The mind behind harnessing technology for learning

Steve Wheeler is a Learning Innovations Consultant and former Associate Professor of Learning Technologies at the Plymouth Institute of Education. Here I interview the global educator, author, edublogger, and disrupter activist whose work on technology-enabled learning attracts millions of followers.

You have a rich career path Steve, from artist and musician, psychologist and lecturer, to global author and international speaker, which of your experiences has most influenced your ‘thinking’ on ‘learning’?

Being a student. My personal experience of school shaped my opinions on what makes a good and bad education. I can recall many bad experiences at the hands of teachers who really shouldn’t have been teaching, vowing I would never replicate those practices with my own students. I also remember some excellent teachers, aspiring to model their caring and supportive practice. The very best teachers were also liberal in their approach to education, and willing to go the extra mile. I hope my own students will remember me as someone who listens, supports, challenges and facilitates, rather than someone who limits, contains and insists.

Given your creative passions and talent, what’s your position on the role of music and art in a technology-enhanced learning space?

Music, art and design have always played an important role in my life. There are amazing opportunities to use them to enhance and enrich learning experiences. I have incorporated music into many of my YouTube videos and teaching sessions. I’m quite particular about the design and layout of my resources and web-content, selecting evocative images. Most importantly, the ethos behind music and art is creativity, and this should take a central role in all forms of learning. They are powerful means to connect our physical and emotional and spiritual experiences.

You draw from a number of educational/learning theorists, who has had the most influence on your learning design?

I would choose Paulo Freire, Carl Rogers, Ivan Illich, John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky. Together, they have encapsulated all I hold dear in a socially-centred, constructivist and democratic approach to education.

A global expert in e-learning, who do you look to for inspiration Steve?

My late mother Ruth, who passed earlier this year, inspired me, through her tenacity, resilience and ability to succeed in just about everything she turned her hand to. I like to think I have inherited those genes. I am stirred by the courage and intrepid nature of the Apollo astronauts, and often reflect that my own explorations of education and technology were inspired by their endeavours. I’m also influenced by great musicians and artists, who are inventive and colourful in their interpretation of life. An eclectic and incomprehensive list would include Paul McCartney, Petula Clark, W. A. Mozart, Frida Kahlo, Peter Gabriel, Phil Keaggy, J. M. W. Turner, Claude Monet, Joe Bonamassa, Stefani Germanotta and JackVetriano.

Which country do you consider to be leading the way for the Future of Education?

I have visited many countries throughout my professional career, every country has its own merits, strengths and weaknesses. This is why I believe systems that categorise countries into league table positions such as PISA are badly conceived, and damage education. They don’t tell the whole story, but privilege specific subject areas above others. We can all learn from each other, if we only had the time and the will to listen.

You are author of best-selling books, hundreds of scholarly articles, and a prolific edublogger. Which of these has attracted the most interest/debate, and why?

My most cited peer-reviewed article (with almost 2000 academic citations to date) was one co-authored with two colleagues on the use of Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs, wikis and podcasts in medical education (Boulos et al,. 2006). My theory about its popularity is that it was one of the first articles on the subject, at a time when the participatory web was still emerging. I think it resonated with educators. It was something new that would grow exponentially, and we were fortunate enough to be there at the start – in the right place at the right time.

Other articles and papers attracting high interest are often controversial, such as the ‘Two Fingered Salute’ – my opening salvo in a personal learning environment ‘blog war’ that I conspired to write along with two colleagues ahead of an Association for Learning Technology Conference panel debate on VLEs. It was an oversubscribed session, and the discussions rumbled on for several weeks and spawned additional events and papers.

Some of my individual blog posts have attracted 50 or 60 thousand views, and numerous comments. It’s hard to put your finger on why some went viral, but often they tapped into the zeitgeist.

You have been vocal about the supremacy of human intelligence over the “machines”, but what would you recommend as the most effective educational strategy to hone the level of critical thinking skill required?

Read. Read. More reading, irrespective of format. Just read widely, intelligently and consistently. And as you read, keep asking yourself the questions that you need to ask to check the accuracy, truthfulness and provenance of what you’re reading. The what, how, when, where, who and most importantly, the why – are the questions you should continue to ask as you read. If you can develop these skills, you are half-way toward mastering some of the skills you will need to harness the power of critical thinking.

‘Google’ has unquestionably disrupted the education system in both positive and negative ways, what would you say to the die-hards who believe the ‘internet search engines’ have diluted our ability to think?

Google does have the potential to dilute our ability to think, but only if we let it. Instead, we should be using it (and other search engines) to amplify our experiences. For example, Google can be used as a calculator or as a means of identifying gaps in our knowledge. It can be used to narrow down searches so that irrelevant content is filtered out. The possibilities are endless, and we simply need to learn how to use it effectively so we can learn in new ways. Teachers are very good at inventing new methods and pedagogies that exploit the technology of the day. There are some wonderful ideas about how to use search engines effectively out there on the edu-web. Go find them (using Google).

What, if anything about ‘technology’ frustrates you?

I get annoyed when certain educators claim that technology is ineffective, or even dangerous. Of course it can be if it’s used badly or inappropriately. But technology, in the correct context, as an enhancement rather than a replacement, is incredibly powerful, supporting learning in all its modes and possibilities. For students with physical disabilities and learning problems, technology actually enables learning. Without adaptive technology, some students wouldn’t stand a chance.

Big changes are afoot in a number of national curriculum, do you think enough is being done in the formal education sector in the UK to prepare younger learners (primary and secondary) for the future?

It doesn’t matter how good a curriculum is, if the dominant culture militates against it. Too much time is spent in schools preparing students to take tests. Testing in schools is rife, and focused on school positioning in league tables rather than preparing students for their future. For staff and students alike it’s stressful, time-consuming and often unnecessary. Testing is not the only valid form of assessment. School systems that direct teachers to spend hours each week preparing students to pass tests, do so to the detriment of other learning that could better prepare students for uncertainty, rapid change and technologically rich work spaces.

You’ve been explicit that educators need to continuously upskill alongside their learners Given the funding challenges faced in the education system, how would you prescribe for effective educator professional development in the 4th industrial revolution?

I believe the ‘4th industrial revolution’ descriptor is an erroneous interpretation of where we are. There are no revolutions, industrial or otherwise. Instead we are witnessing what Stephen Jay Gould (and later Thomas Siebel) called ‘punctuated equilibrium’. It’s when periods of stasis are interrupted periodically by disruptive introduction of new ideas. This is more akin to evolution than revolution. As Brian Winston suggests, the disruption occurs because we are not prepared for the new idea, and there is chaos as we adjust to it.

I believe that the best thing teachers can do to prepare for these kinds of punctuations is to keep themselves informed of new developments and make connections with professionals who might already be using new technologies in practice. This is easily achieved if you have a personal learning network on social media or through a professional organisation. Find people who are doing new, potentially disruptive and even risky things – the ‘positive deviants’ – and learn from them.

Which social networks or platforms do believe to be requisite for today’s educator?

Every one you are able to use.

Thank you Steve for your insightful share on the influences and perspectives behind your contributions to the world on technology-enhanced learning. Before you go, if you were stranded on a Welsh Mountain, which record, book and luxury item would you take with you?

A Smartphone with full connectivity!

More from Steve
Extracts from Steve’s books and articles:
The influential Learning with ‘e’s blog:

Boulos, M.N.K, Maramba, I. & Wheeler, S. (2006) ‘Wikis, blogs and podcasts: a new generation of Web-based tools for virtual collaborative clinical practice and education, BMC Medical Education, 6 41 pp. 1-15.

4 Replies to “The mind behind harnessing technology for learning”

  1. Thanks to Steve for sharing this blog on his incredible blog.

    Steve’s comments are:

    “Apparently I’m an emergent thinker. I’ve been called lots of names in the past, some of which are unrepeatable, and some I’m comfortable with. It sounds good, but I’m not sure what it means, so I will reserve judgement until someone explains it to me.

    But ’emergent thinkers’ is the title of the website used to promote a recent interview I did with Felicity Healey-Benson. She runs a great series of interviews about people who are engaged in making business education/learning and development a better place. I’m also called ‘the mind behind harnessing technology for learning’ but I can think of several hundred other people who would be more worthy to take that title.

    Notwithstanding the issues around nomenclature, Felicity has done a great job teasing out from me some of the issues and challenges that face education and training at this time and packaging them up as an interview. The onslaught of digital change and disruption alone is enough to make your hair curl, but we discuss more than this in a text-based dialogue that encompasses curriculum, inspiration, creativity, communication and the future of learning”

    Follow the comments trail on Steve’s blog to find out the answer to his question on being an ’emergent thinker’.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: