Learning Technology: The Myths and Facts

Learning in the Information Age

The final decade of the twentieth century saw exponential increases both in computing power and the number of people able to access computers and the Internet. Numerous commentators have described the proliferation of information and communication technologies (and in particular the growth of the Internet) as bringing about a transition as marked as that of the industrial revolution. We are said to be moving from the industrial age to the information age, in which radically different rules will apply in every aspect of society, education being no exception. (N.B. a Google search on the phrase “information age” retrieved some 725,000 results.)

Society’s transition to the information age is likely to impact on learning and education in two ways. Firstly, rapidly improving technology will enable higher quality learning to be made available to an ever-growing audience through increasingly sophisticated modes of presentation. Secondly, the very nature of the information age may require a different kind of preparation (i.e. learning) from its membership than was the case in the industrial age.

In the industrial age the majority of human roles could be described as algorithmic. Most circumstances determined the pre-defined procedure to be followed upon their occurrence. People left school or college, learned the rules of a given trade of profession, and expected to remain within that trade for life. Large corporations, with deep hierarchies were the norm, in which instructions from above were expected to be unquestioningly carried out. It could be argued that an approach like Skinner’s behaviorism which sought to develop specific responses to given stimuli was most suited to industrial age learning.

It is likely that members of the information society will need to learn continually throughout their lives in order to keep up with the rapid and relentless change that is characteristic of the age. Because it is unlikely we shall be able to enjoy perpetual studenthood, learning will need to be presented in increasingly flexible ways (e.g. distance learning, open learning, part-time and mixed mode study…).

It is likely traditional corporate structures will be forced to change in order to survive in the new economy. Small (2000) describes the limitations, in the information age, of the traditional managed team operating as part of a rigid hierarchy. Instead he proposes the concept of temporary, virtual teams, brought together by an initiator, someone able to “identify a win-win situation where cooperation can produce benefits” and “produce enough evidence that profits will result from [the] proposed cooperation”. Such teams aren’t “held together by rules, but by benefits of mutual advantage.”

Structural changes together with the increasing mechanization of algorithmic tasks imply the need for more creative, innovative and interpretive skills. Such abilities are more likely to emerge from a constructivist approach to learning in which individuals construct their own individual mental models of the world in order to make sense of their experiences. Learning is the process of adding to or refining this mental model.

All Kinds of Learner

The continued and increasing state of social and economic flux of the information age means the need for lifelong learning will become a reality for most people in the twenty-first century.

Rather than being something that tales place between infancy and early adulthood, learning will become a cradle-to-grave activity. Rather than catering only for those with a certain predisposition, effective post-compulsory learning will need to be made available to the majority.

Rather than being an activity that takes place mainly in a classroom with rows of students seated at desks paying close attention to a teacher standing before a blackboard at the front, learning will take a variety of forms.

Of course there will still be institutional learning that takes place mainly in classrooms on campus. But distance learning seems set to become a major growth area of the early twenty-first century, offering learners the chance to study where and when they choose, scheduling their learning around work and family commitments. A third category of learner may also be identified, the attached learner. Attached learners fall somewhere between the extremes represented by their institutional and distance colleagues. Attached learners spend some of their learning time on campus while the rest is spent at a distance. They may be part-time students, or those out on work placements.

For distance learners learning technology can provide access to tutorial and peer support as well as relief from the inevitable isolation. The lone learner is brought into contact with colleagues and mentors from around the globe. Technology also provides an extremely efficient mechanism for delivering learning materials on demand. Such materials may be traditional study texts or fully interactive multimedia learning experiences. Simulations offer the distance learner almost the same degree of involvement as their institution-based counterparts by way of virtual laboratories and rich, interactive models. The World Wide Web provides access to a huge amount of content. Quality assured digital libraries and portals may serve as a roadmap to the more valuable resources.

On-campus learners may also benefit from learning technology, albeit in different ways to those at a distance. Simulations and models extend conventional laboratory facilities in supporting active learning by enabling ideas introduced in the classroom to be put into practice. Learning environments (see below) can provide access to pre- and post-lecture materials and serve as a gateway to a wide range of digital resources. They may also provide a shared workspace for group assignments as well as extending the learner’s immediate peer group by linking them with others from around the world.

Learning Environments

Known by terms including Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), Online Learning Environments (OLEs) and Managed Learning Environments (MLEs) these facilities offer technology mediated support for the learning process in a number of areas. Additionally, MLEs offer access to institutional administration systems allowing learners to view grades, update personal details, pay fees etc. online.

Learning Environments may offer any, or all, of the following features:

  • A repository of learning materials, e.g. lecture handouts, PDF files, PowerPoint presentations etc., i.e. the environment serves as an efficient distribution mechanism.
  • A portal to additional (i.e. external) quality assured resources.
  • A communication facility which may be synchronous/asynchronous, tutor-student, student-tutor and/or student-student. This facility could include inter-institutional communities and/or guest lectures/seminars.
  • Archiving of real-time events for the benefit of those unable to participate at the time.
  • A shell for interactive/multimedia course materials. In this case the environment would provide each learner with access to the right materials at the right time, possibly determined by personal preference and/or prior performance.
  • Online assessment – both formative (for guidance only) and summative (assessed as part of final grade).
  • A collaborative working environment, e.g. a communication facility plus shared file space for group assignments.
  • Links to administration systems, i.e. the environment is an MLE.

Many institutions make use of “off the shelf” products, the current market leaders being WebCT and Blackboard. Others develop their own environments to suit their specific needs. Considerations in selecting a learning environment include:

  • How easy is it to use – for academics, tutors, administrators – and learners?
  • To what degree can it be customized / accessed at HTML or server level?
  • What does it cost? And how is it licensed – institutionally, per user, per seat (i.e. per user per course)?
  • Does it conform to accessibility (see below) guidelines?
  • Does it conform to emerging interoperability (see below) standards?
  • Can it be used off-line (e.g. for distance learners with poor Internet connectivity), or is there an alternative such as e-mailed discussions?
  • What is the minimum platform/connection required to run it?
  • Will it interface with the institution’s administrative systems?
  • Does it support single sign-on authentication?, i.e. once logged in will students be able to access other resources without having to repeatedly log in?
  • Can closed access discussion areas be created for group work?
  • Does it use the pull (e.g. bulletin board) or push (e.g. mailing list ) model or both for supporting communications? Ideally a combination of the two will be supported with learners receiving regular e-mails informing them of new additions to the VLE; additionally there will be a web-based, searchable archive of messages available.
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