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Learning Technology: an Interview with Andrew Douch

Andrew Douch is an education technology consultant and keynote presenter at EvolvEducation, who shares his digital knowledge with other teachers. In this interview Mailbutler talks to him about his job.

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    By Tiffany

    Tiffany studied Language and Economics, and now likes to write about business topics and conduct interviews with interesting people. She spends her free time looking after her plants and with her dog.

    Starting as a biology professor, Andrew Douch realized how important technology is nowadays and the impact it has on everyone’s life. He needed to change the way he teaches, and that is the reason why he decided to learn by himself how to take advantage of all the benefits technology can provide. As a result, he became an education technology consultant and keynote presenter at EvolvEducation, who shares his digital knowledge with other teachers. Today, Mailbutler talks to him about his job and asks him for some tips that everyone can follow!

    Hi Andrew, nice to meet you! It is a pleasure to have you as a part of our #mailbutlerstories. You are an education technology consultant and keynote presenter, could you describe a little bit what your job is about?

    Sure, I do a number of things. Most of my work involves speaking to teachers and school leaders about using technology in education. That takes a number of forms. I speak at a lot of conferences and often in schools to whole staff groups. It’s not really about the technology itself but about how to teach effectively in a technology-rich world. Also, quite a lot of schools and other similar organizations, universities, and TAFEs (Technical And Further Education) engage me to recommend technologies that are useful for particular purposes. 

    Recommended reading: The Fundamental Role Of Technology In Productivity

    For example, when the COVID-19 pandemic caused us to close all the schools, TAFEs, and universities, I have been running lots of webinars sharing ideas, tools, and strategies with teachers about how to teach remotely. A lot of what I share is not really high tech… it’s just good teaching practice using appropriate tools. For example, a lot of teachers don’t consider the difference between their physical presence in a real classroom and the reduced presence they have when they are the size of a postage stamp on a student’s screen in Zoom. So I suggest ways to improve the way they relate to students and keep the students listening and focused when they have a less physical presence in the learning environment. That’s just one example.

    The other thing I do a lot of is teaching biology. I used to be a biology teacher in high school - for 25 years or so. Now I work for myself. I record video lessons in biology and these are published on a platform called Edrolo. It’s a bit like Kahn Academy - but for the Australian syllabus. Those are watched by about 90% of biology students in Victoria (my home state). 

    It sounds really interesting and helpful! And yes, now technology is more important than ever. As you carry out different tasks, how do you organize yourself?

    I am a real calendar nut. I live by my calendar and to-do list. My sons (not children anymore) laugh at me because I use so many calendar apps - they all show the same data but in different ways. One for week view, one for day view, etc. So that’s one thing.

    I’m also quite fanatical about managing my to-do list. I use Omnifocus and practice a fairly strict GTD methodology. I don’t think I’d cope without it, actually. It keeps me feeling calm and in control when I have lots of things on the go.  

    Yes, we had an interview with David Allen, the creator of the GTD system and it is really helpful! What would you say is the contribution of technology in education?

    I think that very often in schools teachers just rush to the new thing - without spending a lot of time thinking about what they are trying to achieve. So I like to start with that question. What is it that we are really trying to achieve? So the answer really depends on that. But in many cases schools will identify something such as giving better feedback to students. So then I’d look with them at what educational theorists say about what it is that makes feedback effective and then show them technologies that help a teacher to do that more effectively. For example, if we say that feedback is more effective when it is timely - then I’ll show them some tools that enable a teacher to give feedback more promptly (often immediately) and often in a way that will save time for the teacher too. That’s pretty exciting for teachers. When they find a tool that helps them to teach better, and saves them time - winning combination. 

    On the other hand, technology for the sake of technology is not necessarily good.

    Sometimes I see teachers using an app or website to do the exact same thing they could have done with paper and pens. If that’s the case, I’d say use paper and pens! 

    Why would I say that you are better to use paper and pens if there is no advantage in using the tech? For one thing, I think that often once the tech is out of the way, students will interact with each other more and with the teacher more too. I don’t really have a problem with technology that just replicates old ways of doing things, but my point is that if you are going to use technology - you may as well spend your time and money considering how you can use it to do things that couldn’t be done without the technology.

    There are so many amazing tools that do such powerful things that would never have been possible before. I’d encourage teachers to think about using those to reimagine their teaching, rather than to use tools that just do what they are already doing. I was never a fan of interactive whiteboards (IWB), for example - for that reason. They are not a bad tool - I had one in my classroom and used it - but an IWB encourages a teacher to stand at the front of the room with 25 students looking at the teacher and listening to the teacher. Teachers gravitate to them (IWBs) because they understand the metaphor. The teacher talked and wrote on the board. (I have seen some teachers doing really creative things with IWBs though)

    But on the whole, I think a tool like that almost prevents educational evolution, because it allows a teacher to think they are using expensive cutting edge technology (which they are) but it is not really taking them out of their comfort zone, or taking their thinking about the relationship between the teacher and the learner in any new directions. 

    You are right! In addition, you said “You don’t need to be very good with technology to do very good things with technology”. What tips could you give to those people that are not so good at using technology?

    You are spot on - you really don’t need to be very good. It was not that long ago that if you wanted to make a website, you needed at least basic HTML skills, and it was cumbersome (I remember uploading my website that I made in FrontPage! Using an FTP client … and everything had to be done in the right way). 

    It was fun for people like me who like tech. But for a lot of teachers that was way out of the range of what they would tackle. Now you can use a tool like education.weebly.com to make a beautiful and powerful website (for free, mind you). And what’s more, you can have all your students making websites that way too. I love tools like that which are so easy that any teacher can use them. Other tools I love to show teachers are Mentimeter, Wooclap, BookCreator… goodness, there are so many! Gradecam, Quizlet Live, Quizizz, EdPuzzle. 

    A new tool I found a few weeks ago that I love is Gimkit - Wow! It’s so fun I think students will love it (It’s a game - but also a powerful learning tool) - and like all these tools it’s really easy to set up and start using. One of the first tools that were like that was Kahoot! - it’s been around for a few years now and I think most teachers are familiar with it. I call tools like that “quick wins”.  If a teacher has ever used Kahoot! They know what a quick win is like. It takes no skill to use, no time to set up, students love it, the educational benefits are significant. 

    And what fascinates you the most about technology?

    I don’t know really - I think it’s just the fact that it makes life easier. If I’m teaching biology, for example, I want to (a) make the lesson memorable/effective (b) help the students to have fun learning and (c) have fun myself.  And so it seems the more I use technology in my teaching, the easier it is to achieve those goals. And it saves me so much time that I then have to invest in thinking of other fun ways to teach. Then in my professional life, I love showing other teachers how they can use those same ideas and tools to get the same kinds of benefits. 

    And how did you gain all the knowledge you have about technology? And how do you keep your technological skills up to date?

    Just by playing, really. I like investigating and fiddling around with things. I try a lot of things out for a while and then discard them if they are not worth the time. But I enjoy investigating. I listen to a lot of podcasts, too, and read blogs … I guess it’s how most people keep up to date with things really.

    I have no background in tech though. I never studied it or anything. It was because of need. It was back in 2005 when I was driving to school and listening to a podcast (that was the early days of podcasting before it became mainstream) and I thought “wouldn’t it be good if my biology students could listen to a biology podcast while they were traveling to school - then we could use our class time to do more experiments, have more discussions, etc”. So I decided to make them a podcast! I had no idea how to do it. So I just recorded my voice on my computer and burned 25 CDs! When they all came back saying how useful it was, I started figuring out how to make a podcast properly and get it online - it was not all that hard but it did involve writing an XML enclosure and figuring out audio stuff, etc.  See that’s another example (like the website one).  It was too complicated for most teachers to be bothered with. Now I show teachers how they can use Anchor on their phone to make a podcast. It’s incredibly easy!

    You really don’t need to be very good with tech these days to do things that just 10 or 15 years ago you really needed to spend a lot of time to do and invest a lot of effort into figuring out. 

    Wow! Fascinating story.

    What is the best way to learn how to use technology?

    There’s this thing I hear people saying often (in Australia, not sure about anywhere else) that the best learning is “just in time, not just in case”.  It sounds great - but I don’t really agree with it.

    I think the best way to learn is just in case - I spend lots of time playing with things and developing skills … because I think sometimes you can’t really see why you need a skill, or how you can use a skill until you have it.

    An example might be something like the “Shortcuts” app on iPhones these days. It is something Apple bought from a company that made an app called Workflows. Anyway, this app lets you string together actions to automate tasks that you do often (It's a block coding app really, it’s a bit like Scratch). But I have shown this to some teachers and their response is ‘it’s just as fast to do it manually”.  But when you get good at it you can actually create workflows that are quite sophisticated and that would take a long time and a lot of clicks to do manually. So you sort of have to get in there and fiddle and play and learn how to use it ‘just in case’ and then all of a sudden you find yourself doing something tedious and you think “Hey!! I could automate this in Shortcuts!” but you’d never have thought of that if you hadn’t already been using it. 

    So to answer your question, I think the best way to learn to use tech effectively, is to set aside time to play with something. I love spending time playing with Affinity Photo (It’s kind of like Photoshop, but cheaper - It’s amazing what I have learned just by playing. The other Saturday I spent half a day figuring out how I could use lighting effects in a photo. Then one day, I’ll be wanting to make a PowerPoint slide for teaching some concept, and I’ll think hmm, I need some kind of bokeh effect, or I need a starburst here… and I’ll have that skill. Or, maybe I’ll never use it. Who knows!

    Yeah, that is true!! The best way to learn how to use something is actually using it! You also won many awards thanks to your work. Do you have any secrets that made you get where you are now?

    To a large extent, I think it’s luck. There are a lot of teachers who do really innovative things but it doesn’t get noticed. I was just fortunate that some of the things I was doing did get noticed, and the awards all came from that. You know, you win an award, and then people start looking closely at what you are doing, and so other things you do get noticed too.

    I have always worked hard, and have worked hard to innovate - to find new ways of making learning more effective - so it wasn’t blind luck - but I do know some fantastic teachers who have not received the recognition. And I don’t think teachers do what they do for recognition anyway. I certainly was not doing it for recognition or awards - though I’m really grateful for those because they catapulted my career to another level and enabled me to do what I’m doing now. I mean, Edrolo approached me and asked if I’d teach the Australian biology curriculum - which has turned out to be great for me - but they only heard of me because of those awards. Likewise, the career I have speaking at conferences (which is how I pay for my shoes), came about because conference organizers noticed me because of the awards. 

    So I am very grateful that I was awarded those - not so much because of the awards themselves but because of the doors they opened.

    You can be very proud of yourself! Last question, is Mailbutler one tool that makes your day easier when using technology?

    I love Mailbutler! It really fixes Apple Mail. I have tried all the other email apps (Airmail, Spark, Outlook, etc.) - I’ve tried everything that comes along, but I kept going back to Apple Mail because whatever I used made me frustrated in some ways. Often it was unreliable in some way and so I would come back to Mail because although it was spartan, it was at least stable and reliable. And then I found Mailbutler - which adds all these features to Mail that I wanted - as I said it really fixes Apple Mail - it makes it the ideal mail client for me.

    Just today I was sending an email with an invoice for a webinar I had delivered, and I had forgotten to attach the invoice. Mailbutler saved me by saying “hey you said “attached” but there is no attachment”.  That feature alone has saved me so many times from being embarrassed and sending a follow-up email this time with the attachment - which just makes you look unprofessional and sloppy. 

    Another feature I really love is the fact that I can write an email late at night (which I often do because I’m a night owl), but schedule it to be sent at 9 am the next day so that the recipient thinks I work normal hours and doesn’t come to expect me to reply when they send an email in the evening.  It’s those kinds of things that I really love about the tool.

    What Mailbutler does for me is it makes that part of my work life less frustrating - and that brings me joy in a weird sort of way.

    I’m glad that you enjoy Mailbutler and that it helps you improve your email communication! And that is everything. Thank you so much for the interview! I wish you all the best, Andrew.


    Did you read the last interview, where we had the chance to talk to Johanna Mager? If not, keep reading this interesting article “How To Positively Contribute To The World“.

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