Buzzwords Kill

Those of us that work with educational technology are constantly awash in a sea of buzzwords.    These buzzwords can, at times, be useful; particularly when everyone is on the same page and have a common understanding of what a particular buzzword means. Admittedly, it’s much easier to toss off a term like ‘gamification’ or ‘learning analytics’ than it is to explain what those terms represent.

However, rather than providing clarity, buzzwords can actually become barriers to understanding.  In a recent call for proposals for ELI 2018 Malcolm Brown recognizes this tendency and advises those wishing to submit proposals to “be careful of exhausted buzz words such as ‘disruptive innovation’ and ‘personalized learning'”. He suggests the use of more “organic, genuine, and original” descriptors. The list of tired buzz words continues to grow as educators, and those selling commercial packages designed to be used in the classroom, look for quick and easy ways to describe complex processes.  I created the above word cloud by copying and pasting the text from a brochure touting a new ed-tech product into Wordle.  Here we see “cutting-edge”, “forward-thinking”, “entrepreneurship”, “innovation”, “creativity”, and a whole slew of words and phrases that started out innocently enough but eventually, through abuse, misuse, or overuse fell into the realm of jargon.

The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century

Steven Pinker, in his amazingly helpful book on writing, attributes the tendency for people to use buzzwords as “the curse of knowledge”.

Every human pastime–music, cooking, sports, art, theoretical physics–develops an argot to spare its enthusiasts from having to say or type a long-winded description every time they refer to a familiar concept in each other’s company. The problem is that as we become proficient at our job or hobby we come to use these catchwords so often that they flow out of our fingers automatically, and we forget that our readers may not be members of the clubhouse in which we learned them.

For Pinker this type of jargon is a barrier between a writer and his intended audience. In the context of educational technology this barrier to understanding can have widespread, negative consequences for even the most sound and practical initiatives.  Rather than facilitating a discussion, an injudicious use of buzzwords can stop a conversation in its tracks; particularly if the buzzword in question is emotionally charged.  And these days it’s not difficult to create an emotional charge in seemingly innocuous terms. Take the ‘flipped classroom’….please.  According to ELI, “The flipped classroom is a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures are viewed by students at home before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects, or discussions.” (Educause Learning Initiative 2012)

That seems fairly straight forward and probably was until some educators and edtech commercial enterprises adopted the term to differentiate between ‘enlightened’, ‘innovative’ instructors and traditional, “sage on the stage” practitioners.  Immediately an ‘us vs. them’ dynamic was created and became worse when ‘flipped classroom’ became code for the ‘right way’ to teach.

The problem, at this point in the evolution of this buzzword, is with instructors who adopt, what they understand to be a ‘flipped classroom’ approach when they, in fact, don’t have a clear understanding of how to implement the process.  It does considerable damage to the ‘flipped classroom brand if an instructor believes they have ‘flipped’ their classroom, subsequently sees no noticeable results, and concludes that ‘flipped classrooms’ don’t work.  Without a clear understanding of a ‘flipped classroom’ in the first place, the instructor doesn’t necessarily explore ways of improving a process they, instead, dismiss the practice entirely.

The students in that course would also have a changed view of a ‘flipped classroom’. If the instructor announced his/her new ‘flipped’ approach as the rationale for asking them to watch a prerecorded lecture, and then came to class only to have the lecture repeated or supplemented by additional lecture material (it happens), the students would quickly realize that this didn’t create any value added for them and would ignore the online lecture or watch the online lecture and skip class.  They would also be leery of other classes that claimed to use a ‘flipped classroom’ model.

Now, what happens when you’re the instructor who unsuccessfully implemented the ‘flipped classroom’, or the instructor who had been branded a ‘sage on the stage’ traditionalist and you’re sitting in a department meeting where someone is extolling the virtues of a ‘flipped classroom’?  Are you excited? Enthusiastic? Ready to give it a go?  Probably not.  And that’s sad because, just maybe, that person is about to describe something that, but for the negative connotations of a pernicious buzzword, might have introduced you to a really useful and effective classroom strategy.


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