Learning and Technology
The definition of what constitutes a Learning Technology is unique to every individual. With growth around educational technology over the years, the UKHE sector has collectively settled on Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) as one of the primary catch-all phrases. Which is a pretty optimistic phrase to say the least. This comes down to a tendency to discuss learning technologies in enthusiastic and often exaggerated terms (Selwyn, 2015). Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – everyone likes a bit of excitement – but with one of the key words being ‘enhanced’, it immediately forgets all of those important pedagogical considerations that sit behind the implementation of technology in learning.
Without this focus on teaching and learning we run the risk of perpetuating the idea that technology can actively drive the learning process. This puts the focus on technology above the learning. But, with the popularity of this term, we also find critics, and quite rightly so. If we take a slightly more cynical view on TEL as a catch-all term, we can argue that TEL doesn’t appropriately address the complexity of the partnership between education and technology (Bayne, 2014).
It removes the emphasis of the impact of social forces and learner perspectives that heavily shape the experiences of our students. Instead, we give prominence to the ‘enhanced’ aspect. We imply that by implementing TEL practices into learning we automatically add positive impact. This assumption doesn’t consider the practicalities behind the implementation. TEL requires thoughtful curriculum design and a sound pedagogical understanding of the limitations and constraints of technology in a given context.
In this regard, we should evaluate any TEL practice alongside other metrics. Consider whether technology has been retrofitted into an existing design vs. a course that has been built from the ground up embed technology in a managed and thoughtful way. But this is still quite high level, you may find yourself drawn into an exploration of your own unique and individual environmental domain. Beyond that, you could start to consider the issues from external factors, such as the diversification of entrance routes into universities (Milliken & Barnes, 2002), or the changes in student expectations and societal demand (Wolf, 2003; Chan, 2016).
So, what is 'enhanced'?
Let’s be honest, the word ‘enhanced’ means something different to each individual, each department, each institution. And a term with such subjective nature, especially with the potential for major impact, should be treated with a healthy level of scepticism. We should question the relationship between the terminology and the pedagogical application and consider the impact of the disconnection between the two.
Yet, despite the ambiguity of the term many institutions have taken TEL and used it as a branding tool for digital assets, and in doing so do not necessarily emphasise these issues. The commerciality and strategic objectives of an institution all factor into how a course is designed and delivered and these non-teaching priorities often multiply the difficulties of TEL practices (Murphey, 2016). In short, teaching decisions are not always pedagogical decisions. We don’t ignore the pedagogy by any stretch, but we do look at the bigger picture, and sometimes that takes precedence.
So, with all these moving parts, how exactly do we define an enhancement? Take a look at the following categorisations (Kirkwood & Price, 2014):
- Operational improvement – focusing on accessibility of materials and flexibility of the learning process.
- Quantitative change in learning – aimed at increasing knowledge retention measured through achievement in test scores.
- Qualitative change in learning – promoting greater comprehension through reflective practices where the onus lies with the learner but is facilitated by the system or teacher.
These categorisations are quite general and lack explicit consideration for learning design, but they do provide a basis for a discussion about the ultimate aim behind the implementation of technology – what do you actually need it to do and why do you think technology is the solution?
Is tech in the limelight, or is it the supporting actor?
Most of what we know to be a Learning Technology has been appropriated from other vocations. In fact, it’s very rare to see education driving the development of any technology. But, in any industry, most technologies are relied upon to provide an operational improvement. It’s likely fair to say that the same is true for technology implemented in education – they deliver against the first category listed above.
For example, we may intend for technology to increase productivity and manage the students cognitive load, but in essence the technology offers an enhancement to the administrative aspects of learning – it saves you time and effort. Consider the number of technologies that retain a core function to transmit information or facilitate conversation. In many cases, technology simply shares ideas between actors within the learning environment – and could otherwise be known as a VLE Discussion Forum, a Zoom Chat or even an Email.
It is this distinction that defines a Learning Technology. It’s a mechanism that is leveraged by learners and faculty to facilitate the learning process. This learning process is cyclical, it’s a series of interactions and activities that build on prior knowledge and shared ideas to construct a more comprehensive understanding of a concept and its application in context. Within that process, you may identify several opportunities where technology can support. For example, a formative assessment consisting of automated question types (such as Multiple-Choice Questions). But the questions are designed by faculty, and the feedback is designed by faculty. On top of that, it’s faculty who decide where this formative assessment sits within the course and curriculum. It’s the pedagogy that’s in the driving seat.
So, when using TEL take time to discuss what it is you’re trying to enhance – what part of the learning is technology supporting?
What should I consider when using Technology in Learning?
It can be daunting to think about the broad implications for using technology, but here’s some tips to start with:
The barriers to technology aren't new barriers
- First-order barriers are extrinsic in nature and relate to environmental factors that impact implementation, this can be attributed to lack of time, or lack of support as well as lack of access to the appropriate technologies.
- Second-order barriers are intrinsic to the individual, these may be cultural attitudes to technology or their confidence in their ability to use it.
Implementing TEL is a ‘multifaceted challenge that entails more than simply acquiring and distributing computers’ (Ertmer, 1999). Be purposeful in your use of technology and ensure there is support available. You may wish to use something supported by the School, or a tool already embedded in your students’ practice.
Passive learners are not necessarily motivated learners
Consider the purpose behind the activities you’ve designed. An automated ‘knowledge check’ quiz can be a useful activity, but there should be a tangible benefit to students. It’s OK to automate some of the feedback mechanisms behind your activities but ensure that students receive useful feedback – tell them why the correct answer is correct, and signpost to materials that can support a further development.
Keep it simple
Pick the right tool for the job. It doesn’t need to be the tool with the greatest functionality, it’s the tool that delivers against the requirements for your activity.
Do students need to use an online collaborative whiteboard, when a blank PowerPoint slide will do?
And be open to suggestion. If technology is seen to limit the creativity or suppress authenticity for your students then it has the potential reduce engagement (Surrey & Baker, 2016).
Make learning your primary focus, but don’t ignore the technology. Consider your design, your purpose and be open to change.
Work with your students to understand their needs and provide support so as not to contribute to a growing digital divide that is detrimental to the learning experience.
Bayne, S., 2014. What's the matter with 'technology-enhanced learning'?. Learning, Media and Technology, 40(1), pp. 5-20.
Chan, R., 2016. Understanding the purpose of Higher Education: An analysis of the economic and social benefits for completing a college degree. Journal of Education Policy, 6(5), pp. 1-40.
Ertmer, P., 1999. Addressing First- and Second-order Barriers to Change: Strategies for Technology Integration. Educational Technology Research and Development , 47(4), pp. 47-61.
Kirkwood , A. & Price, L., 2014. Technology-enhanced learning and teaching in higher education: what is 'enhanced' and how do we know? A critical literature review. Learning, Media and Technology, pp. 6-36.
Milliken, J. & Barnes, P., 2002. Teaching and technology in higher education: student perceptions and personal reflections. Computers and Education, Volume 39, pp. 223-235.
Murphey, T., 2016. The future of Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) is in the hands of the anonymous, grey non-descript mid-level professional manager. Irish Journal of Technology Enhanced Learning, 2(1), pp. 1-9.
Selwyn, N., 2016. Minding our language: why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it. Learning, Media and Technology, 41(3), p. 437-443.
Surrey, D. & Baker, F., 2016. The co‐dependent relationship of technology and communities. British Journal of Educational Technology, pp. 13-28.
Wolf, A., 2003. Does education matter? Myths about education and economic growth. New York, NY: Penguin Business.