Calm Technology in the Classroom

Technology and classroom practices

Published: 12 July 2013

Schools rightly place a considerable amount of emphasis on end user devices and upon the services that can be accessed over these networked devices; but all too often they tend to unwittingly neglect many of the unforeseen consequences of introducing networked devices and services into the classroom and into the wider school setting. The introduction of pervasive technology in schools impacts irrecoverably on every child, teacher, school administrator and parent; and as we gaze upon the dawn of the ubiquitous computing world we have yet to imagine how it will mould and shape the educational lives of billions across the globe.

In the article entitled 'Teachers of Human Being' I stated that many schools operate and deliver educational services in a manner that has not changed for centuries. For instance, in the UK 'there are approximately thirty pupils in every classroom, schools operate a three term timetable, the school day starts and ends at approximately the same time across the country and there is a nationally prescribed curriculum that is delivered in all state funded schools.' [1] The introduction of technology into the classroom is not a new phenomenon. The introduction of technology into the classroom has always promised the transformation of traditional rituals and practices in our schools. The advent of the book meant that students could read, consume and digest an entire syllabus regardless of time, pace and place; and the same is true now with the modern networked device and the services that it enables students to connect to. In the same article I stated that 'the dominance of traditional pedagogy, practices, norms and cultures within the education sector are many fold and we need to recognise that it will take more than disruptive technology to bring about profound structural changes to the education sector in the UK.' [1] However, what has changed is the ease and speed by which individuals and organisations can author and distribute learning resources in a manner that provides educational value to students and teachers. The ability to work collaboratively across these networked devices and services is one that is not yet fully utilised by schools; but when these services are deployed and used effectively it has the ability to empower every student and teacher alike.

There is an uneasy relationship between school and technology

The dialogue on the written word in Phaedrus is often cited as an early example where technology could potentially lead to a negative impact on learning. The dialogue describes 'an old Egyptian legend of Theuth, the inventor of writing, showing his invention to the god Thamus, who told him that he would only spoil men's memories and take away their understandings'. Plato goes onto to develop the tale and describes writing as a Simulacra. 'It is like a picture, which can give no answer to a question, and has only a deceitful likeness of a living creature.' [2] We all know that the vast majority of technologies have had a positive impact on teaching and learning and we would be at a loss without them in our schools; but we must be increasingly aware of the negative potential of technology on learning. Recent developments in calm technology such as Google Glass, the iPad and Dropbox have stressed the importance of mitigating the uneasy relationship that learners have with legacy internet technologies such as the desktop PC, netbooks, laptop devices and the interactive whiteboard in classrooms. [3] It is with neglect to state that the majority of schools unintentionally acquire and use technology to support and reinforce long standing habits, rituals, norms and pedagogy which pre-date the internet era. The consequence of this is that uneasy relationship between school and technology and increasingly between teacher and his or her students.

In a previous article entitled Ambient Schools I briefly described Mark Weiser's and John Seely Brown's concept of calm technology within a ubiquitous computing environment. Here I wish to describe the characteristics of calm technology in the classroom:

Move the important things to the centre and the less important to the periphery
Technology must enable the teacher to excite and engage all learners in his or her care. It allows the teacher to focus on what is important and it enables the teacher to place these at the centre of his or her teaching programme. It allows the teacher to place the more mundane, the pedestrian, the basic stepping stones of his or her programme to the periphery. I am not discounting the importance of these elements. All I am saying is that they require less time and attention devoted to them. For instance, in a lesson devoted to global warming, the teacher may post statistical and historical data relating to global warming on the schools learning management system or learning platform; as well as written and video case studies on the subject matter. The teacher may decide to focus valuable lesson time either to the causes of global warming or to political, scientific or technological solutions to the problem. The networked devices and services at the classroom's disposal could be used to support and encourage greater collaboration among students during and after the lesson. In this scenario, the focus of the lesson becomes the development of the learners to think critically and to draw conclusions from various sources and views on global warming.

Attention needs to switch from networked devices and
services to classroom practices

Ubiquitous computing
Every student and teacher has access to one or more networked devices. 'When computers are all around, so that we want to compute while doing something else and have more time to be more fully human, we must radically rethink the goals, context and technology of the computer and all the other technology crowding into our lives. Calmness is a fundamental challenge for all technological design of the next fifty years.' [4] I would advise all schools who have or who are embarking on a one to one or ubiquitous computing model to consider how their programme will impact on classroom practices and on the social dynamics in and out of the school. All too often the devise or the technology takes precedence. How many times have we read headlines about a school which has 'rolled out a tablet device to every student at the school' and how many times have we not heard about how ubiquitous computing has changed the educational design principles of the school? As ubiquitous computing becomes more affordable within the education sector we will begin to take it for granted that every child has access to one or more computing devices. The focus of attention will switch from networked devices and services to classroom practices; ubiquitous learning, a curriculum fit for the 21st century; and the empowerment of students to become active participants in the knowledge economies across the globe. Advocates and opponents of technology in the classroom should note that the debate has never been and should never be focused solely upon networked devices and services in our schools but about how parents, teachers, school leaders, governments, industry and the voluntary sector can support, nourish and develop school children to become active, productive, valuable and participative members of the wider society.

The use of computer devices will change
At the present moment in time teachers and students make use of networked devices and services in a very defined manner; namely through the production, distribution or in the consumption of content or services. These patterns of behaviour are not new. They have been present ever since the first written word was recorded on clay tablets; evolving into the papyrus, wax tablets, parchment and then onto the modern digital codex. Nevertheless, the use of computing devices will evolve and we will see an increase in the use of computation, artificial intelligence and the semantic web within the school setting. Let's examine the use of the semantic web which has long promised to irrevocably alter the manner by which students undertake research on the World Wide Web. The typical  search engine involves carrying out a search with a single or a combination of keywords which typically provides the student with a list of ranked websites that may contain the information required by the student. The semantic web enables the computer to carry out these searches for the student and more importantly it identifies intelligent and meaningful links between numerous websites or datasets around the globe. An example of a semantic search could be 'which Pacific rim volcanoes erupted between 1900 and 2012 and of those eruptions which produced pyroclastic flows? In addition, how many lives were lost in each of these eruptions?' As the semantic web evolves and develops it will gradually alter certain classroom dynamics. Students will be able to retrieve meaningful and intelligent answers to many questions that a teacher gives them. It will move fact finding and information gathering to the periphery and interpretation and analysis to the centre.

Adolescent technology constantly cries out for our attention

Technology will stay out of the way
All too often the computing device inadvertently gets in the way between the teacher and his or her students. This does not come as a complete surprise because networked devices and services are still in their infancy and we have yet to maximise their full potential within a school setting. I am not discounting the importance of the networked device and its associated services in the classroom; but it is necessary for schools to evaluate how these networked devices and services are being utilised in and out of the classroom environment.

We must accept that technology has profoundly altered the basic tenets of education. As early as 1995, Dale Spender argued that technology would change the way teachers and students interact with one another. According to Spender, the teacher’s role has always been to serve the needs of the learner rather than teaching them what he or she knows. Spender quite profoundly writes that teachers will become teachers of human being, rather than of a prescribed curriculum. Spender argues that teachers will have to lose control of their classrooms and will need to work in a co-operative setting with their students. Technology accelerates the proposition that teaching needs to be subordinate to learning. Perhaps there is a wider message underlying this debate; namely how many true learning organisations are out there? No one is arguing that technology will undermine the role of the teacher. On the contrary, if used wisely, technology can only augment the role of the teacher. For instance, if we take up Spender’s viewpoint, technology can only support a teacher’s desire to enable his or her learners to have greater self-determination and a more active and participatory role within the education setting. [5] These statements describe an education setting which has moved away from adolescent technology which constantly cries out for our attention and one which is heading towards a setting where networked devices and services switch from our periphery, to centre and back to periphery in a natural and unobtrusive manner.




  1. Teachers of Human Being:
  2. Phaedrus by Plato:
  3. Ambient Schools:
  4. Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown:
  5. Teachers of Human Being: