A fine and upright gentle man flying in a small helicopter like vehicle.

Flying cars, digital literacy and the zone of possibility

Where’s my flying car? I was promised one in countless SF films from Metropolis through to Fifth Element. Well, they exist.  Thirty seconds on the search engine of your choice will find you a dozen of so working prototypes (here’s a YouTube video with five).

A fine and upright gentle man flying in a small helicopter like vehicle.
Jess Dixon’s flying automobile c. 1940. Public Domain, held by State Library and Archives of Florida, via Flickr.

They have existed for some time.  Come to think about it, the driving around on the road bit isn’t really the point. I mean, why would you drive when you could fly. I guess a small helicopter and somewhere to park would do.

So it’s not lack of technology that’s stopping me from flying to work. What’s more of an issue (apart from cost and environmental damage) is that flying is difficult. The slightest problem like an engine stall or bump with another vehicle tends to be fatal. So the reason I don’t fly to work is largely down to me not having learnt how to fly.

The zone of possibility

In 2010 Kathryn Dirkin studied how three professors taught using the same online learning environment, and found that they were very different. Not something that will surprise many people, but the paper (which unfortunately is still behind a paywall) is worth a read for the details of the analysis. What I liked from her conclusions was that how someone teaches online depends on the intersection of their knowledge of the content, beliefs about how it should be taught and understanding technology. She calls this intersection the zone of possibility. As with the flying car the online learning experience we want may already be technologically possible, we just need to learn how to fly it (and consider the cost and effect on the environment).

I have been thinking about Dirkin’s zone of possibility over the last few weeks. How can it be increased? Should it be increased? On the latter, let’s just say that if technology can enhance education, then yes it should (but let’s also be mindful about the costs and impact on the environment).

So how, as a learning technologist, to increase this intersection of content knowledge, pedagogy and understanding of technology? Teachers’ content knowledge I guess is a given, nothing that a learning technologist can do to change that. Also, I have come to the conclusion that pedagogy is off limits. No technology-as-a-Trojan-horse for improving pedagogy, please, that just doesn’t work. It’s not that pedagogic approaches can’t or don’t need to be improved, but conflating that with technology seems counter productive.  So that’s left me thinking about teachers’ (and learners’) understanding of technology. Certainly, the other week when I was playing with audio & video codecs and packaging formats that would work with HTML5 (keep repeating H264  and AAC in MPEG-4) I was aware of this. There seems to be three viable approaches: increase digital literacy, tools to simplify the technology and use learning technologists as intermediaries between teachers and technology. I leave it at that because it is not a choice of which, but of how much of each can be applied.

Does technology or pedagogy lead?

In terms of defining the”zone of possibility” I think that it is pretty clear that technology leads. Content knowledge and pedagogy change slowly compared to technology. I think that rate of change is reflected in most teachers understanding of those three factors. I would go as far as to say that it is counterfactual to suggest that our use of technology in HE has been led by anything other than technology. Innovation in educational technology usually involves exploration of new possibilities opened up by technological advances, not other factors. But having acknowledged this, it should also be clear that having explored the possibilities, a sensible choice of what to use when teaching will be based on pedagogy (as well as cost and the effect on the environment).

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