Designing The Future Of EdTech: Chat With Pamela Pavliscak

  • Alanna Harvey
  • 09 May 2017
  • 03:13 PM

Technology is changing the world of education, but could it be doing a better job? Pamela Pavliscak,  a sought-after expert and advisor on emotion and technology, shares her thoughts on our relationship with technology, where technology needs to be to enhance education, and how we can use technology more positively.

In your Quartz article, There’s a better way to treat your tech addiction than hiding your phone and laptop, you make a case for using technology in ways that “support our emotional well-being.” How do you suggest we achieve this?

The conversation around technology is currently framed around time. Maybe this is because the promise of technology has always been productivity and efficiency. So we tend to think of time online as a monolith where that time is mostly wasted. Even if we do admit it might not always be wasted, time offline is still viewed as intrinsically better.

Instead, I’d advocate thinking more about meaning than time. The online/offline dichotomy is a red herring. Plus, it’s going to be harder and harder to draw that distinction when tech is not a screen in our hand or on our desk, but embedded in our environment or on our bodies. Strengthening relationships, building a community, showing care, gaining knowledge and mastery, and knowing yourself underpin wellbeing in any context.

I found this line compelling: “Even when we leave our devices behind, their shadow remains.” In my life, when my phone is out of sight it’s out of mind, and I think that’s healthier. What do you think? 

At this point, we are cognitively entangled with our computers and phones and wearables and soon chatbots. This isn’t new. We’ve been living in a mixed reality with other technology for years—books, cars, blenders even. It shapes how we think, how we feel, how we experience the world. It is an extension of our abilities, a proxy for ourselves, an identity we create, and a proxy for other people and relationships.

Although we would like to think that our relationship is logical and we can separate our lives into an online bucket and an offline bucket, I don’t think that’s realistic. For kids, the boundary between tech and self is even more fluid. If we take that as our starting point, we can have more productive conversations about what a good life means in the digital age.  

In Sherry Turkle’s book, Reclaiming Conversation, she shares that high school and college students are less emotionally connected to one another despite being more digitally connected than ever. How could we change this?

For every study about how Facebook makes us miserable, there’s another that says it can be fulfilling. The difference is in how we engage with technology. Emotional wellbeing in relationships is conversationally deep, and whether that depth is sustained in person or online matters less than the give and take.

Rather than passively viewing posts or posting and waiting for the likes to roll in, we can actively participate in the give and take online too, and often in a nuanced and textured way.

More and more teachers are struggling with distractions in the classroom. Why do you think this is? Do you believe that technology is enhancing engagement or hurting it?

I wonder if we aren’t trying too hard to work against technology rather than looking at ways we can move forward with it, since our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are being shaped by technology. Our current technology privileges speed and versatility, which is at odds with the classroom, and a lot of other parts of life, where we may need to slow down.

The values of the internet are also authenticity, amateur, handmade, flawed — and I’m not sure there is enough space for this in the classroom. We need to think bigger picture about how to bring these values in alignment rather than simply pushing back.

What is technology not doing that it should be to improve and enhance classroom engagement? How could it be better?

Whether edtech or not, a lot of technology focuses on a destination. Designers see themselves as motivators, bringing people through a process to a satisfying end; the problem with that is it doesn’t always feel engaging. Levels, badges, and numbers—the gamified approach—only go so far. Kind of like grades, those techniques don’t motivate everyone. And kids are particularly good at gaming the games.

My own kids long to make more of an impact in their school, their community, and the world. That’s very typical of kids but of Generation Z (the cohort born 2000 to present), in particular. Rather than only stepping kids through a lesson, the future of edtech will look at how to bring that knowledge to bear in a real-life context.

A lot of edtech seems to focus on content consumption rather than creation. How do you think technology could be used in the classroom to cultivate creativity instead of passive consumption?

Creativity comes down to participating as if your participation matters. So, filling out worksheets based on reading, taking online tests, or creating a highly structured assignment are active but they don’t feel creative. Creating something “real” that other students will actually use, or remixing to create something new, or simply leaving it more open are strategies that can help.

I think we have to acknowledge there are different types of reading too. There is deep, immersive reading, which is the kind that we all hope we have time to do (but most of us didn’t do even pre-smartphone). There’s skimming. There’s reading as writing—commenting, highlighting. There’s reading as conversation. Designing reading and writing and conversation together is something that designers are only just beginning to understand.

Young people claim to be more uncomfortable with face-to-face conversations and making phone calls, preferring conversations by text or email. Is this shift a good thing in the long run? How could technology help young people get over these anxieties?

Because I do a lot of research with kids and teens, I can say with confidence that face to face communication isn’t going away. Kids value friends that they see every day. But just as tech supports identity in a flexible way, it also supports all kinds of friendships and all kinds of conversations. This isn’t so different from having close friends, colleagues, neighbors, acquaintances, and so on. Technology has extended our range and that’s mostly a positive.

I can see where the anxiety is coming from — technology has changed so rapidly, and kids are vulnerable. Between kids and adults (of any age at this point), there’s a huge gap in their personal experience of technology as a part of everyday life. But we tend to romanticize the technology of our youth a bit here. Is a phone call really so much better than video chat?

In your Quartz article, you said, “As users, the daily decisions we make shape the technology we use.” How can we teach people to make better decisions about technology use?

For better or worse, our activities online are tracked and sold and shared. Besides being used to serve ads and sell stuff, design teams are looking to this data for insights into human behavior. This means that what we do doesn’t just have an impact on our daily lives, it has long-term design implications.

Imagine if we started to pay less attention to the soul-sucking aspects of technology, like the needless notifications and the clickbait headlines? That’s a signal a lot of people designing technology are interpreting to make sure they are designing the right thing. And it gives all of us as individuals some power to influence positive change.  


Pamela often speaks on creativity in the digital age, generation Z, and emotion and technology, recently at SXSW and Collision. She is the author of the O'Reilly e-book Data Informed Product Design, the forthcoming Designing for HappinessFollow Pamela on Twitter or connect with her on LinkedIn