form of speech or writing.

--- Page 54 ---

Asynchronous dialogue, being a new language tool, has the potential to produce far-reaching changes. It is a complex blend of inner, oral and written speech, and Mercer's view (2000) is that its combination of characteristics of speech and writing makes it a welcome and valuable addition to the toolbox of language. Although it has some characteristics of both talk and writing, its chronology and its use of layout and typography mean that it has emergent properties that belong to neither. These emergent properties are not the same as those of synchronous online dialogue, which is characterised by immediacy and fast responses (O'Connor & Madge, 2001).

Five techniques

--- Page 58 ---

Build the future on the foundations of the past by eliciting knowledge from learners, responding to what learners say and describing significant aspects of shared experience:

• Literal recap: Recounting past events.

• Reconstructive recap: Aligning accounts of the past with current pedagogic concerns.

• Elicitation: Prompting the recall of relevant information.

• Repetition: Repeating responses in an evaluative fashion

• Reformulation: Presenting responses in a clearer form.

• Exhortation: Asking others to recall relevant past experiences.

Affordances of asynchronous dialogue

--- Page 63 ---

Asynchronous dialogue is distinct from other forms of communication not only because of its textual nature but also because of its unique chronology.

--- Page 69 ---

Researchers studying online learning have identified a variety of relevant affordances of asynchronous dialogue. These can be broadly classified in three groups: affordances of the technology, affordances of the medium and affordances of the dialogue.

--- Page 70 ---

Asynchronous dialogue appears to provides the classic components of cooperation and collaboration – discussion, dialogue and community – without the traditional constraints of time and place.

Martini affordances' of the technology – any time, any place, anywhere

--- Page 71 ---

Learners and educators may use a variety of technologies to encounter each other face to face or online

[Unlike face to face dialogue, online there is always a transcript of the dialogue] that can be consulted, edited and reworked

The dialogue can contain hyperlinks to other resources and dialogue, and may also have documents, pictures, sound files or videos attached to it.

Other affordances of the medium include the ability to link messages through threading

The time commitment is minimal as all of these forums use conventions that are common across online working spaces [ubiquitous in social media].

Students' asynchronous dialogue

--- Page 72 ---

Analysis of students' asynchronous dialogue (Blanchette, 2001) demonstrated that having time to consult sources and check references meant they were able to provide each other with very accurate information. Blanchette also observed that the learners in her study were more likely to ask questions, ask for clarification and seek feedback than those studied in a face-to-face environment.

When learners have time to deliberate, their responses are more likely to be focused and purposeful

--- Page 74 ---

Cooperation versus collaboration

Co-operation is a goal-centred activity (Panitz, 1996) in which different things are done by different actors in order to achieve their goal (Van Oers & Hännikäinen, 2001). It involves splitting work, solving sub-tasks individually and then assembling the partial results to produce a final output. Because the majority of the work is done individually, this way of working makes limited use of the affordances of asynchronous dialogue.

Collaboration, on the other hand, involves partners carrying out work together (Dillenbourg, 1999). It is a co-ordinated activity, the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem (Lipponen, 2002); an interaction in which participants are focused on co-ordinating shared meaning (Crook, 1999). It requires more than the effective division of labour that constitutes cooperative work. Participants must negotiate mutually shared or common knowledge in order to work together to solve a problem or perform a task together (Littleton & Häkkinen, 1999).

If learners are to make effective use of these affordances to support the co-construction of knowledge, they need appropriate skills and resources to engage effectively in online educational dialogue but may lack these if they have limited experience of online learning (Kreijns, et al., 2003). The importance of learning how to interact should not be underestimated.

Sticking to the point 

--- Page 83 ---

In face-to-face situations, learners modify their talk over time in relation to their context and their understanding of what they are doing. Because they use speech, which is ‘not simply perishable but essentially evanescent' (Ong, 1982, p32) they face the double challenge of pursuing a line of thought systematically and then preserving their understanding of what has been achieved. They employ discursive devices to overcome these challenges, shaping transient speech into shared knowledge (Mercer, 2000).

Discursive: of speech or writing, Tending to digress from the main point; rambling.

In an asynchronous setting, learners do not need to employ these devices [chit chat] to help them to remember what they have said or done, because they have access to the complete text of their past dialogue in the transcript automatically generated by the software (Kaye, 1989).

--- Page 85 ---

Argumentation, for example, can be described as ‘a reasoned debate between people, an extended conversation focusing on a specific theme which aims to establish “the truth” about some contentious issue' (Mercer, 2000, p96) and is thus task focused. Collaborative reasoning, which includes challenges, evidence and evaluation, is specifically a taught approach (Anderson, Chinn, Waggoner, & Nguyen, 1998). ‘Effective discourse' is also teacher led, being dependent on the educator to create a situation in which participants can ‘advance beliefs, challenge, defend, explain, assess evidence and judge arguments (Mezirow, 1997, p10). Accountable talk is similar, including elements such as listening, clarification, extension and elaboration (Michaels, et al., 2008; Resnick & Helquist, 1999)

Kinds of talk... 

--- Page 86 ---

Disputational, cumulative and exploratory talk in the classroom have the advantage that they not only deal with the productive interaction that helps the group to extend its understanding and to achieve its goals, but they also deal with the unproductive interaction that makes a group less likely to achieve its goals

These social modes of thinking are therefore referred to as cumulative, disputational and exploratory dialogue, rather than talk, because their characteristic elements can be observed both online and offline.

--- Page 87 ---

Disputation should not be confused with argumentation, in which conflicting views are presented, sometimes forcefully, but the intention is to reach a resolution

Cumulative dialogue is much more constructive. In cumulative exchanges control is shared. Speakers build on each other's contributions, adding their own information and constructing a body of shared knowledge and understanding, but they do not challenge or criticise each other's views.

--- Page 88 ---

Exploratory dialogue is the type considered most educationally desirable by teachers (Wegerif, 2008b). Learners who engage in exploratory dialogue constantly negotiate control, engaging with each other's ideas both critically and constructively

Exploratory talk, by incorporating both conflicting perspectives and the open sharing of ideas, represents the more visible pursuit of rational consensus through conversations. It is a speech situation in which everyone is free to express their views and in which the most reasonable views gain acceptance.

--- Page 89 ---

They are working to develop ‘a new understanding that everyone involved agrees is superior to their own previous understanding.

Conflict between learners is not necessarily unproductive because the challenges and counter-challenges of socio-cognitive conflict are important for the development of knowledge. Exploratory dialogue is likely to involve the confrontation of different approaches in socio-cognitive conflict. Such conflict may result in different views being coordinated to form a new approach, more complex and better adapted to solving the problem (Doise, 1985). In such cases, conflict and difference between individuals are brought into productive play to support learning

Improvable objects [Ongoingatives]

--- Page 93 ---

The improvable object is an analytical construct that was developed to help explain how learners are able to develop ideas over time. It is associated with the use of ‘progressive discourse'

Progressive discourse is associated with the sustained development of improvable objects over time (Wells, 1999). They also need to be able to identify, augment and maintain common ground as their work progresses (Baker, et al., 1999) and improvable objects offer a way of achieving this.

Resources available to groups can be characterised as improvable objects if they meet certain criteria (Wells, 1999). They must be knowledge artefacts that participants work collaboratively to improve because they involve a problem that requires discussion. They must act as a focus for the application of information and experience by the group. Unlike many assessed assignments, an improvable object must provide a means to an end, rather than being an end in itself. Finally, an improvable object must be both the inspiration and the focus for progressive discourse.

The key elements of improvable objects – a problem that provides as a means to an end, inspires progressive discourse and acts as a focus for the application of experience and information – can therefore all be assembled in asynchronous settings to support the shared construction of knowledge.

Improvable objects are dynamic representations of a changing situation.

Improvable objects are more akin to the rough drafts that Vygotsky (1987b) described as a powerful means of reflecting on work. Not only do they support the development of understanding by groups of learners, but they are also developed as part of that progress. They are a means of sharing and building ideas over time; sites not only for the display and comparison of different understandings but also for their manipulation and development.

Learning is fundamentally social in nature, and that knowledge is not a static entity, but is co-constructed by learners with the help of meaning-making tools.

--- Page 242 ---

Postings that are taken up, quoted and re-quoted, commented on and reposted come particularly close to being improvable objects.

--- Page 267 ---

The text-based nature of dialogue supports collation of work and also the direct and detailed comparison of different understandings.

--- Page 300 ---

An important role of the tutor is therefore as a discourse guide (Littleton & Whitelock, 2004) who, by modelling skills and behaviours, can help students to develop appropriate ways of talking, writing and thinking in an asynchronous group environment. Wertsch speculates that the skills called for by online environments will ‘have a major impact on how we define success, intelligence, and other aspects of human functioning in the years ahead' (Wertsch, 2003, p903). If such skills are not identified, modelled, or explicitly taught, learners will find it difficult to make effective use of them.

--- Page 304 ---

Improvable objects allow learners to regain an important element of online study: time independence. Online learning is commonly assumed to allow students freedom to choose when they work.

--- Page 317 ---

Asynchronous dialogue can be far more detailed and complex than face-to-face talk, that to groups of learners offers affordances that are not available in face-to-face situations. [...] 

... prompting groups of learners to share knowledge, challenge ideas, justify opinions, evaluate evidence and consider options in a reasoned and equitable way. 

... increasing understanding of the skills and meaning-making tools that support the shared construction of knowledge.

Advice from a Teacher 

One of our Grade 5 teachers, Hugh Pollard, is a bit of an expert at this, he has kindly offered this advice:

"I have learned one or two things since the sites were established which is that the student interactions are miles better, if I come in early with a response/conversation extender for each child. After that, the thread develops mostly in a sensible and interesting way. If I even wait a day, then I've missed the chance to make the conversation deeper or more critical or more concept related, and the subsequent student comments can be a bit random. Also, you'll notice I try and push for a response back by asking questions, otherwise I'm unsure if they've even bothered to read me. 
There's one week when these things live and flourish and then they die off, naturally."

Ferguson, Rebecca (2009). The Construction of Shared Knowledge through Asynchronous Dialogue. PhD thesis, The Open University.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Technology, IT & ICT vs Digital Literacy

It's a constant frustration for me, the way the terms 'technology' 'IT' and "ICT' are all used interchangeably as if they all mean the same thing—they don't.

Why does it matter? That's what this post is all about.

This is IT - A focus on the function of the machine 

This is ICT - A focus on using the machine 

I'm a DLC, a 'Digital Literacy Coach', I'm not an IT (Information Technology) Teacher, I'm not even an ICT  (Information Communication Technology) teacher, but this post is not about what I do, I've written about that here. No, this post is about why distinguishing between these is essential if we are serious about integrating digital technologies effectively and meaningfully into educational contexts.

Let's just clear this up at the outset, here's the difference:

Information Technology (IT) is a focus on the machines, the hardware, and the code that enables these machines to be controlled effectively, this the computing, the Computer Science, the electronic engineering, the coding, without which nothing that we call ICT or Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) would be possible.* 

Information Communication Technology (ICT) is a focus on the use of these machines to communicate with each other, communicating with ordinary people who are not skilled in IT, people like you and me. ICT refers to technologies that provide access to information through telecommunications. It is similar to Information Technology (IT), but focuses primarily on the kinds of communication technologies powerfully exemplified by the SAMMS framework. Communications mediums that provide situated, unprecedented access to tools that are multimodal, mutable and socially networked.

Digital literacy—Where do you want to go today?
I find a car analogy helpful in explaining this:

IT is a focus on the machine, the automobile— designing them, making them, fixing them, maintaining them.

ICT is learning how to drive the car, the driving instructor is the ICT teacher, and while this is a part of the role of someone like me, a 'Digital Literacy Coach' that's not at the heart of it. Why? Because it's still focused on the act of driving the car as an end in and of itself, what DLCs and all educators should be more interested in is, great, now you can drive - where do you want to go? On a vacation? To work? To school, college? The possibilities are endless, and with all/most of them, the technology is merely a (transformative) means to an end.

IT: Automotive engineering
ICT: Driving instruction/education
Digital Literacy: ROAD TRIP!

Technology Terminology

It is clear from the literature that many terms abound within this arena of learning, from the ubiquitous but ambiguous ‘technology’ to ‘21st Century Learning’ – used in a way where the term is assumed to bring with it an ‘obvious’ digital context, ie, the use of computers.

The term ‘technology’ is a particularly broad and ill-defined one (Ohler, 1999). Currently it is most often used as shortening of the full term, ’digital technologies’ ‘computer technologies’ or ‘ICT’, although of course it can mean, in theory, any application of human knowledge to solve practical problems. My Apple dictionary defines it simply as,

“the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” 


The word technology itself derives from the word 'techno', meaning "art, craft, skill," later "technical, technology," from Latinized form of Greek tekhno-, combining form of tekhne "art, skill, craft in work; method, system, an art, a system or method of making or doing," (etymonline)

As such it includes not only mechanical artefacts, but also procedures and practices. Even when technology is interpreted as only mechanical objects, the range of objects is almost inexhaustible: from simple things such as an overhead projector, to a pencil, and consequentially, to more complex systems such as the computer and of course, the Internet.

Even when we further narrow our definition of 'technology' down to the computer, we are should still be thinking about these in terms of 'art, craft, skill, making, doing', even then the list of things teachers need to know and do, using these technologies is still a challenging one. So it transpires that the issue of technology as a barrier is not new. Far from it, clearly, teachers have wrestled with technologies since time out of mind, although the ‘wrestling’ was generally more of that involving the need to sharpen pencils, or replace the ink in a pen – a dichotomy Mishra and Koehler (2006) approach by separating them into two distinct, but obviously related categories; namely, ‘standard’ technologies, “such as books, chalk and blackboard”, and more ‘advanced’ technologies, “such as the Internet and digital video (p1027)”. So the problem then is more one of the rate of change than the actual use of technologies in teaching. As Mishra et al explain:

“… the rapid rate of evolution of these new digital technologies prevents them from becoming ‘transparent’ any time soon. Teachers will have to do more than simply learn to use currently available tools; they also will have to learn new techniques and skills as current technologies become obsolete (ibid, p 1023).”

A point endorsed by Cuban (2001) noting out that teachers’ definition of ‘technology’ is very selective, as since the 19th century, chalk and blackboard, pens, pencils, and textbooks have proven themselves over and over again to be reliable and useful classroom technologies.

“Teachers added other innovations such as the overhead projector, the ditto machine (later the copying machine), and film projector (later the VCR) because they too proved reliable and useful. But most teachers continue to see the computer as an add-on rather than as a technology integral to their classroom content and instruction. (p163; my emphasis).

But, and it's a big but. 

It is that ‘But’ that is at the heart of many barriers to integration.

‘Digital’ literacies and ‘multiliteracies’

The concept of digital literacies is fascinating both in its definition and its application. The term captures an arena of rapidly developing practices, as humans interact with technologies in new ways and for innovative purposes. The exponentially expanding ‘digital world’ of the latter part of the 20th Century and the early 21st Century are creating new opportunities for people to grapple with social norms, explore interests, develop technical skills, and experiment with new forms of self-expression. 

By exploring new interests, tinkering, and ‘messing around’ with these new kinds of media, we acquire various forms of technical and media literacy. Through trial and error, we add new media skills to our repertoire, (Ito et al, 2008). Within my own context, the term ‘Digital Literacy’ has been adopted as a replacement for what used to be referred to as ‘IT’. The assumption being that it fulfils the previous terms, and somehow implies something greater, more meaningful. The reality is all that has happened in most cases is the term has been misappropriated as meaning the same thing, which it does not. When Paul Gilster (1997) coined this term it is highly doubtful that he never intended for this term to be used in this way, what he was doing was introducing a term that very powerfully distinguished between the defining of a ‘thing’ to the more important business of using it. 

Move the conversation on from the mechanics and on into the potential of it to make meaning.

“The concept of literacy goes beyond simply being able to read; it has always meant the ability to read with meaning, and to understand. It is the fundamental act of cognition. Digital literacy likewise extends the boundaries of definition.” (p2)

Of course since then others have attempted their own definitions, “digital literacy means knowing how technology and media affect the ways in which we go about finding things out, communicating with one another, and gaining knowledge and understanding” (Hague and Williamson, 2009) or “Digital Literacies are an enabling skill allowing for a broader range of learning interactions, using a greater range of tools, which then offers the possibility of a wider range of traceable meanings to be made in society.” (Technology Enhanced Learning phase of the Teaching and Learning Research Programme). 

What they invariably have in common is a shift in focus from the machines (IT) to their potential as tools for making meaning (Digital Literacy).


Literacy’ is a powerful concept to centre this focus. The widespread struggle among educators, parents, researchers and policy makers to conceptualise what it is (young) people “know” or need to know when using digital technologies, and by extension, the Internet, is usefully resolved by conceptualising this knowledge in terms of literacy. Unfortunately this also broadens the argument into a debate over the nature of literacy, which in turn leads us to a deeper question, which literacies are encompassed by this term? Livingstone (2008) alone includes print literacy, audiovisual and media literacies, information literacy, advertising literacy, cyberliteracy, games literacy, critical literacy, and many more. So it is that these ‘multiliteracies’ (Gillen & Barton, 2010) generally refer to the multitude of forms of literacy made possible by the phenomenal pace of IT development. 

Digital Literacies

The term "digital literacies" itself is relatively new within the field of literacy studies. Its definition remains open, but human judgment, or criticality, is assumed in most understandings of digital literacies and at the centre of the concept of ‘multiliteracies’.

Howard Rheingold (2012) has argued that we must actively cultivate skills such as mindfulness and “crap detection” that are central to these new realities of the digital and networked world, or more commonly referred to as ‘critical thinking’. In an online world awash with knowledge/opinion with the border often blurred between the two – critical thinking is essential, the ability to literally critique content, to extricate one from the other, knowledge/opinion, fact/fiction/feeling. 

What is clear is that these ‘digital’ literacies are in a deep and profound sense new literacies, not merely the traditional concept of literacy – reading and writing – carried on in new media. (Kress, 2010)

Accompanying the plurality of these digital literacies, we find a range of terms used by different researchers when extricating one from from another, including but not limited to; internet literacies, digital literacies, new media literacies, multiliteracies, information literacy, ICT literacies, and computer literacies. Coiro, et al (2008) notes that all these terms “are used to refer to phenomena we would see as falling broadly under a new literacies umbrella” (p10).

These literacies need a unifying context, such as the notion of the learner in the 21st Century and digital literacies: Rheingold describes digital literacies in terms of, 'civil engagement in the Digital Age', what he calls ‘21st century literacies’ (Rheingold 2009), as requiring “attention, participation, cooperation, critical consumption, and network awareness.” Rheingold and Ito et al (2008; 2013) see this kind of learning as situated within the participatory online culture of 21st Century.

We find ourselves with a powerfully unifying focus, so let's stop talking about technology and talk about literacy—whether that is linguistic, numeric, or digital, these are now the modes by which we learn everything else, it is, all of it, in the service of making and refining meaning.

* Interesting to note that as of September 2013, the term "ICT" in the UK National Curriculum, where it originated, has been replaced by the broader term "computing", I would imagine this is in order to mitigate the current confusion, and emphasise its computer science 'coding' credentials, as opposed to its capacity for communication. 

Top Trumps Maths - G4

4RWr have been studying Place Value in Maths lessons in recent weeks. To change the focus whilst still consolidating the work the teacher, in collaboration with the DLC, created a lesson involving the use of Top Trumps cards and spreadsheets.

Finding authentic ways to integrate the use of technology is an important focus within the college and using spreadsheets within a Maths lesson makes perfect sense.

[...] the use of spreadsheets would enable students to play a more active role in their own learning process and would encourage creativity and autonomy. Especially when working with underachieving students, the models can be adapted to fit their particular interests.
“K-12 Teachers' Use of a Spreadsheet for Mathematical Modeling and Problem Solving," Sharon Dugdale 1994

Rachel Wright, class teacher, sets the context of the lesson.
‘In Maths Grade 4 has been studying the place value system and looking at the position of digits in a number to determine its value. In the standard system, called base ten, each place represents ten times the value of the place to its right. We started to investigate what happens to numbers when we multiply them by 10, 100, 1000, 10, 000 and even 100, 000.’

The class began with a shared spreadsheet using Google Sheets where students were able to collaborate to create a collection of data. This data came from Top Trumps cards that were given to each student. Rachel gave consideration to which Top Trumps cards to use to ensure that the numbers were appropriate to the needs of the individual students. Each student chose one category on their card e.g. price, diameter, strength, weight and put it into a Google spreadsheet. This enabled the students to organise the data using the filters in the spreadsheet, which helped them to think about what questions to ask each other linked to Place Value. For example, which category is 26 x 1000? By organising the data it was easier to find and think of good questions to test their Maths partner.

The children then added columns and started started to investigate what happens to numbers when they were multiplied by 10, 100, 1000 and 10, 000.

Rachel is planning on asking the students to return to this spreadsheet during their upcoming unit on Multiplication and Division. “Next time we will go a step further with the Google spreadsheet and learn the formula to help multiply and also divide by 10, 100 etc rather than working to out in our heads. This way they can start working with really big numbers.”