Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Technology: an enhancer or enabler of learning?

(An online discussion at the Open University recently posed the question: is technology an enhancer or an enabler of learning? Here is my answer.)

Technology, according to Danny Hills and Douglas Adams, is everything that doesn’t work yet: when it starts to work reliably, it becomes part of the background and we cease to see it as technology. So when we talk about technology-enhanced or technology-enabled learning, it’s to give people a reason why they should put up with something that doesn’t yet work properly: despite the problems, we’re saying, it’s worth persevering with the technology because it will allow us to do better or more efficiently something which we’re already doing (technology-enhanced) or to do something which we currently can’t do at all (technology-enabled).

I can only think of three things in learning and teaching which are genuinely enabled, rather than enhanced, by technology. Learning at a distance is not one of them, because you can (as the OU did for many years) operate through postal and courier services for the delivery of materials and messages. Remote co-presence, however, is really only achievable through audio or video conferencing, such as we regularly use in online tutorials. This is more than a simple matter of communication: the synchronous nature of the medium supports the constant and continuous engagement of participants, which allows a different kind of conversation, not merely a faster one. Even participants who are not actively communicating can have their motivation and relationship strengthened, simply by being present at the virtual event.

The second thing enabled by technology is automated rapid feedback, such as is provided by computerised tests. The promptness of feedback, we know, is massively important for learning, and it also increases motivation when it provides immediate sense of progress or achievement. Automation can also bring the testing more under the learner’s control, allowing them to take it at a time of their choosing, to repeat it if they wish until they are successful, and to interpret and act on the result as they wish. Students, we know, like on-screen tests for precisely these reasons, though unfortunately they are only really effective in areas of knowledge and skill which are capable of being broken into discrete elements and for which questions can have closed answers.

The third aspect of learning and teaching enabled by technology is encounter with authentic situations, which is critical for the learning of many practical situated skills, especially the interpretation of complex situations, such as those involving people. While audio and video can enhance learning of all kinds, by providing illustration or amusement, their richness is essential for allowing the development of holistic understanding, in which the presence of micro-cues allows learners not to be limited by what can be consciously articulated. Listening and speaking in a foreign language, for example, unlike reading and writing which can be taught through text alone, require actual aural models and authentic situations in which to practice, and one can trace the use of successive technologies for sound recording and reproduction as they were developed: gramophone records and language laboratories in the 1960s, cassette tapes in the 1970s, CDs in the 1980s, multimedia DVD-ROMs in the 1990s, internet delivery in the 2000s, and mobile apps in the 2010s. The distance learning of people skills, such as is relevant to many professional practice disciplines, has also been I would say enabled (rather than enhanced) by audio and video. It remains to be seen how far virtual reality technologies, hitherto too clumsy and low quality to compete seriously with remote audio and video or with face-to-face role play, may allow these possibilities to be expanded in the future.

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