Dr. Phillip A. Towndrow is a Senior Research Scientist in the Centre for Research in Pedagogy and Practice, which is part of the National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. My writing and graduate supervisory interests include: instructional task design, multimodal communication, teachers’ professional development and growth, and the interface and interactions between digital technologies, pedagogy and life experiences.

  • Sen, N. S., & Towndrow, P. A. (2013). Multimodality and metacognitive instruction in developing two reading comprehension strategies. International Journal of Innovation in English Language Teaching and Learning, 2(1), 5-25.
  • Towndrow, P. A. (2013). Information technology in English language learning: Towards a plan in teacher professional development and growth. Accents Asia, 6(1), 12-31.
  • Towndrow, P. A., & Vallance, M. (2013). Making the right decisions: Leadership in 1-to-1 computing in education. International Journal of Educational Management, 27(3), 260-272.
  • Towndrow, P. A., Nelson, M. E., & Wan, Fareed (2013). Squaring literacies assessment with multimodal design: An analytic case for semiotic awareness. Journal of Literacy Research, 45(4), 327-355.
  • Towndrow, P. A., Wan Fareed (2012). Professional learning during a one-to-one laptop innovation. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 20(3), 331-355.

Dr. Michael Vallance is a researcher in the Department of Media Architecture, Future University Hakodate, Japan. He has been involved in educational technology design, implementation, research and consultancy for over fifteen years, working closely with Higher Education Institutes, schools and media companies in UK, Singapore, Malaysia and Japan. He was awarded the second prize in the Distributed Learning category at the United States Army's 2012 Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge for his research in collaborating the programming of robots in a 3D Virtual World. His website is http://www.mvallance.net

  • Vallance, M., Naamani, C., Thomas, M. & Thomas, J. (2013). Applied Information Science Research in a Virtual World Simulation to Support Robot Mediated Interaction Following the Fukushima Nuclear Disaster. Communications in Information Science and Management Engineering (CISME). 3(5), 222-232.
  • Towndrow, P.A. & Vallance, M. (2013). Making the Right Decisions: Leadership in 1-to-1 Computing in Education. International Journal of Educational Management, 24(3), 260-272
  • Vallance, M. and Numata, H. (2011).Beyond potential: a two-year study of iPod use in a Japanese university. International Journal of Learning Technology, 6(4), 324–340.
  • Vallance, M. (2008). Beyond policy: Strategic actions to support ICT integration in Japanese schools. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24(3), 275-293.
  • Vallance, M. (2006). Responsibility without power: reflections of an IT Coordinator in education. Perspectives: Policy & practice in Higher Education, 10(4), 109-114.

Q: Tell us about your collaboration. What made you two become research partners?

MV (Michael Vallance): I think our collaboration was initially motivated by our like-minded pursuit of a more informed consideration of ICT in education. We developed and taught a course for teachers at NIE Singapore. This culminated in a book we co-authored entitled Using IT in Language Classrooms. Meeting deadlines, having regular discussions, agreeing, disagreeing, agreeing to disagree, sharing ideas, workload and responsibilities, and trust have become essential criteria for our collaborations.

PT (Phillip Towndrow): We first met 1997, when we were Language and Communication Lecturers at Temasek Polytechnic in Singapore. We quickly discovered our shared interest in Computer Assisted Language Learning (CALL) and Macintosh computers. Later, as chance would have it, we both moved to the English department of the National Institute of Education, Singapore. Once established, we immediately worked together in designing, setting up, and maintaining a Macintosh computer lab (the first in Singapore) for student-teachers. Concurrently, we created and taught an undergraduate course in Using IT in Language Classrooms using a textbook we wrote together with the same title (Pearson, 2004, ISBN 0-13-127536-4).

So, our interests led to us working together on a computer lab and book project but there was more - a shared aim and passion. We both felt (and still do) that Information Technology has great potential not just to assist learning but to be learning as a social and knowledge-building enterprise in its own right. Our collaboration began, then, as an exploration of this concept both theoretically and practically. We crafted learning tasks together where IT played a central and irreducible part, discussed ideas over hundreds of tea breaks, and learned much from our students and each other. Our research partnership endures because we realise we cannot do our work alone and we are responsible to each other, and our learners, our colleagues and the research community, more broadly in seeing our vision slowly realised and adopted/adapted by others.

Q: In your recent article, you compared the 1:1 initiatives in Singapore and Japan, and presented some surprising findings. When you look at 1:1 initiatives globally, what worries you?

MV: I am concerned that too often such initiatives are led by technical administrators and not academics or teaching practitioners. I observe and read about a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. This even occurs at my university despite earnest attempts to consider alternatives informed by the relevant literature. Arts, design, language and science have different needs and uses of technology. Too often I see a focus on the ‘what’ and ‘how’ and not the ‘why’ .

Being at a technical university I appreciate the concerns of the IT administrators: their desire for security, reliability, predictable workloads, and standard operating procedures. But the drawbridges put in place (such as limited WiFi, port blocking, admin passwords) hinder the creativity and spontaneity of educators and learners. Educational institutes are not business environments yet are often treated as such by many IT administrators. Our solution is to engage with the IT administrators, attend their meetings, offer suggestions, prove that the whole system won’t crash if a technology request is implemented (such as opening a specific port on the institute’s server) by highlighting the implementation at another institute. In my experience, IT administrators are risk-averse. However, we are finding that a trusting relationship with IT administrators is helping more academic staff be a little more creative in using classroom computers and the students’ laptops and iPads.

I am also concerned about ICT in education being driven by corporations with the effect that education has to ‘make do’ with the hardware, software and web-services being sold. Often these solutions are more of a hindrance to effective use of technologies. Companies provide comfortable solutions to institute leaders but too often technology is offered as a solution to ill-defined problems.

I recall some reviewers of our article submission did not consider our text relevant to ‘managers’ in education but more specific to a technology journal. We completely disagreed and stressed that managers and leaders within education need to be aware of the observations we outlined. Technology implementation is not simply about technology. It has a multifarious impact.

PT: I don’t think our results are surprising, at all, given the prevalence of the technologists’ myth that computer-based devices have inherent value-adding potential. What worries me the most is that we tend to look for returns on investment (ROI) in the wrong places. We want to believe that a smart-phone will indeed make us cleverer or that a smart-watch will help us be more productive. But we really should be scrutinising our reasons for engaging in specific tasks and activities with IT, rather than looking at what we can do. Our working principle is this: when we know why technology is important and necessary, we have a robust basis for knowing how to do particular things. This is a pedagogical matter, as I’ll explain in my next answers.

Q: There has been disappointment that technology integration in education failed to produce substantial student achievement. As a researcher on 1:1 initiatives, how do you respond to the disappointment?

MV: It depends how student achievement is measured. Technology has the potential, in the right hands, to transform pedagogy and the learning environment. But teachers need support in not only using technology but support in developing pedagogical approaches. This was apparent in the ACOT project (http://education.apple.com/acot2/) where teachers over a period of 10 years transformed their teaching from an instructivist approach to a more student-centred, constructivist approach. Follow up research by Cathy Ringstaff and Loretta Kelley (The Learning Return On Our Educational Technology Investment) revealed that ACOT students recall more of their learning than non-ACOT students, yet during the research the ACOT students did not perform significantly better (or worse) in traditional tests. 1:1 computer (or iPad, etc.) use has an ‘affective’ impact which is more difficult to measure as a single metric.

PT: Let me begin by stating that the disappointment with technology integration is fully justified because I don’t believe integration is the correct objective for 1:1 initiatives. Integration - or inter-mixing - doesn’t provide, in my opinion, a strong warrant for pedagogical change. Integration implies ‘adding’ and hoping the ingredients will jell or work well together without much or any additional effort. Further, integration doesn’t easily accommodate disruption and creativity. Yes, we can learn with and from computer-based technology, but digital devices alter teacher-student and student-student epistemic (what knowledge is and how it’s validated) relationships. If there’s any disappointment, it should be with ourselves.

So, the issue, for me, now is: how can we (as researchers and teachers) help build and sustain growth in knowledge and maturity in student-led learning environments that are fundamentally digital? Partnering (Prensky, 2010) is one approach; flipping (Bergmann & Sams, 2012) is another.

But, I’m not interested in producing an artificial blend of subject-content coverage in classrooms with a laptop - a digital smoothie, if you like. Rather, my approach has been not to emphasise the technology, per se, but to try to understand how it creates, modifies and becomes human interaction. This is both a personal and social quest that will have its joys and successes, and failures. But hopefully, we will learn more about ourselves, not the technology, as a result.

Q: From your publications, I see you have made great efforts to build a bridge between digital technologies and student learning. How do you foresee the future of mobile learning? How can school leaders be well-prepared?

MV: Again the focus should be on the pedagogy. In my university there is still an insistence to deliver lectures. Yet the same lecture is delivered by the same academic every semester. Surely it makes sense to digitally record the lecture for 24/7 access. The lecture times can then be scheduled for seminars where academics can engage more with the students in order to, say, check and develop understanding of any content being delivered. This though requires a different pedagogical approach by both academic staff and the students.

The access to content on mobile devices will increase but I wouldn’t call it mobile ‘learning’. It is simply access to resources. Of course mobile devices will enable students to communicate and share in their learning experiences but again the impact on learning is debatable. Crispin Weston states we need to be aware that ‘the wisdom of the crowd’ may actually be ‘the foolishness of the herd.’ The teacher therefore needs to add the role of facilitator to his/her portfolio.

School leaders need to be quite clear of the pedagogy of the institution, and consider how a 1:1 initiative supports that pedagogy. Staff need support so in any 1:1 initiative budget do not spend all the money on the technology. Leave quite a proportion aside for staff development.

PT: As digital devices proliferate and become cheaper, more powerful and smaller, we’re seeing the extension of learning spaces both in and outside of formal learning locations (e.g., schools, colleges and universities). There is nothing new or surprising in the ways digital technologies grow and so the existence of mobile learning (mobile anything) is assured … for better or worse. I think it would be counter-intuitive and counter-productive for school leaders to try to keep up with all the technological changes and innovations that come their way. But, to borrow an idea from Marc Prensky, school leaders/teachers can and should make the effort to at least know what is available, and what is coming to market in the near future.

For me, the essential marks of digital preparedness in a fast-changing landscape are openness and pedagogical judgement. Openness in the sense of being flexible to try ideas/devices and see what flies on a case-by-case basis. Some things will work, others won’t do as well but we just have to try and see.

Pedagogical judgement is at the other end of the spectrum. It involves principled discussion and decision-making concerning the appropriateness of technology use given existing learning objectives and the nature of subject-specific content. Sometimes, technology use makes learning harder and awkward. School leaders (and I include teachers in this category as they are leaders at their level) need the courage to say no to gratuitous technology use (i.e., technology for its own sake) and yes to experimentation, when warranted pedagogically (there is the potential to help students learn in ways they could not if they did not engage with the technology in the first place).

Q: You (Michael) were awarded the second prize in the Distributed Learning category at the United States Army's 2012 Federal Virtual Worlds Challenge for your research in collaborating the programming of robots in a 3D Virtual World. Tell us about this award.

MV: The research project was entitled Collaboratively Programming Robots in Virtual Spaces. The first two rounds were conducted in my virtual space where I provided a demonstration and discussed the merits and challenges of engaging remotely located students in-world.I was then invited to the Defense GameTech User’s Conference (gametechconference.com) in Orlando to give a live demonstration of the real world robot being maneuvered in the Orlando venue via a virtual world avatar (actually a student physically located in Japan). I explained how our Japan - UK collaborative programming tasks link to a UK school’s Baccalaureate project and our STEM education focus. The judges were impressed by the project’s creativity and a clear focus on specific educational goals for engaged learning. I was awarded $3000 which I reinvested into the research.

Q: Tell us about your future research agenda.

MV: I am gaining much support for my virtual worlds and robots research. My original idea was motivated by the lack of information surrounding the Fukushima nuclear accident of March 2011 here in Japan. I was astonished by the lack of preparedness, the dearth of disaster recovery robots, the inadequacies of technical training, and the lack of knowledge of my undergraduate students. I wanted to show that such incidents need not be the sole domain of experts but that an understanding of problems and development of creative solutions can be undertaken by non-experts. I wanted my students to become more engaged in such simulations as a context for developing programming skills, design, creativity, communication, collaboration and reflective practice. To give quantitative value to the learning (much demanded by my computer science colleagues) I am developing criteria for task complexity. The tasks will also be married to the UK school’s Baccalaureate Essential Skills criteria and our STEM descriptors. In 2014 I anticipate more student involvement, hopefully in Singapore and USA, in more complex virtual scenarios.

PT: I’m no longer involved in researching 1:1 initiatives directly as my research funding has ended. However, I’m still very much interested in how learners grow in maturity as they live their digital lives.

My current research projects are now more concerned with teachers’ professional learning and how they can become more aware of, and better attuned to, pedagogical considerations in their work (whether technology-based or not). I don’t just mean using instructional practices and strategies in classrooms, but, more broadly, learning and using the cultural, social and historical bases of teaching and learning as a means for creating, sharing and developing reasons for specific actions in individual and social contexts.

Q: What advice would you give to our doctoral students in school technology leadership program?

MV: The Who sang ‘We won’t get fooled again’. Yet too often we see repeated errors in technology implementations. It is essential to read the literature on technology and education. Read texts that you anticipate you may initially disagree with. Read Larry Cuban’s books and Jane Healy (Failure To Connect). Look at texts of the 1980’s and early 90’s such as the work of John Higgins and Tim Johns. They warned us back then of ‘old wine in new bottles’. Are the current implementations of iPads any different to the earlier laptop initiatives? What is the technology being used for and why? How do the roles of the teacher, the students and the technology alter? And of course read about success stories like the ACOT project (of 1990’s), Mark Warschauer's Laptops and Literacy book, journals such as Computers & Education and Tech Trends, and the many reports prepared by JISC (http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/), UNESCO, and the Royal Society (I recommend ‘Shut Down or Restart’). Look at different theories of learning and consider which of these are mainly being implemented in your institute or in your personal teaching with and without technology. As a potential leader consider how you are going to work with, listen to, support and encourage your fellow academic and technical staff and the students in any technology implementation.

PT: I don’t want to sound like a motivational coach or speaker by stating, “Develop a vision and follow your passions”, although that might work, for some. Rather, I’d like to suggest you spend time finding out more about the people you intend to lead in the future. Who are your students/subjects? What are they interested in? Where do they go? What surprises them? What games do they play and why? What do they like/don’t like about school? What would they do differently in school, if they had the chance?

Please don’t ever under-estimate what your learners’ capabilities with digital technologies. Marc Prensky advocates letting students do what they do best in classrooms. Ultimately, aim for letting your students continually exceed your expectations. Then the power relations in learning will be equalised and the technology will prove worthwhile and useful. Anything less than this will fail to reach its true potential, in my opinion.