Thursday, November 24, 2011

Revisiting the Tetrad of Effects

Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing principals and teachers as part of my research.  It was an incredibly energizing experience to hear more about the stories behind great schools and great school leaders. 

In discussion with some of the participants, I had the opportunity to revisit a visual created during one of my grad courses to provoke dialogue around new technologies and innovations in schools.  In an earlier blog post, I described the idea of combining Feenberg’s methodological dualism with McLuhan’s idea of the tetrad of effects– ( which gave rise to the diagram (tool) shown below:

How does the tetrad of effects diagram work?
The tetrad has been used with grad students, teachers, consultants and school principals ranging from small unstructured settings to large formal gatherings as a conversation tool.  It takes about 20-30 minutes to discuss the tetrad with a group of 4-5 participants.

First, begin by cutting out the square shape, fold on the red lines first - this reveals the tetrad. In the centre of the tetrad choose a technology or innovation to narrow the focus of the conversation.  (example: ipad). The tetrad can also be provided electronically.  I’m not sure what it is about paper, but I have noted that many participants did not want to write on the tetrad and would leave it blank while writing thier notes and responses on another sheet of paper.  Some even wrote the responses on post-it notes and then attached to the tetrad. 

In the Global Village (1989), Marshall McLuhan posited every new technology has a “tetrad of media effects” or four simultaneous effects:
Discuss the four effects:
(1) enhances something;
(2) makes something obsolete;

(3) retrieves or brings back something; and
(4) when pushed to the limits, it reverses or turns into something else.

Example  of a discussion regarding ipads (the following is a sample of the responses heard)
What does the ipad enhance? The ipad enhances the ability to access information quickly.  It turns on quickly and there are many apps that allow instant access.  What becomes obsolete?  One example was the tape recorder, now obsolete for recording interviews. What do we retrieve from the past with the ipad? In the past when we had apple IIe’s in schools and there were countless simple programs available for students to practice letter recognition, matching, math facts, etc.  As we moved to more powerful computer systems, we moved away from these very simple programs and instead invested in productivity tools such as word processors, spreadsheets, presentation programs and internet browsers.  It seems that with the adoption of ipads there has been a resurgence of simple apps.  What has the ipad reversed or turned into that was unexpected? I don’t think the ipad has been pushed to the limits yet but everyone seems to have examples of unexpected uses for the ipad.  Personally, I did not expect to use the device as my main tool for research data collection and at the same time my son uses the ipad as a guitar tuner and my daughter to practice writing the letters of her name. It’s definitely getting more difficult to share the device in our home!

Once the four effects are discussed, then fold each point away from the tetrad (symbolism: double-edged sword). When each fold is lifted it reveals a place to indicate both possibilities and challenges.

The following are some of the possibilities and challenges discussed with ipads:
(1) enhances – ability to access information quickly ( possibilities – a small device for student use in the classroom, no need to wait for computers to start and launch applications, supports student centered learning and inquiry based learning; challenges  - include costs for purchasing/managing apps for school devices).
(2) obsolete – tape recorders (possibilities - recording podcasts and having students demonstrate learning; challenges  - privacy concerns, editing/managing large audio files)
(3) retrieves – the return of many simple programs or apps (possibilities - great to have so many options for apps and many are free; challenge - the selection of apps as there are too many available and difficult to know which ones are best for learning)
(4) reverses – all in one personal tool (possibilities - great to have a tool with so many capabilities and accessibility for all ages/diverse learners; challenge - to have one for each individual, access for all, fear of the unknown)

Generally, the conversation ended at the point where everyone would brainstorm possibilities and challenges.  I also noted the conversation typically moved from a technology (tool) focus to a conversation about learning.  I wonder what would happen if participants take an additional step and rework the challenges into goal statements.  Perhaps the tetrad of tools could be used to help with goal setting when implementing a new technology and moving from the known to the unknown. 

The following video also reminds me of the leaders I met and their ability to vision and believe in the unexpected – the ability to confidently shift from the known to the unknown. 
Deadlines video