The allure and mystery of new learning technology
Way way back, in the pre-historic age (as far as technology is concerned) of the late 1980s, as a lecturer in Trinity College Dublin, I managed to strike a deal with Apple Computers (as the company then was) under which staff and students were able to purchase the then brand new Macintosh laptops at a discount. I think the machine was called a Macintosh ‘Portable‘, which it was, in the sense that two sturdy men who had recently had their breakfast would have been able lift it in an ergonomic sort of way. Anyway, I digress. The thinking behind the deal was that we might be able to make some use of these computers in teaching. It never really came to that, because while some students did buy them, not enough did to make them a tool that could be widely used.
But here we are, some two-and-a-bit decades later, and certainly what Apple is offering now is very ‘portable’ indeed. Whether it is the MacBook Air, or the iPad – or indeed whether you choose some of the computers and tablets offered by other manufacturers and with other operating systems – it would be very easy to have one on every student’s desk or lap during a class. Indeed, a recent survey has shown that students have been buying iPads in a not very precisely defined expectation that, amongst other things, it will turn out to be a very valuable learning tool. But the same survey has also revealed that not too many students use them for this purpose. And so I wonder, why is this?
A possible answer is that students are adopting new technology but are not necessarily finding that their universities are doing so. Therefore the pedagogical value of the gadget is a selling point, but students are finding once they have bought the gadget that they they cannot easily use it in their degree programmes and so they just watch movies and play games instead.
Right now technology that is usable for teaching is flooding in, but universities (with some exceptions) are very slow to look radically at how they enable it for that purpose. There are groups of academics everywhere discussing new learning technology, and some really interesting ideas are emerging, but overall across universities as a whole not very much is happening. The whole field of technology-enabled learning needs to be mainstreamed to a much greater extent; it is not (or should not be) the preserve of nerds.