Opening the “black box” of institutional failure to fully embrace the affordances of technology (#change11)

[Image retrieved from, 15 February 2012]

In the unfortunate event of a plane crash, almost as important as finding any survivors is the search for the flight recorder or “black box” – which will hopefully provide insight into the decisions and actions preceding the crash.  Interestingly, most of the pictures I found of “black boxes” were actually red… and all of them had warnings printed on them – “Do not open”.

There are increasing concerns that despite the availability of many technologies, teaching and learning practices have remained fairly intact. There are also many examples of fairly spectacular and costly “crashes” where institutional initiatives to mainstream the use of technology have failed dismally.

So what is the problem?  While many institutions keep their “black boxes” guarded, the work by Reeves in this week’s MOOC provides us some glimpses of possible reasons…

In this week’s change.mooc session, Thomas C Reeves questions a number of our assumptions about the use and effective use of technology in education. He suggests that the emphasis on mainstreaming the use of technology in education mostly starts “with a solution rather than a problem”. He refers to the work by Ertmer (2005) who suggests that “many teachers simply do not believe that today’s digital technologies will be any more effective than previous educational technologies promoted as solutions to educational problems”. Reeves then continues to state that we “must stop throwing educational technologies over the classroom walls and expect real change”.


I followed up on the suggested reading provided and found the article by Ertmer (2005) a powerful contribution to our understanding of why throwing technologies at educators and students alike does not affect change. Ertmer (2005) in her article “Teacher pedagogical beliefs: the final frontier in our quest for technology integration”( ETR&D 53, 4: 25-39) juxtaposes the availability of educational technologies with the worrying lack of pedagogical transformation. If I understand Ertmer (2005) correctly; it would seem as if our professional development programmes and strategic initiatives to mainstream the use of technology disregard the entrenched values and beliefs of educators about the use of technology. Our efforts to mainstream the use of technology in teaching and learning often  result in shallow, surface-deep change without affecting deep and lasting pedagogical change. The reason, according to Ertmer (2005), is found in the fact that we opt for easy and fast wins with grand and institution-wide initiatives forgetting that educator beliefs about the use of technology are messy and deeply seated constructs that are not easily changed.

I particularly like Ertmer’s exploration of the “links between beliefs and practice” (2005:28-29) in which she makes the case that teachers’ practices flow from their belief systems (which are often intimately linked to their assumptions and beliefs about their identities). Therefore, while most educators know about the benefits of the effective use of technology; their (dis)beliefs keep them from transferring their knowledge into practice. Often, and this is interesting, educators don’t change their practice despite their knowledge and beliefs due to circumstances.  [This reminds me of research on why HIV/Aids prevention strategies often don’t work when what people know about HIV and how to prevent infection (e.g. safe sex) is short-circuited in certain contexts by more important (even though short-sighted) motivating factors].

Ertmer (2005:29) dramatically states that “beliefs are unlikely to be affected by persuasion”. Tell that to all the masters of grand designs for institutional change. But all is not lost… For educators and institutions to “buy into” a different set of beliefs and practices about the use of technology, Ertmer (2005:30-36) provides crucial pointers on how beliefs are formed and changed.

Crucial in any project aimed at changing the beliefs of educators regarding the potential and use of technology is to “require them to make their pre-existing personal beliefs explicit; … challenge the adequacy of those beliefs; and … give novices extended opportunities to examine, elaborate, and integrate new information into their existing belief systems” (Kagan quoted by Ertmer 2005:32). Ertmer (2005:32) proposes that any change that does not start from a change in the belief systems of educators will be shallow, superficial and short-lived.

Interestingly, while changed practices result from changed beliefs; beliefs often change because of personal experience. Therefore, “change in beliefs follows, rather than precedes practice, and that by helping teachers adopt new practices that are successful, the associated beliefs will also change” (Ertmer 2005:32; emphasis added). Whenever educators are however forced to adopt technologies, they often resist adopting technology altogether (Ertmer 2005:33) or adopt technologies without changing their pedagogies.

Ertmer (2005) therefore proposes a three-pronged strategy to the institutionalisation of the use of technology by creating spaces where educators can

  • personally experience the benefits of technology
  • observe good practices and meet with role models
  • be part of communities of practice

I really enjoyed Reeves’ introduction and his reference to the work of Ertmer (2005). Not only does Ertmer (2005) question the assumptions on which many of our institutional change strategies are based; but she points to the role and content of the “black box” of educator and institutional beliefs.

If we do not take the content and function of our institutional and educators’ “black boxes” seriously we will keep throwing technology over the classroom walls and think that it will make a difference.

It won’t.


About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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