The role of technology in the learning process is something to which many hours of management consultancy time have been devoted in recent history. It is also something which academic institutions, sceptical at first, have increasingly embraced with open arms; as we are tweeted, podcast, prezi’d and interactive whiteboarded into a more enlightened future. Technology has nonetheless been a subject of study broadly within sociology for a number of years. Such studies have emphasised that the tendency to identify technology as an independent ‘actor’ outside of social relations is misleading at best (see Grint and Woolgar 1997). Rather, technology can be understood as an extension of the roles humans might perform, as a heavy weight on a hotel key ‘stands in’ for a door steward, or a ‘sleeping policeman’ prevents speeding by standing in for the real thing. Technologies are also not necessarily limited to artefacts. Winner (1986) argued that technology could be defined in three aspects; as apparatus, technique or organization, though admittedly it is difficult to distinguish these in practice. This is one expression of a broader philosophical argument which defines technology as an extension of human capabilities in both an abstract and practical sense (see Rothenberg 1993; Brey 2000), thus a bicycle extends our capacities for swift movement or a calculator extends our (individual) capacities for arithmetic. Based on this understanding of technology, many objects in common use for teaching and learning activities fulfil the definition. Some examples might be;
- improved memory (often through artefacts of data/information storage and categorisation such as books or databases)
- faster and more reliable calculation (through mathematical techniques algorithms and the encoding of these techniques into everyday items such as calculators or computers)
- consistent, comprehensible methods of communication (the organization of the written word, in all its forms, represents one of the most significant technologies of our society, and is often manifest in software to support word processing, spell checking and so on)
- extended voice (projection of messages across space and/or time through recording, telephony, radio, translation software et cetera)
- extended social reach (adaptation of material for people of different languages or abilities, use of online networks to circulate material more widely or to collaboarate in virtual ‘classrooms’)
Such examples suggest that technology as an extension of human capacities offers powerful potential to improve the efficiency of the learning experience. Yet the technological objects only offer potential; capacities have to be realised. Unfamiliar technologies may be as great an impediment to the development of learning as no technologies at all where there is no support for accessing and learning how to use the technology (again, see Grint & Woolgar 1997). Artefacts often make no distinction between different types of user or student, and as students transition from routines familiar to sixth form colleges or other educational establishments to the less cohesive structures of diverse university departments they are likely to encounter significant changes in their experiences with different technologies. The learning ‘gap’ for each student with respect to making the best use of the technology, in my experience, will be different.
Generational distinctions are, in addition, often highlighted as a ‘gap’ between the cultures of the ‘out of touch’ academy and the ‘technologically native’ youth. By implication, engagement with up to date technologies by the academy offers a bridge by means of which students may be reached. However, my own (anecdotal) experience suggests this may well be mythical, since I have encountered many academics who are thoroughly competent in the use of the most cutting edge technology as well as regular Luddites among the student population. In addition, this understanding of technology does not encompass the full range of learning technologies we have at our disposal: although we might often think of PCs and wireless internet access as the main ‘technologies’ used in contemporary learning, the way technology is defined encompasses a wide range of learning resources, including printed books and strategies of organizing learning time. This mythical simplification not only presents technology as a simple apparatus but in addition conceals the work undertaken to learn technique and build organization. Within the myth lies two significant potentials, one being the importance of breaking down barriers between the academy and the ‘real world’ (of students, not the same as the ‘real world’ of the employers/employed or of politics), and the second potential being accessibility of knowledge.
Do students care about learning technology?
This post was influenced by a key question in the national student survey (NSS); which asks students how well their university has provided access to resources. This concern fundamentally relates to access to knowledge. Writing, as the long lasting record and encoding of knowledge, is one of the most advanced technologies we possess, yet access to written records is becoming ever more complex. This matter concerns issues as diverse as the opening hours and physical book collections of libraries, and status hierarchies in academia informing the choice of subscription-restricted peer reviewed journals. In this way the written artefact becomes embroiled in more complicated networks of access which students have trouble navigating, either through lack of consultation or through lack of training in technique and organization of these materials. The accessibility of digital media is also relevant, as open access podcasts may be freely available, but only to those lucky enough or wealthy enough to have a reliable internet connection at home, since IT facilities on campus may often be full to capacity or in use for teaching. When I consulted with students on the problem of accessible materials, it became evident that the main concern of students was in navigating these complex circumstances, and the most effective and immediate solution for my teaching was to engage with a ‘low’ technology solution, that is, to provide guidance on accessing print books in the library, provide printed copies of notes and easy to print accessible PDF document links for core readings which would not take long to access or could be accessed using alternative electronic devices such as smart phones or tablets. This is not to suggest, however, that a ‘low’ tech solution is always best: to facilitate revision for students on the same module I have found developing a series of flashcards using the online website studyblue.com very useful as these can be easily printed or used via any mobile device.
The term ‘blended learning’ is frequently used to describe the application of technology to programme or session design, particularly the use of online delivery of materials or activities. While the definition of ‘blended learning’ is roving and contested (Oliver & Trigwell 2005), there are some discussions over whether this approach to teaching should also be considered ‘theory’. Considering the theoretical approaches highlighted in my previous entry on learning theory, the addition of technology to the process of learning seems to be one which makes no intrinsic assumptions regarding the learning process, though the application of certain technologies may indicate a sympathy with cognitive approaches by broadening student choice regarding the order of content, or with behaviourist approaches where technology is used to monitor assessment outcomes (formative and summative alike). To some degree, the discussion of learning technologies highlight the potential for adaptability, suggesting that the fundamental value of using such technology lies in the potential to accommodate a range of individual learning needs in a diverse cohort such as those posed by disability or diverse learning backgrounds. However, these rely on considerable evaluation of student’s requirements which if not conducted comprehensively may act against student’s interests as they are required to learn not only the content of a given session, but also a way of interacting with the technology. Oliver & Trigwell (2005) highlight that a significant limitation of the approach to ‘blended learning’ lies in an absence of analysis from the perspective of a learner but also that technology does offer the potential for varied experiences. Such varied experiences may contribute towards an enhanced learning experience, or place the student under an additional burden of isolation and estrangement from the rest of the class and the learning material. I feel it is important to recognise that for many students of differing competencies, too much application of ‘learning technology’ may present this risk; impeding their individual learning rather than facilitating it.
Looking at the theoretical confusion surrounding these issues, it seems that while technology may offer significant potential to improve the learning experience, it may also serve to confuse students and suffer from in-built prejudice regarding the access to knowledge. Consequently, I believe the implementation of new learning technologies should take account of student’s needs in a comprehensive way and they should not suffer the consequences of adoption before analysis.