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Recognising and making the difference

Teacher, educational technologist, blogger, consultant, father and keynote speaker at ULearn07. INTERFACE quizzes Ewan McIntosh about having the knack to spot when technology might add something to the classroom.

In the early part of his teaching career, Ewan McIntosh “unashamedly” admits to using the “fireworks that technology could offer me”.
“My first schools were in some of the toughest areas of Glasgow, in Scotland, and trying to teach French and German to children who had no intention of ever going abroad wasn’t easy,” he said.

However, fast forward a few years and he’s become convinced of technology’s potential for making learning not just fun but also deeper, broader and more reflective.

“I come from a bit of an old-fashioned town on the Clyde. Making it to Edinburgh to study was a big deal. Moving to France to study and work was life-changing. It took me 19 years to do those three mind-stretching, horizon-expanding things. Today, a youngster starting from scratch can have the same reach, the same contacts and similar experiences both online and in person.

“This is not geeky and techie. This is about human interaction, understanding others, being empathetic to the way others do things. In fact, it’s about the very things we wish we could teach our children better.

“That’s what excites me. That’s what technology can achieve. If people are blocking this progress in education it’s almost criminal.”

Technology, however, clearly poses a professional dilemma for someone like McIntosh.

“As an educational technologist, I guess I’ve got a particular knack for spotting what might add something and what probably will not add anything when using a technology and teaching approach in the classroom.

“Sometimes I’m left thinking that large swathes of those in charge of ICT deployment are just keen on using the latest ‘fun’ tool. You don’t see that many blogs written by doctors talking about how sharp a scalpel is. Why do so many educational technology blogs, and their authors, talk almost exclusively about tools like blogs, podcasts, wikis and the like without considering what it’s adding? I’m not talking about “how it could be used” or “what does a classroom using this look like”. I’m talking about the pedagogical backbone that, without this technology, is suffering from unwieldiness, inefficiencies or just sheer impracticality.”

One perceived ‘challenge’ to the use of ICT that gets short shrift from (and hasn’t stopped) this canny Scotsman is money.

“Nearly every tool that I will be talking about at ULearn is free and I did it in my classroom with one desktop PC and a dodgy Internet connection, so let’s just get rid of the money issue at the moment,” he said.

Talk of time, or the lack of, doesn’t impress him, either.

“Time is cited as the main reason things fail to move forward in schools, especially regarding technology. The thing is we all have the same amount of time on our hands, we just choose to spend it differently.

“I do not, contrary to popular belief, spend 16 hours a day rooted to the computer. I work a good eight hours a day, normally cramming it all into four days and taking the fifth afternoon off with my family. Yet, I could argue that I do a lot more with technology to learn better, than some teachers do, while maintaining an equal or better understanding of the classroom.”

How?

“Because I regularly invest a little of my own time (about an hour a week) just looking for ways to get my inbox to zero, my blog reading up-to-date, the shopping ordered online, the phone calls made. It’s time well spent, freeing up more time to do fun stuff.”

For anyone who says they don’t have time, McIntosh recommends the book Getting Things Done by David Allen.

“Read it, do it and enjoy.”

Having graduated in 1999 from the University of Edinburgh with a Languages and European Union Studies MA, McIntosh admits he didn’t know what he wanted to do.

“I had applied to be an investment banker and failed. So, I went to work that year in the Université de Rouen, Normandy, as a language assistant, followed by a year in Paris, teaching English to business people to pay the bills. I spent a year getting fit, I went to England each month to attempt a career in the Army. I met my wife in France, though.”

These successes, failures and the “good serendipitous things” that came out of them have helped to form some of McIntosh’s attitudes to teaching and learning: we will fail; we will learn from it, among them. It was while working as a French and German teacher in Musselburgh Grammar School, that he started using blogs on field trips to keep in touch with the “folk back home”.

“It was the first time a UK school had used blogs in this way, with entirely open comments. We ended up with about 7,500 visitors in five days and nearly 400 comments. We also made the first podcast from a secondary school in the UK. We even did one from the top of the Eiffel Tower.”

His efforts were noticed and he was offered the chance to lead a national languages professional development programme.

“It was an online project, quite ambitious and I was keen to move it into production. I got the job, partially because I was talking about things few people had heard of before, like blogs, and, two years on, it is one of the most successful websites run by Learning and Teaching Scotland. It’s got a great wee online community, supporting languages teachers across all our islands and remote areas, as well as our cities.”

For more on the project – which has just been short-listed for the UK eLearning Awards – see http://www.LTScotland.org.uk/mfle.

McIntosh is a keynote speaker at this year’s ULearn conference. Entitled The Leading Edge: Harnessing New Technologies In An Ever Changing World, his presentation will look at how to keep track of the latest technology and work out whether or not it’s useful for learning.

“For two years, I’ve been finding out how to harness the latest technology that lends the biggest impact on improving teaching and learning for Scotland’s national education agency, Learning and Teaching Scotland.”

As for keeping up to speed himself…

“I read, read, read, comment, comment, comment, write, write, write. “An expert knows a lot about an increasingly narrow field. I’m a jack of many trades and, in this age of exponential technology growth and new teaching and learning patterns, my spectrum is only getting broader. Maybe I’m the anti-expert!

“I read a lot of highly current material about social media and gaming in education, more than your average person chooses to. It runs to about 860 blog feeds a day, as well as most of the top selling books on social media in organisations, and about 100 research papers a year. This means that I can spot what is going to last, what’s a fad, and what’s going to add something to our work as teachers.

“Through my blog I’m able to bring this together – I’ve got a good memory for ‘stuff’ and use my online bookmarks religiously. They’re open for everyone, so people can read my blog and follow my bookmarks to get the best of the bunch.”

If you’re reading this and feeling enthused to do more with ICT but don’t where to start – and can’t quite face 860 blog feeds a day!…

McIntosh offers some simple advice.

“Go to a big conference and listen to some folk telling their stories. Pick one thing you quite fancy doing before the end of the first day and then grab that speaker over a beer in the evening. By the following day you’ll be ready to tackle the second thing you’ll do later in the year. If you can’t get to the conferences, or if you want to spend more time learning, pick three or four blogs recommended to you by, well, someone like me.

“Leave comments on the things you’re interested in. When you’re trying to work it out at the end of a school day weeks later, these bloggers will be the ones you call on Skype and ask for help.”

And the sooner, the better, believes McIntosh. There’s no denying that technology isn’t going to go away anytime soon – if anything, it’s only going to get bigger… and better.

“The future’s bright. It’ll be easier – but only after it’s been harder for a bit. It’ll be more fun. It’s going to bring sparkles to the eyes of kids you thought were flat. It’s going to make the students you thought had pushed to their limit go that little bit further.

“We will all hit dips, very regularly, where things just won’t work, get blocked or aren’t understood by people in the hierarchy (who really should understand). The future will be all the things I’ve said, but persistence and ingenuity are the two qualities that will make the difference between those who miss and those who hit.”

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About Ewan McIntosh

Ewan McIntosh is an educational technologist and a French and German teacher. Based in the Edinburgh area, he frequently gives talks and workshops about finding new and better ways of using emerging technologies in education. He consults for various groups, including the BBC, British Council, and the General Teaching Council of Scotland, and has recently been promoted to National Adviser: Learning and Technology Futures at Learning and Teaching Scotland.

You can read his blog at: http://edu.blogs.com

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