Why the deterministic view of EdTech is wrong: Affordance is the key

I always take a global view on EdTech, and hence read a lot about what's happening in the US and in particular in the K-12 arena. This morning it was some new guidance related to EdTech research, and the challenge that ESSA - the Every Student Succeeds Act - has laid out for companies who offer EdTech products and services (disclaimer - like mine!). The bottom line is that they've outlined four different levels of evidence that providers should be exploring to support their offerings, with the strongest evidence receiving the best funding. Makes a lot of sense, and I'm glad to see that they appreciate that evidence is not just black and white, but comes in different standards.

That said though, I still think this smacks of a deterministic approach to EdTech procurement for schools. By that I mean that this kind of view of EdTech suggests that it can have an effect on practice regardless of context, that it is independently deterministic - the EdTech will determine what happens when it is applied to a scenario, regardless of what that scenario is.
"... a deterministic system is a system in which no randomness is involved in the development of future states of the system. A deterministic model will thus always produce the same output from a given starting condition or initial state."

I guess this is deep in our nature, we're always searching for the things in our lives which don't change when we experience them, i.e. what's invariant in the world. We like predictability, we want to know before we're tried something that it's actually going to work as we expect it too. But what if that doesn't work in EdTech research? What if we need a different approach, one which places context as important as the EdTech itself? What about a relativistic approach?

That is exactly the argument that I explored in my own doctoral research, as the evidence I gathered then suggested that making EdTech effective in practice was a relativistic problem, i.e. it was a problem that existed between an educator, the EdTech and their students. It was the alignment of the needs of educators and the affordances of a specific EdTech that mattered - EdTech couldn't have an effect independently of an educator and their individual context, as teaching is a very personal and dynamic affair based on individual contexts. The deterministic model of EdTech fails because too many components of the education system - teachers, students, etc. - are massively variable between contexts, so it's impossible to accurately predict how the EdTech will impact in each and every case.

People argue that the RCT - the randomised control trial - is the gold standard, and I admit that I too was once enamored with this approach as I come from a very scientific and quantitative background. But as I've learned more about qualitative research techniques I've come to appreciate their value, especially in education. The strength of the RCT is in fields such as medicine, where new drugs are trialed and evaluated. but the big difference here - the crucial difference that most people miss - is that in these trials the contexts are the same. You don't trial a new cancer drug on patients with knee injuries, neither do you test new cognitive therapies on people with hernias. The contexts for these trials are kept constant in order to accurately predict efficacy in these contexts for those interventions. In education keeping contexts the same is nigh on impossible - and even when we do manage this well, the dreaded issue of transferability appears, i.e. often all we end up doing is proving that something works, but only in a very specific set of circumstances. The conclusions are not transferable to other contexts.

I strongly believe now that the concept of affordance is the way forward, as this is a relativistic concept, i.e. it exists between an educator and a specific EdTech. Neither the EdTech not the educator is taken as a given, but meaning and value arises between them. There's a problem though; affordance in it's most popular form - that of 'interaction possibilities' - doesn't work. My new definition of affordance as 'transaction possibilities' opens up the concept, and at the same time brings it back to where I believe Gibson originally intended it to be - as nothing less than the prime way in which humans derive meaning in their worlds. It's at the core of meaning, and hence should be at the core of teaching and learning. When we learn an affordance, i.e. what an object, person or place actually provides for us, what sort of transactions we can expect from interactions with that object, person or place, then we have truly discovered meaning.
"When understood as transaction possibilities, affordance becomes a hypothesis for the consequences of action, tested in everyday experience, and a potential hinge on which learning is predicated."
Osborne (2015)

My research suggested that trying to find a definitive answer for precisely what effect a specific EdTech will have in the classroom is like trying to find the end of the rainbow. It's intangible; you're always going to get tripped up by flexibility in contexts or by the challenge of transferability. By backing off, and taking a slightly more 'fuzzy' view - or what I refer to as an ecological approach, an approach that appreciates the variability of contexts - you're much more likely to discover the true value of EdTech to you as an individual. Affordance is the key.

Like to know more? The tools and techniques I developed based on these ideas can help educators explore their own practice, and reveal their strengths and weaknesses when it comes to integrating EdTech into their teaching and learning. By following my design process the affordance of specific EdTech tools emerges, and - lightbulb moment! - you get the meaning, the value that something can provide for you. Next step - improved learning outcomes for your students :-)
Try these 3 steps to discover the affordance of EdTech in your context:
  1. Complete the free Technological Pedagogical Knowledge Quiz to get a personal measure of your EdTech expertise. 
  2. Plot the results of the TPK Quiz on a TPK Model (email me and I'll send you one you can print off) to visualise your personal diagnostic.
  3. Use the free online version of the Tech Trumps® to find an EdTech tool that matches your needs.


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