Questions about the impact of technology

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Gráinne Conole
10 December 2009

What are your views on the following questions and issues which arise as a consequence of the impact of technology in education?

  • Students increasingly digital – demands on institutions?
  • Students and teachers - personalised environment of tools vs. institutional tools?
  • What new forms of blended learning spaces are needed?
  • How do we support  new approaches to design and delivery of courses to make more effective use of technologies and lead to an enhance student learning experience?
  • How do we take account of a digital divide that is ever narrower but deeper?
  • What new digital literacy skills will learners and teachers need ?
  • What new pedagogical models are needed to marry the affordances of personalisation with the best affordances of technologies?
  • How do we account for blurring boundaries (real/virtual, formal/informal, etc)?

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Mike Harland
10:33pm 11 December 2009


Mmmm ... I wonder what people's reticence to respond to this is? Too wide a subject? Maybe a bit of controversy is needed from an iconoclast like me!
So here goes. I speak from the standpoint of somebody who started designing multimedia courseware in 1990s when the MAC arrived with B&W graphics, sound and primitive animation and I produced a talking dictionary with interactive language exercises and simple feedback. We were even trying out early Expert Systems for grammatical rules to show students the logic behind functional grammar. At that stage students were still afraid of using the mouse and keyboards - all their work was handwritten.
5 years later we were embedding small colour videos into Hypercard stacks with subtitling and had full control over video frames through Quicktime.
19 years later students are now used to keyboards, mice, gesture commands, voice input, etc. - i.e. they now have what are referred to as "digital literacy skills". Quicktime failed as a multimedia platform (shackled by M$ when Apple nearly died a death) and application video control has hardly moved on at all. We may have HD, web-embedded digitised vids and sound popping up everywhere, but there is little that we could not do 15 years ago - they just have better definition and speed. It is all quite usable now and requires little effort from the author/programmer, but I haven't seen much of it really exploited in what are now called their "affordances".
"Interactive multimedia" has now morphed into "blended learning spaces" and "personalised environments" full of netgen "tools" - but has anything really changed? Where is the depth of new research and its implementation. One could even argue that students, after the initial shock, actually took the technology ' tools' more seriously then, whereas now they merely see them as 'toys' used endlessly at home and now allowed at school to help them adapt to their greater attention span deficits.
I may appear to be a bit of a Luddite, but I have the advantage of two decades of experience, enough to form an overview of so-called progress - I even have the experience of being one of the first people to see OWL's prototype multimedia authoring system, Guide, hiked around UK publishers who thought that CDs would never take off back in the bygone days of 1993: (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0SMG/is_n3_v13/ai_13427396/  ) and the discipline of building foreign language rules for Ashton Tate spell-checkers for the first relational databases.
My doubts about pedagogical progress are similarly founded on long experience, not an apparent antagonism towards the new technologies or pedagogical models - 'user-centred learning', 'self-paced learning' and the idea of 'teacher as guide' were fundamental to our approach then and they are similarly my own daughters' watchwords as they teach in Mexico or go through postgrad teacher training here in Glasgow. They have first-hand experience of the "tech-face" with the use of whiteboards, web resources, pupil creativity, etc., just as my own nephew has experience of the OU's student interface and online courseware.
What they tell me, and what I notice, is the lack of preparedness to exploit the potential of the new media both on the part of learners and teachers alike. Change may be a factor of life for the new generations and managing change is one of their greatest skills nowadays, but if the technology never has a chance to bed down, and the pedagogy never has a chance to engage, then all the skills in the world will not make them successful. Our society now lives on a 'surface' level with very little notion of 'depth'. Time is more 'costly' through global capitalism, so nobody can 'afford' to wait for the 'affordances' of learning to be recognised. I bet the university authorities are still thinking of squeezing 4 terms into one year and the 3 year degree into two! Depth of learning and length of learning over time are therefore at a premium and real 'experience' is lacking in many ways. That is the "opportunity cost" of modern education!
Perhaps what I am getting at is my own fossilised bugbears of a) education v. training and b) educational 'focus': education takes time and requires depth of understanding and analytical skills, whereas training can be more mechanical and does not necessarily require understanding or analysis to perform the required output;  the first has depth, the second is more superficial (what we used to call deep or surface learning, involving the notion of hierarchy). Without depth to learning, and even more importantly the notion of focus, we will end up with an extremely blurred form of pedagogy without real canons and without a clear path forward.
In many ways, learning is going through the aftermath of the post-modernist era where fragmentation ruled and authority was decried. The fragmentation of today's 'post'-post-modern society, which means that most youngsters nowadays can count their virtual FB friends and Twitter followers in the tens, hundreds and thousands, but do not even know the names of their physical neighbours, has led to a superficial world made up of what is seen as 'variety', 'choice' and 'connectivity', full of information (facts), resources (tools), and 'networks' (loose, unweighted, web structures forming links without meaning). The result is a generation that can find facts and figures at the click of a mouse or the tap of a keyboard, but cannot work out how to use a hierarchical index, follow logical links according to their 'relevance', or analyse historical, political, financial or societal statements for veracity. Why else is industry in this non-productive country (now crashed on 'invisible earnings') crying out for such elementary skills in its workforce, whereas those countries facing the realities of life learn them from daily experience. Education without hierarchical, meaningfully-linked depth is a waste of all our budgets.
The resulting 'black-hole' of post-modernity is a no-man's land of doubt, uncertainty and 'virtuality', allied to status disease and the cult of the self - the subsequent 'person-centred focus' has certainly helped to remove or blur the boundaries between teacher and learner, but it also has placed an unfortunate emphasis on immediate self-gratification, a flouting of responsibility and blindness to reality. In many ways UK students (maybe western in general?) are too spoilt (and even bored) with all their technology and see no reason to use it responsibly or to their advantage - hence the greater respect towards education in 'developing' countries from both students and parents alike, together with their correspondingly higher success rates. The deeper foci of real 'need' and 'value' are much sharper in their eyes and from their everyday experience.
So my central response to the bullet points above is that of questioning whether there has been any real progress or depth of research in 'e-learning' (whatever its actual specific meaning may convey, since I reckon it is just as ambiguous as 'interactive learning' used to be!), or any clear awareness of what it all means to the people who matter: the learners (and possibly their mentors).
The greatest danger I see is that of the loss of humanity in the learning process: by 'humanity' I mean 'real social contact' and not just 'social networking'. I recently listened to a BBC radio broadcast on teleworking (something I have also had first-hand knowledge of since retirement from academe, now working as an online translator): the greatest disadvantage people felt was not exactly human contact as such, but the 'depth' of that contact in the sense of "intellectual stimulation" and "interpersonal understanding".
You can have all the inanimate virtual tools and disconnected incoherate tweets in the world, but if you forget the element of immediate reality and true human communication and discourse, you will not have any lasting gathering of experience or depth of skills, no 'education' as such, and no vertical forward progress in pedagogy - just a lateral spread of change-sensitive, ephemeral notions on pedagogy, a diffuse set of disjunctive horizontal pathways for learners to work out their own 'personal learning strategy', and a hit-and-miss, broken-linked, channel-hopping approach to the successful meeting of educational targets (cf. erstwhile 'goal-led' approach to learning).
There! - I hope this stimulates some meaningful response to the above questions, some in-depth thinking on such a vital area of development, and some focussed rebuttal, discussion or analysis of what is implied.
I have parodied your love of jargon, and either sent you to sleep or provoked your derision, so try and keep things straight and simple children ...

Mmmm ... I wonder what people's reticence to respond to this is? Too wide a subject? Maybe a bit of controversy is needed from an old iconoclast like myself!

So here goes. I speak from the standpoint of somebody who started designing multimedia courseware in 1990s when the MAC arrived with B&W graphics, sound and primitive animation and I produced a talking dictionary with interactive language exercises and simple feedback. We were even trying out early Expert Systems for grammatical rules to show students the logic behind functional grammar. At that stage students were still afraid of using the mouse and keyboards - all their work was handwritten.

5 years later we were embedding small colour videos into Hypercard stacks with subtitling and had full control over video frames through Quicktime.

19 years later students are now used to keyboards, mice, gesture commands, voice input, etc. - i.e. they now have what are referred to as "digital literacy skills". Quicktime failed as a multimedia platform (shackled by M$ when Apple nearly died a death) and application video control has hardly moved on at all. We may have HD, web-embedded digitised vids and sound popping up everywhere, but there is little that we could not do 15 years ago - they just have better definition and speed. It is all quite usable now and requires little effort from the author/programmer, but I haven't seen much of it really exploited in what are now called their "affordances".

"Interactive multimedia" has now morphed into "blended learning spaces" and "personalised environments" full of netgen "tools" - but has anything really changed? Where is the depth of new research and its implementation. One could even argue that students, after the initial shock, actually took the technological 'tools' more seriously then, whereas now they merely see them as 'toys' used endlessly at home and now allowed at school to help them adapt to their greater attention span deficits.

I may appear to be a bit of a Luddite, but I have the advantage of two decades of experience, enough to form an overview of so-called progress - I even have the experience of being one of the first people to see OWL's prototype multimedia authoring system, Guide, hiked around UK publishers who thought that CDs would never take off back in the bygone days of 1993: (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0SMG/is_n3_v13/ai_13427396/  ) and the discipline of building foreign language rules for Ashton Tate spell-checkers for the first relational databases.

My doubts about pedagogical progress are similarly founded on long experience, not an apparent antagonism towards the new technologies or pedagogical models - 'user-centred learning', 'self-paced learning' and the idea of 'teacher as guide' were fundamental to our approach then and they are similarly my own daughters' watchwords as they teach in Mexico or go through postgrad teacher training here in Glasgow. They have first-hand experience of the "tech-face" with the use of whiteboards, web resources, pupil creativity, etc., just as my own nephew has experience of the OU's student interface and online courseware.

What they tell me, and what I notice, is the lack of preparedness to exploit the potential of the new media both on the part of learners and teachers alike. Change may be a factor of life for the new generations and managing change is one of their greatest skills nowadays, but if the technology never has a chance to bed down, and the pedagogy never has a chance to engage, then all the tools or resources in the world will not make them successful. Our society now lives on a 'surface' level with very little notion of 'depth'. Time is more 'costly' through global capitalism, so nobody can 'afford' to wait for the 'affordances' of learning to be recognised. I bet the university authorities are still thinking of squeezing 4 terms into one year and the 3 year degree into two! Depth of learning and length of learning over time are therefore at a premium and real 'experience' is lacking in many ways. That is the "opportunity cost" of modern education!

Perhaps what I am getting at is my own 'fossilised' bugbears of a) education v. training, and b) educational 'focus': education takes time and requires depth of understanding and analytical skills, whereas training can be more mechanical and does not necessarily require understanding or analysis to perform the required task and produce the desired output;  the first has depth, the second is more superficial (what we used to call deep and surface learning, involving the notion of hierarchy). Without depth to learning, and even more importantly the notion of focus, we will end up with an extremely blurred form of pedagogy without real canons and without a clear path forward.

In many ways, learning is going through the aftermath of the post-modernist era where fragmentation ruled and authority was decried. The fragmentation of today's 'post'-post-modern society, which means that most youngsters nowadays can count their virtual FB friends and Twitter followers in the tens, hundreds and thousands, but do not even know the names of their physical neighbours, has led to a superficial world made up of what is seen as 'variety', 'choice' and 'connectivity', full of information (facts), resources (tools), and 'networks' (loose, unweighted, web structures forming links without meaning). The result is a generation that can find facts and figures at the click of a mouse or the tap of a keyboard, but cannot work out how to use a hierarchical index, follow logical links according to their 'relevance', or analyse historical, political, financial or societal statements for veracity. Why else is industry in this non-productive country (now crashed on 'invisible earnings') crying out for such elementary skills in its workforce, whereas those countries facing the realities of life learn them from daily interrelational experience. Education without hierarchical, meaningfully-linked depth is a waste of all our budgets.

The resulting 'black-hole' of post-modernity is a no-man's land of doubt, uncertainty and 'virtuality', allied to status disease and the cult of the self - the subsequent 'person-centred focus' has certainly helped to remove or blur the boundaries between teacher and learner, but it also has placed an unfortunate emphasis on immediate self-gratification, a flouting of responsibility and blindness to reality. In many ways UK students (maybe western in general?) are too spoilt (and even bored) with all their technology and see no reason to use it responsibly or to their advantage - hence the greater respect towards education in 'developing' countries from both students and parents alike, together with their correspondingly higher success rates. The deeper foci of real 'need' and 'value' are much sharper in their eyes and from their everyday experience.

So my central response to the bullet points above is that of questioning whether there has been any real progress or depth of research in 'e-learning' (whatever its actual specific meaning may convey, since I reckon it is just as ambiguous as 'interactive learning' used to be), or any clear awareness of what it all means to the people who really matter: the learners (and possibly their mentors).

The greatest danger I see is that of the loss of humanity in the learning process: by 'humanity' I mean 'real social contact' and not just 'social networking'. I recently listened to a BBC radio broadcast on teleworking (something I have also had first-hand knowledge of since retirement from academe, now working as an online translator): the greatest disadvantage people felt was not exactly human contact as such, but the 'depth' of that contact in the sense of "intellectual stimulation" and "interpersonal understanding".

You can have all the inanimate virtual tools and disconnected inchoate tweets in the world, but if you forget the element of immediate reality and true human communication and discourse, you will not have any lasting gathering of experience or depth of skills, no 'education' as such, and no vertical forward progress in pedagogy - just a lateral spread of change-sensitive, ephemeral notions on pedagogy, a diffuse set of disjunctive horizontal pathways for learners to work out their own 'personal learning strategy', and a hit-and-miss, broken-linked, channel-hopping approach to the successful meeting of educational targets (cf. erstwhile 'goal-led' approach to learning).

There! - I hope this stimulates some meaningful response to the above questions, some in-depth thinking on such a vital area of development, and some focussed rebuttal, discussion or analysis of what was implied.

I have parodied your love of jargon and mocked your academic attitudes, and I have either sent you to sleep or provoked your derision, so try and keep things straightforward and within the plain English guidelines folks ...

Mark Brown
6:55am 13 December 2009 (Edited 8:08am 31 March 2010)


Some very interesting and thoughtful comments from Mike. I have just two quick points to seed further discussion:

1. We need to be careful at Massey that blended learning is not seen as just a technological innovation. We deliberately avoided the word 'technology' in the Massey definition to extend our discussion to different teaching modes, environments and resources. Hopefully this wider debate will be an important point of difference to the fate of earlier innovations. 

2. In danger of contradicting the above comment, in terms of recent research, the following meta-analysis on online learning from the US Dept of Education makes interesting reading. The Abstract also appears below. Of course, meta-analysis work has its limits from a methodological point of view. 

http://www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/tech/evidence-based-practices/finalreport.pdf

Abstract

A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. Analysts screened these studies to find those that (a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition, (b) measured student learning outcomes, (c) used a rigorous research design, and (d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size.

As a result of this screening, 51 independent effects were identified that could be subjected to meta-analysis. The meta-analysis found that, on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction. The difference between student outcomes for online and face-to-face classes—measured as the difference between treatment and control means, divided by the pooled standard deviation—was larger in those studies contrasting conditions that blended elements of online and face-to-face instruction with conditions taught entirely face-to-face.

Analysts noted that these blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions. This finding suggests that the positive effects associated with blended learning should not be attributed to the media, per se. An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education). 

 

Mike Harland
10:19am 14 December 2009


Thanks, Mark, for taking my provocative statements in good measure!

Your reference to blended elements certainly rings true with our findings in the mid 90s.

One of the multimedia projects we embarked on was an integrated language course for which we designed a purpose-made course book for use in the daily class, a multimedia CD of parallel exercises for personal student use in the library area, and the same software running over a network for an extra hour of computer reinforcement per week - on top of this, we had a psychologist using strategic questionnaires over two terms and Niall Sclater running up and down stairs from his office computer continually solving student network problems and rewriting software as bugs were encountered!!

The main findings of the research team were that most students' linguistic performance improved (this included end of year examinations compared to previous years) as did enthusiasm for the course. The IT element seemed to be the deciding factor, but the jury was out as to whether it alone changed things.

My own feeling was that the general enthusiasm and belief in the system of all staff, both teaching and technical, was just as critical (if you have your own software engineer on site solving all your IT problems as they occur, you too would be a happy bunny!). As with most teaching, it is the enthusiasm of the teachers that often makes a difference.

Novelty is another contributing factor, of course - something that frequent whiz-factor changes in technology can so often provide. In fact, the courseware was eventually adapted for the web and made an open educational resource.

Unfortunately, the teacher is still god and the 'not-taught-here-like-that' syndrome eventually takes over. Once the support staff were gone and I also moved on, native language teachers and their lagging pedagogical training came along and chose their own course materials instead of the integrated coursebook - they still used elements from the IT resources (because it is good for the CV to be seen using IT) as extra materials for self-access work by the students, but the 'integrated/blended' approach was eventually lost.

The solution therefore would appear to reside in some form of integrated/blended approach which is able to marry IT tools and resources with face-to-face human contact and interaction, while at the same time being non-prescriptive and open to change and adaptation. A system that prevents students from leaping off the classroom floor into a totally virtual plasma-screen world and keeps them firmly rooted in the real world of human physical communication and interrelationship is essential. How we marry the two worlds and keep them integrated/blended without dictating methods or tying the hands of the mediators is the present conundrum!

I hope you manage to solve that puzzle and I commend your avoidance of 'tech' words: seeing IT as just another element in the learning equation (and not necessarily even the major factor) is a very sound approach in my experience.

 

Mike Harland
9:58am 17 December 2009


To maintain student 'focus' and 'grounding', I would suggest that Wii-like or Surface-like gesture interfaces are the way forward: being able to interact physically with whatever is on the screen, conducting science experiments by moving objects in the 3D virtual environment, having a foreign-language conversation with a virtual interlocutor in the foreign environment, etc., were already our dreams and imaginings in the early 90s, so why aren't they being done now that it is all possible??

They represent a real/virtual interface that stimulates intellectual understanding and human interaction. The danger of SL and other virtual reality worlds is that they merely remove the student from reality, suspend disbelief and rely on more passive mouse/keyboard reactions, rather than emulating reality, stimulating active personal involvement and maintaining credibility.

Nathan Lomax
5:26am 31 March 2010


Hello Mike,

Thanks for the posts - they were helpful to me in thinking about the affordances of technology. I really like the idea of Wii - type conversation partners (a good solution for the worldwide shortage of English teachers). Can't wait to see 'chatbots' develop in this way - were you working on this?

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