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.

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15 Comments on “The allure and mystery of new learning technology”

  1. susan green Says:

    I got one of those macs as a Trinity student then!

  2. Vincent Says:

    Might it not be a case of the technology moving so fast that the organism that is the average uni isn’t dexterous enough to dance and is awaiting the slower tempo.

  3. Ernie Ball Says:

    What makes you so sure that any of this new technology actually helps anyone learn anything?

  4. Steve B Says:

    My children are very much of the computer age. One in 2nd year at University, two others to follow in Sept 2012. They may be well versed in using these machines for games, social networking and general web browsing but as a useful educational tool to aid learning I am less than convinced.

    I fear that there is a rush by the technically inclined to introduce the latest whizz gadget or educational approach in Education without stopping to think what actually works and are we saddling ourselves with technology which will be obsolete within 6 months.

    How do students actually learn? What works? What is nonsense?

    The drive to deliver material via Moodle, Blackboard, Virtual Campus etc onto which we load up ever more information can actually confuse the students. I know from personal experience that having to print off these notes is a time consuming and costly business for students and many simply don’t bother. Is learning from a PC Screen the same as reading through paper notes?

    In these cost conscious times do University’s wish to spend millions of £’s supplying every student with the latest gadget?
    If one of the drivers to produce electronic media for teaching material and make this available to students was to reduce the reliance on books and hence libraries’ then why is so much money still expended on ever larger library provision in many Universities? It would seem that something doesn’t add up here.

    Why do we ask students to sit for 2 or 3 hours handwriting during their exams when the use of a pen has rapidly declined? Why can’t they use a keyboard where it is appropriate? It would certainly help markers with actually being able to read what they have written.

    There is a place for new technology but it is important that it is used appropriately to benefit us all.

  5. Jilly Says:

    Even if the educational benefits of various technologies were proven, one rather obvious reason why universities may not be adopting them is cost. Our funding doesn’t come close to allowing us to upgrade classroom/lab technologies in this way. Indeed, we’re struggling even to upgrade software, let alone hardware.

  6. John H Says:

    I currently work in a technology related role in a university and find it is a struggle often in persuading academic staff that the technology the student is using is useful in learning and teaching. But if you look they are using smartphones as recording devices etc.

    The moral is that students are quite often several steps ahead of what the institution is looking at and we in part should take a lead from them but support them in adapting their shiny gadgets for use in their studies. This is the approach I have taken in my current role.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      I’m all ears (or, eyes). Persuade me that smartphones are useful in learning and teaching.

      I put it to you that the claim that the students are “ahead” begs the question. What makes you so sure that the adoption of technology is a stride forward rather than a stride backwards (pedagogically)?

      I say this as one who is more technologically adept than most of my peers, who knows his way around a Unix/Linux command line, have set up my own moodle on my own server, use an iPad to read and store PDFs, etc. I’m not convinced of the value. What I am convinced of is that a lot of companies have a vested interest in getting people to believe in the value or that they are hopelessly backwards if they don’t get with the programme. I am also convinced that a lot of people are overly impressed with the technology and think that learning about it or playing with it are somehow “deep” activities. They are not. What I am not convinced of is the pedagogical value of smartphones, iPads, VLEs, PowerPoint, etc. Computers and the internet themselves are of dubious pedagogical value since they invariably reinforce the student prejudice that education is the assimilation of information and that information is all “out there” on the internet. Reflection is the last thing students can imagine having anything to do with education.

      So, go ahead, convince me.

  7. Chris Says:

    Universities know this change is coming so I believe that they should do what they can to facilitate and enable it. For future student’s expectations to be met it will be crucial for universities to have a concrete agenda in place for how these new technologies are embeded into the learning process and support the students in achieving their learning objectives.

  8. anna notaro Says:

    technology-enabled education can become more mainstream via the ‘edutainment’ route
    the pedagogical challenge is how to strike the right balance between education & entartainmemt

  9. Mike Scott Says:

    Maybe better to turn the question on its head. Given that one can now

    1. access massive amounts of information about anything at the click of a button
    2. carry out calculations of incredible complexity in the blink of an eye
    3. communicate in real time with anyone on the planet, instantly

    Hands up all those who think that such developments should have no impact on the way in which we teach.

    If you think not, is there any imaginable invention that would change the way we teach?

  10. jfryar Says:

    Two-and-a-half decades ago the first desktop computers became available with decent programming languages and graphics capability. It ushered in a supposed New Age of education in subjects like physics and engineering – coupled with a video projector we could now show students animations and simulations, show them accelerations and moving objects like pendulums and pulleys and cars going around bends.

    Except if you wander into any physics or engineering lecture you’ll still not find many instances of this. What you will find is acetates and overhead projectors and white boards and the occasional black board. We haven’t even made use of the technology we have let alone the technology of the future.

  11. Dan Says:

    The Irish Times reported yesterday that they would tend to seek graduates, from anywhere really, with a 2:1. However, they were disappointed that students don’t appear to be able to take responsibility for own projects and they have poor writing skills. It’s a reasonable question to ask whether innovative teaching technologies provide students with a lot of information/data/noise or whether they actually enable students to take responsibility for their own learning, to think critically and to “educated”. It may well be that we don’t employ these technologies well, but if do, why might this be the case?

  12. Kate Pickles Says: Check out number 8 Irynsoft providing the first basic mobile platform that allows users to take a course on their iPhone. It has already been adopted by MIT Open CourseWare.

    And Abilene Christian University (Texas) presented a year or so ago at Edinburgh’s School of Informatics on their (back then) innovative project – issuing i-Phones or i-Pods to all new students and forcing the hand of the faculty to devise learning experiences using mobile devices. The results were interesting and positive. The main benefit was greatly improved student engagement . The main obstacle was staff – some who were early adopting enthusiasts and others who needed a lot of support. But most participated. Looking at their website today – they are still using technology well – now i-Pads too and doing some local small scale research into usage, which is interesting.

    The pedagogical value is that it provides the means to access information, apps and other ‘stuff’ easily and leaves more time for reflective learning. I actually can’t imagine how many hours I wasted in the ‘stacks’ of the university library trying to find one short paragraph of immense importance in a publication – the process was tedious. No internet then, not even a computer – we’d only just started using calculators (but couldn’t use them in exams!) I suppose I felt like I really ‘worked hard’ to get my degree – but I’d rather have the internet any day and (no longer new) technology.

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