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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