Critically assessing and reflecting on the various methods of learning mediated through technologies

The relationship of technology and education

When people learn, their behaviour changes as a result of acquiring knowledge and  performing actions based upon that knowledge, previous experiences, conversations with others, and whilst reflecting on observations (Knowles, Holton et al. 2005).  For centuries, a lot of these instances of learning, especially the formalised type, had been encouraged and furthered by dedicated spaces and educational establishments where pupils would gather for scholarly addresses; you simply would not be educated if you were living at distance from the institution or could not find the means to get there (Marrou 1982).  As societies began to industrialise, travel became easier, transporting goods over distances became quicker and cheaper, and people from disparate locations were able to study through correspondence and make contact with tutors who were hundreds of miles away (Anderson & Dron 2011).  Then in the last several decades came the rampant telecommunication advancements that made communication over long distances common place, and today we converse amongst each other as if we are sitting in one room.  Technology’s position in the world today is that it is intrinsically intertwined with the cultural, social, political, and economical aspects of society (Selwyn 2010).  Educational establishments are not spared either; it’s evident after taking a glance at educational environments that computers are pieces of furniture as washing machines and microwaves are the norm in kitchens.  Basically, technology is so commonplace that nobody even questions the assumptions anymore of whether the use of technology in classrooms is essentially a good thing (Selwyn 2010).

Is the use of technology in education a good thing?

How could it be that in the edifices of research, debate and deliberation anything could pass without it being scrutinised?  This was not how it used to be; any novel tool or innovation in classrooms was eschewed and anything that slipped in was frowned upon, preference was generally given to traditional methods of education, especially in conservative circles, the locus of where most decisions were made.

To comprehend the present predicament, we must start by understanding the past and look at how technology and innovation was perceived previously.  Martin Bean, Vice-Chancellor of Open University, unearthed some interesting attitudes early educators had regarding novel tools for learning, or one could say educational technology of those times.  The first quote is taken from minutes of a Teachers’ Conference in 1703:

“Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems. They depend on their slates which are more expensive. What will they do when the slate is dropped and it breaks? They will be unable to write.”

Then in 1815, from a Principals’ Association publication:

“Students today depend upon paper too much. They don’t know how to write on slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?”

Another century later and in another publication, The National Association of Teachers Journal dated 1907 reported:

“Students today depend too much upon ink.  They don’t know how to use a penknife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil”.

Then approximately 20 years later, another perceived ‘deviation’ that came into vogue and which pupils had become accustomed to, perhaps to save time whilst learning, wasn’t spared by sceptics either. In the Rural American Teacher journal a writer wrote:

“Students today depend upon store-bought ink.  They don’t know how to make their own.  When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words…[t]his is a sad commentary on modern education.”

This preserve of pessimism was not only amongst the academic circles, but pervaded through to parents; in 1941, an advancement that had become widespread amongst students was looked at disapprovingly as an extravagant luxury. The Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) Gazette reported:

“Students today depend on these expensive fountain pens. They can no longer write with a straight pen and nib. We parents must not allow them to wallow in such luxury to the detriment of learning how to cope in the real business world which is not so extravagant.”

Fountain pens might have been costly in those times; a global military conflict was intensely raging and many people around the world were rationing essentials and being careful of unnecessary expenditure.  Indeed this outcry of parents when compared to Selwyn’s (2010) comments above –i.e. the current state of unquestioned value of technology in education – seems to confirm Merriam & Brockett (2007) observations that in the developed world currently, we can afford things at a fraction of the cost of what it would’ve cost in the past, and so what would have been luxuries decades ago are now taken for granted.  When things are taken for granted they become transparent to our minds and our scrutiny.  Take sliced bread for instance; someone thought of it, it caught on and stuck to our preferences and habits; it’s now standard, and bread comes sliced everywhere.

Another contribution to our inability to question whether technology in education is a good thing is that we face daily a “paradox of choice”; almost limitless decisions daily to make about our lifestyles; from the food we eat to the clothes we buy and wear, from what we do in our leisure time to the way we learn and communicate.  The overwhelming choices -fuelled by our need for consumption – creates the feeling of anxiety and pacifies people into a state of indecisiveness.  With the unprecedented advances in technology over the last several decades and the plethora of choices to learn via it, it seems that our judgements had become frozen before adopting and embracing technology for learning; it just slipped into the processes of learning under our noses whilst we failed to question whether the value of using technologies did equate to advancement in human learning.  We used to ponder and then implement ideas; we now implement ideas, and then begin to ponder.  Nevertheless technology is ‘part and parcel’ of our lives now, and it’s nonsensical to go in to reverse and consider life without it.  We can however pause and consider what we have, understand it, and harness it to our advantage.

Any discussion surrounding the consideration of learning through technology necessitates an examination of its definition; what is Technology? What constitutes something to be a Learning Technology?  The next section looks into this briefly.

The definition of Learning Technology

Technology is not what would appear in a modern day teenager’s imagination; that is of iPods, iPhones, and iPads, technology is more than gadgets and gizmos.  Definitions can be drawn from various dictionaries however they are not very useful for the current discussion.  MIT Professor Merrit Roe Smith, however mentions a definition from a colleague, David Mendell, which defines technology eloquently:

“… the constellation of tools, machinery, systems, and techniques that manipulate the natural world for human ends.”

The definition is broad, however Selwyn (2010) describes technology more succinctly as:

“…the process by which humans modify nature to meet their needs and wants.”

However, Cowan (1997) goes a step further and defines technology to be more then processes, and one that fits technology in its entire historical context;

“…things that people have created so as to better control and manipulate the social environment.”

Cowan’s (1997) description displays the inextricable link technology plays with humans, their environments and culture, and therefore highlights technology’s position as an important component in influencing, and being influenced by, human beliefs, ideologies, social, and organisational affiliations.

To gain the definition of learning technology we have to look closer to the words of the inventor of the ballpoint pen in the light of the definitions for technology we have seen above.  The ballpoint pen is arguably one of the most remarkable inventions of modern time; however at the time of its invention and introduction it faced a barrage of scrutiny in schools (Bean 2009).  When Laszio Biro came to hear of such criticisms of his invention, he would smile and say:

“Well, writing comes from the heart.  If we can help the hand to perform the task, what is so wrong with that?”

If looked at carefully, the words “help the hand to perform the task” denotes a tool that aids human endeavours, and it resembles Cowan’s (1997) definition of technology.  Therefore, any tool used in education for enhancement of learning, is a learning technology, including the pen.  Of course, tools such as pens are today firmly embedded into educational culture, indispensible and essential to learning and learning processes.  Pens are also ubiquitous, cheap, easily available, and have been around for a long time, therefore the novelty has worn-off, and nobody notices a pen nowadays in a classroom, nor do they recognise a pen to be a learning technology like they would an iPad, for instance.  Perhaps one day, an iPad will lose its novelty like the pen and also not get categorised as a learning technology, but for now, learning technologies like the iPad, pushed arguably by much hyperbole and fanfare, is changing the way we teach and learn in classrooms.

Learning mediated through technologies

Of the various ways in which learning is mediated through technology, two of that have a lot of buzz around them lately, are Online Learning and Social Learning.  Both are currently being propelled by the astronomical growth in Internet usage, last year 73% of households in the UK were reported to have Internet access.  In the US, Online Learning offered through educational establishments accounted for $34 billion in revenues, and by 2019 it is predicted that over 50% of all classes will be delivered online.   Facebook, one of the social networking tools which makes Social Learning possible, has users as many to make up a country, third largest in fact, behind China and India (Qualman 2010).

In the following sections we’ll begin to explore these two types of learning that are creating opportunities for people and enhancing the way we learn through technology, demonstrating that neither are fads, but are fast competing traditional methods of education.

What is Online Learning?

Online Learning hasn’t just arrived from nowhere, but has evolved from over 150 years of practice of Distance Education, prior to this teaching and learning took place as a face-to-face activity (Reynolds, Caley et al 2002).  Anderson & Dron (2011) portray a good picture of Distance Education characterised by the fact, as the name suggests, that the tutor was separated by distance from the pupil, and the pupil was further segregated from their class of peers.  For decades print and postal correspondence remained the main means for study and communication, until 1969 when the Open University supplemented the process with audio cassettes and broadcast media.  In the late 1980s, research in Computer Based Instruction (CBI) started making its way into teaching into areas especially where high rates of reinforcement in learning was required (Reynolds, Caley et al 2002).  From then onwards, with its emphasis on connectivity and artful instructional design the ‘electronic’/’digital’ learning phenomenon developed rapidly as new technologies were adopted on a worldwide scale (Reynolds, Caley et al 2002).

Reviewing source materials in this field reveals that much ambiguity still remains on the terminologies used for naming and describing Online Learning;  some people refer to it as e-Learning, Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL), Internet Learning, Web-based learning, Pervasive  learning, and Digital learning, to name but a few (Anderson 2008).  However for the purpose of this study ‘Online Learning’ will be used as it grasps the current spirit of learning through perpetual Internet connectivity and where things are to go towards in the future.  It is also the preferred terminology of JISC (Joint Information System Committee).

Currently with the explosion of usage of technologies in all walks of life including learning, Online Learning per se, may mean different things to different people regardless of the ambiguities that exists in naming and description mentioned before.  The current big four names in technology (Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook) are betting on everything to be accessed online via ‘the cloud’, rather than stored on hard-disks, including music, books, news, entertainment, and now education establishments are beginning to follow suit.  It is appropriate therefore to define what Online Learning is before looking at how it will affect Higher Education in the UK; Anderson (2008) describes it as:

“…[t]he use of the Internet to access learning materials; to interact with the content, instructor, and other learners; and to obtain support during the learning process, in order to acquire knowledge, to construct personal meaning, and to grow from the learning experience.”

Can Online Learning work in the Higher Education sector?

By the time this piece is published, David Willets the Minister of State for Universities and Science, will have released the Universities White Paper setting the vision and direction for Higher Education, and particularly fixing the upper limit of tuition fees to £9000 (3 times more than what students had paid before!).  This will be the culmination of months of uncertainty after a series of cuts to the Higher Education teaching grants, and some commentators think that this could be the moment when Online Learning truly becomes an alternative to the traditional face-to-face education.

A podcast created by JISC covers some compelling evidences to suggest so too.  It begins by postulating that Online Learning can be “engaging, enriching, and effective”, however, students are already savvy and generally refrain from engagement when they feel “palmed off with an ill-considered, unstructured, and poorly moderated courses”.  As the directives of the White Paper become a reality next year, students will be increasingly akin to consumers and no doubt will be snuffing out under-developed, undervalued, and badly supported online courses.  If traditional courses are to be delivered online there could be yet more work on the horizon for academics, and they will need to spend more time polishing their courses, and their technology skills.

In the podcast, Dr Alejandro Armellini talks about the need for upskilling academics and raising the quality of Online Learning courses, and further comments about an endemic culture within Higher Education where academics have a ‘dump the courses on VLE’ attitude, which ultimately leads to failure of effective delivery of courses.  Moreover Armellini says, tutors who perceive “I’ve put my content online therefore my students are e-learning” is bound not to work, and more than 90% of Online Learning courses suffer this fate.  Professor Gilly Salmon, Executive Director of the Australian Digital Futures Institute, concurs and gives advice in the interview that developers of Online Learning should consider addressing the problems of learning by not thinking of what technologies can do for learning, but look at a problem in learning first, and then consider how technology can help solve it.

However, as the Governmental directives call for open competition for student intake, Higher Education Institutions will inevitably try to outdo and outbid each other as businesses do; one of the ways would be to cut costs and move courses further into the virtual domain.  Editor of the Times Higher publication, Ann Mroz, however forewarns that:

“Any broadening of provision and innovation in delivering it is welcome. But online distance learning needs careful handling. Problems will arise if courses grow out of financial and political pressures rather than considered educational strategy.”

A study conducted by the Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning, University of Oxford, identifies that although extremely difficult to find and gather on institutional websites, approximately 2,600 courses are delivered online in the UK already.  Institutions are generally not worried about technologies as long as their business model and pedagogy are sound.  The study also reveals that the breadth of curriculum is not covered sufficiently and skewed towards professional-type courses such as business; courses such as humanities and philosophy are predominantly delivered face-to-face.

If as envisaged the potential demand for Online Learning courses mushroom over the next few years, the supply will need to have quality at the heart of development, as we’ve seen above, otherwise we risk of marring the image of UK academia as having uninspiring and disengaging education.  A book is typically judged by its cover; our courses have been judged well by their content for centuries, but with Online Learning courses, the calibre of how the content is delivered will also be scrutinised i.e. the learning technologies.

The study also identifies that Online Learning has not lived up to what some people had initially envisaged it to be, in that it’s not been successfully industrialised, where education can be delivered to masses with the tutelage of a single tutor.  Online Learning courses have not been very effective in so far as successfully assigning many students to a tutor; the system has a tendency to break down after a cohort reaches above 30. The ill-fated government-backed ‘e-University’ which dismantled itself after a year of opening is an example that Online Learning courses cannot simply be taken off the shelf and just uploaded for immediate use.

Additionally, the idea that technology will bring efficiency must be challenged thoroughly. Online Learning should not be seen as a panacea for cuts in Higher Education budgets, indeed there are many events in and out of a typical student’s day-to-day experiences that cannot be replicated, such as networking, socialising, recreational activities, and all that goes with living away from home.  Many of these experiences and interactions help guide an inexperienced student through the few years of studying like a sat-nav, rather than being left fumbling in the dark.

In the podcast, Dr Richard Hall and David White make pertinent comments about the joys and woes of Online Learning, and in one comment they assert that in a student’s mind, online courses are perceived as a “cheaper alternative” when compared to face-to-face learning.  Therefore, if Online Learning is to work, whether it is in the delivery of entire courses or part thereof, then much needs to be done at an institutional level to change these perceptions of the student, bearing in mind that in about a year’s time, the student will have shades of a consumer.

However, these student perceptions can be challenged and subsequently eradicated by putting the learner at the centre of course creation, and we may have to dismantle and rebuild our courses ground-up.  As Professor Gilly Salmon says in another interview, “It’s up to us to pace and create resources that make [learning as] easy as possible for [the students], and it’s up to us to emulate the face-to-face environment, so that they can enjoy being online and working with others, even if they don’t physically meet [up together].”

What is Social Learning? Does it have a role in Higher Education?

We are living in a world of increased complexity, and with the advances in technology the growth of information, the speed by which it is stored, accessed and retrieved is also speedily increasing.  For instance in 2009, more data was generated in a single year, than in the entire history of mankind through to 2008.  To help further appreciate at just how fast things are moving and the challenges that we face collectively, the following quote sums the state of affairs very aptly; those working in the education sector should take note:

“We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist…using technologies that haven’t been invented yet…in order to solve problems we don’t know as problems yet”.

The major contributor to this rampant growth in data has been the way we interact with the World Wide Web.  This last decade has seen us go from passively reading with the odd sporadic comment to becoming major contributors, as no longer special web development software and hardware are needed but only an internet-connected device.  The term ‘Social Media’ describes this phenomenon of web users becoming producers of content, which includes Social Networking platforms (Facebook, Twitter) and collaboration applications (blogs, wikis); a personal or corporate profile and presence on these sites is fast becoming an accepted norm.

It is reported that over 75% of 16-25 year olds participate in Social Networking; therefore Social Media is not something to be taken lightly by educators, and the Social Learning which is underpinned by this cluster of technologies should be positively exploited to help keep afloat the technological revolution we are experiencing.  Knowing knowledge is no longer power, however access to knowledge, and links to those that have it, is power.

Social Learning can be seen as being a branch of Online Learning; Anderson’s (2008) definition for Online Learning contained portions in the description when extracted could define Social Learning:

“…to interact with the [Online] content, instructor, and other learners…to obtain support…in order to acquire knowledge…and construct personal meaning…”

However, the assertion holds more value when comparing the above statement to the definition for Social Learning by Harold Jarche:

“Social Learning is [when] knowledge is created, internalized and shared.”

Notice the words ‘interact’ in Anderson’s (2008) quote and ‘share’ in Jarche’s definition.  Interacting and sharing with others is key, as categorically stated by Harold Jarche later in the same work:

“Without sharing, there is no Social Learning.”

The word social was invented before any modern technology, and learning socially is obviously not a new thing, however with the freely available Social Media tools and the global reach they easily give makes learning with others much easier.  Thus, a better definition of Social Learning appropriate for today is:

“…the development of knowledge, skills and attitudes while connected to others (peers, mentors, experts) in an electronic surround of digital media, both real-time and asynchronous.”

Social Learning, not to be confused by Social Learning Theory of Albert Bandura,               is backed by a new theory of learning namely Connectivism which states that learning occurs as a result of tapping into the knowledge of individuals through networks and connections.

The benefits of Social Learning for learners are numerous, however of the salient are that it encourages (e.g. using a blog) detailed and structured writing and amplification of ideas on an informal level – i.e. one that doesn’t get assessed – however allowing others to comment, discuss, and further expand knowledge on the topic.  Another great benefit is that (e.g. using Facebook/Twitter) it links into expert networks and becomes an invaluable discovery source which were not possible before the advent of Social Media; for instance, a learner in genetic science, despite being enrolled at a particular institution, can be linked to an expert at Harvard and tap into their reading lists, research papers, and ideas without having left the institution.

Like any learning preferences or technology, Social Learning has pitfalls which collectively can render the ideology useless.

  1. It is the preserve of the global affluent; 40% of the world’s population are connected to the Internet, the other 60% are potentially deprived.
  2. Constructivists will argue that some of the best learning they have had was a solitary activity, i.e. alone in a room with a book.  So Social Learning won’t suit all.
  3. Social Learning works best in informal learning situations.  However, it may be difficult in formal learning situations.
  4. Social Media is an open forum and it’s easy to get caught into a personal chat, or follow link after link to irrelevant reading, or being bombarded with content; to the peril of actual learning.
  5. Innovative or patented research ideas may leak out inadvertently or discovered by an astute competitor.
  6. Information via Social Media doesn’t mean that the quality will be there too. The content and providers always needs to be verified.
  7. The tools are freely available, however change of mind to being a paid facility, irritating advertising, sharing of personal data, and the prospects of the company failing and disappearing with files and data can always pose danger.

Albert Einstein once wrote to his son Eduard saying:

“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep balance you must keep moving.”

Social media is part of life, it’s going places with no sign of it stopping, and learning through it is quickly becoming commonplace.  Despite the pitfalls of Social Learning that have been discussed, which may cause an ‘imbalance’, they are only minor in comparison to the benefits; participation is needed to experience its merits and frailties, and every individual should make that choice whether Social Learning complements their learning or not.  However based upon the author’s personal experiences, Social Learning does enhance learning; this very piece was largely researched applying Social Learning methods.

Final thoughts

In this blog post, whilst ‘critically assessing and reflecting on the various methods of learning mediated through technologies’ we have seen the role that technology plays in society and education, and how it is breaking down barriers to learning, making it commonplace in classrooms.  Over time, critics have attempted to scrutinise new tools in education, however due to the progressive society of the time and technological advancements in industry, technology came into classrooms pretty much unquestionably.  Technology is made by us, so that we can control and manipulate our social environments (Cowan 1997), therefore we must take time out to pause and ponder over its use in learning situations, in order to see its advantages.

As we ride another wave of advancement with unlimited resources and perpetual access to the Internet, Online Learning and Social Learning are two compelling ways we can learn during the tumultuous time in Higher Education, where the landscape of learning is changing swiftly and the way we seek education will never be the same.  However, the time is also ripe, during these challenging times to use Online Learning and Social Learning to open up our repositories of knowledge to benefit those that may not be so fortunate of having the same liberties in developing nations and our generations to come.

References

Knowles, M., E. Holton, et al. (2005). The adult learner: The definitive classic in adult education and human resource development, Butterworth-Heinemann.

Marrou, H. (1982). A history of education in antiquity. University of Wisconsin Press

Selwyn, N. (2011). Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, Continuum.

Anderson, T., and J. Dron (2011).  Three Generations of Distance Education Pedagogy, The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Merriam, S. and R. Brockett (2007). The profession and practice of adult education: An introduction, Jossey-Bass Inc.

Reynolds, J., L. Caley, et al. (2002). How do people learn?, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

Qualman, E. (2010), Socialnomics: How Social Media Transforms the Way We Live and Do Business, Wiley

Anderson, T. (2008), The theory and practice of Online Learning, Athabasca University Press.

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