Saturday, November 12, 2011

Educational Technology – the context is the key

During the last few years I have developed a sense of healthy skepticism. When I read an article I rarely take the assertions the author makes at face value. My first instinct is to challenge the conclusions and seek alternative ways to validate them. I always take a step back, extract the important messages and then determine how these messages apply to the context in which I am operating, whichever it may be. My advice is that you follow a similar approach.

I have reviewed several articles that were critical of educational technology (see the list at the end of this post). I admit the authors present valid points that apply to given situations and contexts. However, one must be very careful in thinking their conclusions are applicable “across the board”. Regardless of what the authors of the articles state, I have found that educational technology has been of great benefit in my context.

Technology as an enabler
I work for a large software, services and consulting company. My job is to lead teams that are responsible for developing and deploying learning offerings for thousands of professionals across the world (yes, this is a very large company). When my team produces distance education, we are very focused on creating learning offerings that meet the objectives of our learners and can be delivered in the most effective manner.

Technology has helped us be very successful in this environment by giving us the ability to
  • Facilitate the exchange of information among learners
  • Allow for a rapid circulation of digitally content
  • Enable learners to learn in formal and informal settings
  • Give individuals and groups the ability to construct their own learning
  • Offer a variety of ways by which learners can achieve their learning objectives

Not all technology is appropriate in our context. To be effective, the key characteristics technology must have are as follows.
  • Can be accessed through the internet
  • It is relatively easy to use
  • Gives the learner the ability to manage and control its use, when they need to do so
  • Enables collaboration among learners
  • Helps learners feel connected to other learners and to the instructor/facilitator, where applicable
  • Allows the learner to create and “push”  content
  • Is versatile - can be used in a variety of ways

The educational aspects
However, just having the right technology does not lead to successful learning by our learners. Individuals do not automatically become involved in lively and erudite collaboration just because the technology enables interactivity, for instance.

We have found that helping people learn with technology requires several educational factors that go beyond the technology considerations. These factors include the following.
  • A keen understanding of the learners’ requirements, traits and characteristics (the learner comes first)
  • A design that considers the learning objectives and expected outcomes of the learning offering, roles and responsibilities of the instructor and the learners, and the tasks the instructor and the learners will perform
  • Activities that are aligned with the learning objectives
  • A climate where participation and collaboration is encouraged
  • A way to evaluate the learning effectiveness of the offering
  • A process that continuously improves the offering as conditions change

Bringing it all together, for the learner
My team is well aware that technology in itself is not a “silver bullet”. Moreover, we cannot afford to give the learner the message, “Take this computer, connect to the internet, use this product and gain some knowledge”. We must ensure that our learners
  • know how to use the technology,
  • understand the objective of the learning activity and how it benefits them,
  • have a “map” that shows where they are and the destination where they are headed,
  • can reflect on the knowledge they are obtaining along the way and
  • get guidance and technical support when they need it.

Only when we create the proper environment for our learners, both from a technology and an educational standpoint, can we ask them to seek skills they need to succeed in the 21st century – solving complex problems, collaborating effectively and thinking critically, for instance.


Reference - articles critical of educational technology

Goode, B. (2004). Unintended consequences: Distance learning and the structure of the university. Distance Education Report, issue published on July 14, 2004, pages 2, 7.

Gouseti, A. (2010). Web 2.0 and education: not just another case of hype, hope and disappointment?.  Learning, Media & Technology, 35(3), 351-356.

Massy, W. &, Zemsky, R. (2004). Thwarted innovation. What happened to e-learning and why. A  Learning Alliance Report. The Learning Alliance and the University of Pennsylvania.

Massy, W. &, Zemsky, R. (2004). Thwarted innovation? The research says what it says. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 5(4), xi-xii.

Oppenheimer, T. (1997). The computer delusion. The Atlantic Monthly. 8(1), 45-62.

Simonson, M. (2004). “Thwarted innovation” or thwarted research?. The Quarterly Review of Distance Education, Volume 5(4), pp. vii-ix.

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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Digital Learning Resources, Our Skills and Our Students

This week I drew out key points from several articles regarding digital/online learning resources and the challenges we face when applying these resources in the interest of our students.

The articles from the Chronicle of Higher Education (Howard, 2009; Miller, 2010; Young, 2009) describe how developers are incorporating more advanced features into their resources to (1) adapt their material to the needs of their target audiences, (2) take advantage of the advances in technology and (3) help their companies gain revenue. After reading the articles I concluded that, to be able to succeed in the marketplace, providers of digital learning resources will need to offer the learner the following features.
  • Ability to obtain guidance about the use of the resource
  • Flexibility in accessing and using the material
  • Ability to customize the resource to meet the learner’s individual needs
  • Assessments made available to the learner, so that he/she can determine progress and decide where they need to spend more effort
  • Ability to search on user-defined terms
  • Material made available through a variety of media (e.g., text, video, audio, images, etc.)
  • The learner can create and remix content within the resource
  • Collaboration among learners is enabled, including the spaces like discussion forums and wikis
  • Ability to evaluate the resource and rate it for the benefit of others
  • Access to technical support
More advanced features in digital learning resources add to the challenges we face as educators. Not only must we become skilled in the use of these resources and their features, but we must also understand how to effectively incorporate the resources into our learning offerings. Davis, Fuller, Jackson, Pittman, & Sweet (2007) address these issues in their report by pointing out that teachers are not receiving adequate training in technology and then providing recommendations in this area. Their recommendations include more professional development in the use of technology, training teachers before they enter the classroom and increasing the awareness of administrators and curriculum developers regarding the integration of technology in education.

Having more professional development only addresses one our challenges. Educators must also adapt to a change in our role from being an instructor to working in a situation where “the teacher manages the process of how students use the information” (Dr. Milton Chen, as quoted by Davis, et al.). I would add that the teacher must also turn into a facilitator, guide, advisor, driver and director when it comes to the use of digital resources and technology by his/her students. The art then becomes knowing when to play which role; a skill acquired through plenty of experience and trial-and-error (my opinion).

Another good point made by Davis, et al., is that educators must view the students as a stakeholder in the learning process (p. 9). I would take this statement further. I believe we must see our students as our clients, and that our actions must revolve around meeting our clients’ learning objectives, needs and wants. Even though Taborn (2008) focuses his article on race, from this reading I derived a recommendation that I could be use with my clients (students):
We must take time to understand our students' cultural/racial/ethnic backgrounds and how they prefer to access and use information. This knowledge should assist us in making better decisions when applying digital/online educational resources in a way that (1) helps our students learn, (2) improves their technology-related skills and (2) gives them a better chance to succeed in an increasingly complex global economy.


Davis, T., Fuller, M., Jackson, S., Pittman, J., & Sweet, J. (2007). A National Consideration of Digital Equity. Washington, D.C.: International Society for Technology in Education. Retrieved on April 8, 2011 from

Howard, J. (2009). The All-Digital Library? Not Quite Yet. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved on April 7, 2011 from

Miller, M. (2010). New Web Site Lists Free Online Textbooks. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved on April 7, 2011 from

Miller, M. (2010). California Law Encourages Digital Textbooks by 2020. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved on April 7, 2011 from

Taborn, T. (2008). Separating Race from Technology: Finding Tomorrow’s IT Progress in the Past. Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Edited by Anna Everett. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 39–60. Retrieved on April 8, 2011 from

Young, J. (2009). New E-Textbooks Do More Than Inform: They’ll Even Grade You. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved on April 7, 2011 from

Friday, April 8, 2011

Using Mobile Computing Devices

How indispensable are mobile computing devices in your life? Are they an “extension” of who you are?

I would like to think that I do not depend on mobile computing devices, but the truth is that I do, both at work and in my personal life.

I manage projects performed by virtual teams of people who are located all over the world. I depend on the functions, applications and connectivity provided by my mobile computing device, a wireless notebook computer, to do my job.  This device enables effective communications between my team members and me using various channels, which allows us to collaborate and resolve problems very quickly. Decisions that used to take days to resolve can now be handled in a matter of minutes when we use these technologies.

For instance, consider a situation I handled today.  My team is coordinating the presentations of several speakers at a virtual conference we are conducting this summer. We are currently lining up the speakers who will present at the event. The speakers will record their presentation, which will be played during set times during the conference.

We had scheduled a speaker to record his presentation tonight. However, he informed us at the last minute that he had several critical questions he wanted answered right away. Otherwise, he threatened to cancel the session.

The recording coordinator, who is located in India, contacted me via instant messaging to inform me of the situation. We immediately added a subject matter expert, who lives in Canada, to our chat and worked through the questions. I then called the speaker and asked him to join a web conference, where we reviewed his presentation in real time and answered all the questions he had. The result: the speaker just recorded his presentation without any further concerns.

All this happened in a matter of 45 minutes. Without the ability to communicate in this manner, it would have taken us at least a day to resolve the issues, and the recording session would have had to be postponed.

The other mobile computing device I use constantly is my smartphone. When I first bought it, I used it almost exclusively as a “normal” telephone; until I discovered how useful apps can be. Now this device has become a tool I use as an organizer, as a source of reference information, for entertainment and even for learning on the go. The apps range from productivity applications, like calendar and “to do” lists, to photography software, like Adobe Photoshop.

As I discover different apps, I am creating a device that is totally customized to my tastes, interests and lifestyle. Even though I have had the smartphone for only a month, I use it to perform both important and mundane tasks throughout the day. I can see how the smartphone can become an “extension” of my life and, if I am not careful, I could become an extension of it.

How can mobile computing devices be used in disadvantaged or underdeveloped environments?

Assuming the appropriate telecommunications infrastructure exists in a developing area, mobile computing devices can become “equalizers” by enabling people in these environments to gain access to the World Wide Web and all its resources.

In general, developing countries tend to establish wireless telecommunication networks and not invest in the more expensive wired networks. This leads to a relatively high use of mobile phones in these countries (see the table shown in this Wikipedia article about mobile phone use). A logical progression is to enable broadband technology (e.g., 3G) over the established wireless infrastructure. Having wireless broadband capability obviates the need for more expensive wired technologies (e.g., DSL) and unleashes the power of mobile computing devices. These fully-enabled devices can give the citizens of underdeveloped areas the means to reach information, avail themselves of applications, improve communications and enhance collaboration. This, in turn, can help them better compete in the global economy with people from developed countries.


List of countries by number of mobile phones in use (n.d.). In Wikipedia. Retrieved on April 5, 2011 from

Saturday, April 2, 2011

MUVEs, Collaboration and Learning

The material I read this week presented several aspects of the use of multi-user virtual environments (MUVEs) in learning. The authors gave me a better understanding of this technology and of its applications in different contexts. With this understanding I believe I am better equipped to evaluate the use of MUVE when creating learning offerings for my students.

The article by Bers (2008) placed the use of educational 3D technology in a comprehensible context for me. Bers described a learning continuum that goes from a person learning individually to learning as part of a community. She discussed the concept of constructionism, both as a learning theory and as a strategy that uses educational technology as a tool in learning. Under constructionism, people learn by creating and communicating. Learning can be expanded by utilizing technology, not only to support the individuals as they build their own artifacts, but also to enable learners to work with each other and make use of their collaboration to construct knowledge. The author gave examples of where this learning-by-doing-with-others concept appears to work well in a MUVE (Zora and ACT). Bers’ article led me to conclude that MUVE technology should be considered when the goal is for the learners to build their knowledge as a community, instead of on their own.

Even though the article by Gee (2008) concentrated on games and learning, I was particularly interested in his discussion of the impact collaboration and interaction among individuals can have. For instance, having other people interpret the learner’s experiences can benefit the learner. Gee also elaborated on how people can distribute work among themselves and then collaborate to solve problems and create knowledge more effectively than they could on their own. In addition, the use of collaborative cross-functional teams, where each member contributes a different expertise, can bring the team’s performance to a higher level.

Wallace presented several interesting conclusions regarding collaboration and MUVEs in his talk (2010).
  •  People from high-context cultures (Asian cultures, for instance) favor text-based environments over virtual 3D environments, and prefer asynchronous over synchronous communications.
  • A mix synchronous and asynchronous technologies is preferable in courses that use a MUVE.
  • Virtual environments that represent real-world spaces are preferable.
  • The avatar a person chooses can shape their interaction in a virtual world
  • Highly sociable people are more willing to collaborate with avatars that are different from their own identity.
Just having a need for learners to collaborate does not mean that we create a MUVE for them to do so, however. This was the key point I derived from the presentation by Ussery (2010).

During her talk, Ussery discussed a course she designed and developed in a MUVE called Second Life. In this course, each student creates an avatar and participates in activities “in world” that help them collaborate with each other and learn concepts such as goal-setting, team-building and negotiation. The students interviewed as part of the presentation were very positive about the use of Second Life in the course. They praised the flexibility, the increase in interactivity and the improved communications the Second Life afforded them. Nonetheless, other than an enhanced sense of presence, I did not see much benefit in using a MUVE in this course over other technologies that could have supported the objectives in a similar way, at less cost and faster implementation time (e.g., forums or blogs). The lesson I learned from the presentation was: proceed with caution – even if a MUVE appears to be the technology to use in a course, evaluate other technologies to determine if they can better support the need for creating the course in the first place (probably not the message Ussery was trying to convey).


Bers, M. (2008). Civic Identities, Online Technologies: From Designing Civic Curriculum to Supporting Civic Experiences. Civic Life Online: Learning How Digital Media Can Engage Youth. Edited by W. Lance Bennett. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 139–160. Retrieved on March 27, 2011 from

Gee, J. (2008). Learning and Games. The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning. Edited by Katie Salen. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 21–40. Retrieved on March 27, 2011 from

Ussery, J. (2010).  Expanding Educational Realities – Exploring Interactive and Immersive Learning Experiences.  Retrieved on March 28, 2011 from

Wallace, P. (2010). Some of My Students Are Not Human! Avatar Interaction and Collaboration in Virtual Worlds. Retrived on March 28, 2011 from

Friday, March 25, 2011

Credibility, Digital Content and Our Students

The authors of the articles I read this week raised several points that made me reflect on how we, as educators, can teach our students to take full advantage of the learning opportunities offered by the internet and digital media while, at the same time, helping them recognize and handle the many challenges they will encounter.

Flanagin and Andrews (2008) provide an extensive description of the many factors that comprise the concept of credibility. They categorize credibility based on how it is constructed and how people assess information. This provides context to their discussion regarding youth’s ability to recognize credibility problems when they are using information delivered via digital media.

While the authors’ discussion was valuable in my understanding of credibility, Flanagin and Andrews offer relatively few recommendations in the area of how to teach young people to properly assess credibility in the digital world. Nonetheless, their article reinforced my opinion: to be able to help ours students we must (1) become very knowledgeable of how youth create and use digital media and (2) seek a balance between protecting our students and incorporating digital media and technology in our curricula.

The explanation given by Lankes (2008) about the paradox of information self-sufficiency added to my understanding of the current use of digital media. It is interesting to realize that we are “independently dependent”. While technology has allowed us to become more independent in our acquisition of information, we are definitely dependent on such technology to acquire the information we need.

Of particular interest to me was Lankes’ discussion on how the manner in which people ascribe credibility is shifting from relying on information provided by authorities in the subject matter to synthesizing information that is obtained various sources. This trend creates the need in an area where our students need our help, because synthesis is a difficult skill to acquire (my view). For instance, we could create lessons where students are required to synthesize information from digital sources and take the opportunity to guide them through the lesson by demonstrating the synthesis skills we have gained as researchers.

The article by Stern (2008) gave me a view into the young people who create and publish digital content on the Web. It was fascinating to see how the people presented by the author used blogs and personal web sites to explore and experiment with their online (and offline) identity. More importantly, this article drove the point that we must look beyond the items our students produce and try to comprehend their reasons for producing these items and the spaces where they publish them. This could make us more knowledgeable about the motivations of our students which, in turn, can help us deliver education that better meets their needs.

Heverly (2008) offers a compelling discussion regarding the persistent and pernicious characteristics of digital content. The second the material is available on the Web, it is available forever. In addition, we loose control and ownership of the material, the material can be found by anyone, and the law gives us limited protection. Therefore, we must be very careful with the information we reveal about ourselves in the material we publish. Moreover, we must help our students learn about the risks inherent in producing digital artifacts and guide them in how to create material that will not harm them later in life.


Flanagin, A., & Mezger, M. (2008). Digital Media and Youth: Unparalleled Opportunity and Unprecedented Responsibility. Digital Media, Youth, and Credibility. Edited by Miriam J. Metzger and Andrew J. Flanagin. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 5–28. Retrieved on March 20, 2011 from

Lankes, R. (2008). Trusting the Internet: New Approaches to Credibility Tools. DigitalMedia, Youth, and Credibility. Edited by Miriam J. Metzger and Andrew J. Flanagin. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 101–122.  Retrieved on March 20, 2011 from

Heverly, R. (2008). Growing Up Digital: Control and the Pieces of a Digital Life. Digital Youth, Innovation, and the Unexpected. Edited by Tara McPherson. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 199–218. Retrieved on March 21, 2011 from

Stern, S. (2008). Producing Sites, Exploring Identities: Youth Online Authorship. Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. Edited by David Buckingham. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008. 95–118. Retrieved on March 21, 2011 from

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Applying Social Networking to Education

The articles by Boyd (2007) and Byrne (2008) describe various aspects of the participation by young people in social network sites. Taken together, the articles helped me gain insight about the environment in which the sites are used, what motivates young people to get involved in these sites and what makes their experience different to my own experience.

This understanding will benefit me as designer of education in the corporate world. The young people the authors describe are joining the workforce at an ever-increasing rate. The knowledge I gained from my reading will help me emphasize with my students and apply social networking in a way that helps them achieve their learning objectives.
Boyd presented several concepts that helped me place social networking in an understandable context. Her description of these sites as mediated networked publics was enlightening. It has enabled me view media as an active agent to drive participation and collaboration, rather than just a passive tool that facilitates networking to happen among the participants.

More importantly, Boyd’s explanation of the properties of networked publics – persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences – helped me reflect on both the challenges and the power of social networks in a different way. Yes, we must learn to contribute responsibly to social networks because our products will carry on, can be found, can be copied and can be seen by people beyond our immediate network. However, if we are careful in making our contributions complete, compelling and meaningful, our work could benefit others in ways that may transcend our initial intent.

Byrne’s article placed social networking within the context of race and race relations. While this was somewhat interesting to me, I found that the real value was in her description of how young people interacted with each other in the social network.  The participants presented by Byrne were motivated to join the network because of a perceived common identity, which served as the starting point for their contributions. From there, they chose to participate in different discussions based on how interesting the themes were to them. Moreover, there are themes that elicit the most interactions (e.g., Heritage and Identity, in Byrne’s article). Also, it was significant to see how the participants taught each other, incited contributions and curtailed “unacceptable” opinions.

I could apply the lessons from Byrne’s article to my own situation. Rather than creating a network around a general theme, why not design one around topics with which my students can identify strongly? Perhaps the social network can be intended for people who share certain common traits (e.g., years of experience or type of profession), deal with interesting situations the students face in their professional lives or elicit ideas on how to overcome difficult problems in the jobs.

To me, both articles drive excellent points about social networking, young people and learning.
·       Social networking is an important component of young people’s lives in the US.
·       Social networking is not separate from young people’s “offline” lives. However, it is separate from their “school” lives at the moment.
·       Young people learn plenty from social networking, usually in an informal manner.

As an educator I am learning to accept social networking and to not be threatened by young people’s use of it. Going forward, I intent to embrace it, integrate it into my learning offerings and utilize its power to help my students gain the knowledge they need to succeed in the 21st century.


Boyd, D. (2007) Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning – Youth, Identity, and DigitalMedia Volume. Edited by David Buckingham. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved on March 7, 2011 from

Byrne, D. (2008) The Future of (the) ’Race’: Identity, Discourse, and the Rise of Computer-mediated Public Spheres. Learning Race and Ethnicity: Youth and Digital Media. Edited by Anna Everett. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. 15–38. Retrieved on March 10, 2011 from

Monday, March 7, 2011

What Should Our Role Be?

In the introduction and the first chapter of their book, Ito, et al., (2009) provide a good overview of how young people are using the new media and technology, where they are using the new media and how their use of it is building norms and literacies that are redefining the relationship between children and adults in the education. What made the material compelling to me was the way the authors described the topics from the viewpoint of young people and how they classified the many aspects of new media use in understandable ways.

Through examples and interviews, the authors allowed the young people’s perspective to come through in their own words. This approach made the author’s key messages real to me. It helped me understand the importance of active participation, sharing, collaboration and group identity for the new generations of students.  It helped me realize that educators must take these characteristics into account when creating education that enables the students to learn effectively.

The way the authors classified the genres of participation was enlightening to me. I am now able to recognize the difference between friendship-driven practices and interest-driven practices by people I know and in my own use of technology and new media. As I thought about examples in my immediate realm, I can see how these practices can overlap depending on the context in which one participates. For instance, I belong to a Meetup group called Photography: the Art of Seeing. This group is made possible by a web site called ( It brings together hundreds of local people with a similar interest in art photography so that we can collaborate, share and learn (this group can be found at

I found the authors’ classification of participation into the modes of “hanging out”, messing around” and “geeking out” to be valuable in explaining the level of engagement young people have with new media. I was particularly interested in the description of how these modes influence the way young people interact with each other and how the progression from messing around to geeking can result in more learning (usually outside the “regular” school environment).

The understanding I gained from reading this material led me to the question: “What should my role be as an educator of people who expect to learn by being engaged with new media and with each other?”

In my opinion, I must be an active learner, not just of new media, but also of how my students are using it. I must be a user of new media, so I can gain credibility with my students. I must apply new media responsibly, so I can serve as a role model. Only then can I be effective in designing learning offerings that use new media to help students build their own knowledge, to collaborate with each other and to do so in an environment that is consistent with their life beyond the brick-and-mortar school.


Ito, M., Sonja B., Matteo B., Boyd, D. Cody, R., Herr, B., Horst, H.A., Lange, P.G., Mahendran, D., Martinez, K., Pascoe, C.J., Perkel, D., Robinson, L., Sims, C., & Tripp, L.(2009). Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press. Retrieved on March 3, 2011 from