Learning Technology: The Myths and Facts

Accessibility

Learning technology may make the opportunity of learning available to a wider audience than ever before and as such has the power to promote a fairer and more equal society. The issue of accessibility is concerned with ensuring that the opportunities offered by the technology truly are available to as large and diverse a group as possible. In particular it is concerned with ensuring that learners with disabilities, including those who may be accessing materials through assistive technologies such as screen readers, are not unduly disadvantaged.

Accessibility concerns are not solely altruistic. The number of people worldwide with some form of disability represents a massive potential audience that few educational providers (or indeed commercial operations) can afford to exclude. Additionally much educational provision is, or will soon, be subject to accessibility legislation.

In the USA Section 508 of the 1998 Rehabilitation Act requires that Federal agencies’ electronic and information technology (including Web) content is accessible to people with disabilities. In the UK the Special Educational Needs and Disability Act (SENDA) will make it illegal to discriminate against disabled students by treating them less favourably than others. Institutions must make reasonable adjustments to provision where students with disabilities would otherwise be at a substantial disadvantage. SENDA came into effect on 1 September 2002.

Learning technology practitioners should endeavour to make their outputs accessible to as wide an audience as possible and must make themselves aware of any legal requirements governing their work. Further guidance may be found from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI – see http://www.w3.org/WAI/). Authoring software producers such as Macromedia (Dreamweaver, Flash etc.) may also publish guidelines on developing accessible applications with their software (e.g. see http://www.macromedia.com/macromedia/accessibility/).

e-Learning or Blended Learning

The oft-used term e-learning implies the concept of learning which is delivered electronically. The author dislikes the term, preferring to see the computer as just one possible medium through which learning may be presented.

Radio, cinema, television, video etc. were all exciting new media, once. They all remain widely used. But they have not replaced media which pre-existed them. The oldest mass medium, i.e. the printed word, continues to flourish.

Just as older means of communication continue to thrive alongside the latest computer technology in the information age, so too do more traditional forms of learning medium such as the printed word and audio and video cassette. The latest forms of learning technology should supplement rather than replace these earlier media in a blended approach to learning.

A successful learning experience relies on each of the available modes of delivery being employed to its strengths.

There are numerous examples of so-called learning technology that do little more than transfer the contents of the printed page to the computer screen in the belief that presenting the information this way will magically promote enhanced learning. In fact delivering significant amounts of printed text on screen rather than paper is likely to be detrimental to the recipient’s comprehension and comfort.

Nielsen (1998) states “people read about 25% slower from computer screens than from printed paper”. Reading from screen is certainly less comfortable than reading printed text. The UK Health and Safety Executive (1998) found that “long spells of VDU work can lead to tired eyes and discomfort”. In fact UK law requires employers to plan the work of those using VDUs so there are breaks or changes of activity (HSE, 1998). Paper can also be more portable and robust, e.g. one cannot use a computer in the bath, whilst dropping a book doesn’t usually do it any significant damage.

Reusability

A holy grail of the learning technology field is the concept of reusability as witnessed by the intense interest and activity in reusable learning objects.

The concept of reusable learning objects is a simple one. Learning material is packaged into discrete chunks for the purposes of being used in a variety of contexts.

Definitions of what constitutes a learning object vary. The IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (2002) defines a learning object as ” any entity, digital or non-digital, which can be used, re-used or referenced during technology supported learning.” This is not very useful since absolutely anything can be referenced during technology supported learning.

Other, more precise definitions exist, e.g. learning content management system vendor Knowledge Planet states “A learning object has four components: an objective, content, a means of assessment, and metadata.” (Knowledge Planet product literature).

The rationale for the learning object approach is similar to that for the use of object oriented programming in computing. Rather than continually develop software to represent common entities such as people, orders, accounts etc., the software industry produces one (or a small number of) very good representation(s) of these entities. When a programmer needs to code people in his software he simply plugs in a pre-written, quality-assured person object, which he may refine as required.

Rather than every mathematics teacher develop their own way of introducing students to differential calculus, they are simply able to call upon one or more very good learning objects, which do the job. The mathematics teachers may then devote their efforts to supporting students understanding of those objects.

Some examples:

  • A single object introducing differentiation is offered on courses in engineering, science and economics.
  • The learning object on introductory differentiation is multi-purposed into print, Web and CD-ROM versions.
  • A degree level management course is created as a series of reusable learning objects. A subset of these learning objects forms the basis of a short, vocational course.

The best learning objects would be made available, at a cost, to the entire educational community. Widespread adoption of the learning object paradigm would see a separation between the traditionally integrated functions of content preparation and learner support.

Reusability in education is not new and has not until recently been seen as controversial. A textbook is a reusable learning object. A textbook on basic calculus might be used in courses on mathematics, physics, engineering etc. with different groups of students in numerous schools and colleges throughout the world. It may be translated into different languages to further extend its reusability. Learning objects take the reusability concept a step further, extending it to the entire content component of the learning experience.

Downes (2000) makes a compelling case for the economic benefits of the learning object approach, claiming “there will be sharing, because no institution producing its own materials on its own could compete with institutions sharing learning materials.”

One criticism of this approach comes from the recognition that knowledge does not exist as discrete chunks, but is inextricably related to other knowledge as well as to the context in which it is applied, i.e. the learning object approach is too reductionistic to meet the learning needs of the real world.

The term digital divide has been coined to describe the division between those that have access to technology and those that do not. In March 2003 an estimated 649 million people, some 10% of the world’s population, had Internet access (Global Reach). It is sobering to reflect that 90% do not have such, thus the technology that promises to make learning opportunities more widely available than ever before is effectively excluding the vast majority.

This difference in the levels of access to technology is driving the goal of multi-purposing learning objects across a range of delivery media, e.g. it should be possible to present printed, low-bandwidth and high-bandwidth versions of a particular object. The problem in meeting this ideal is that material is written to the strengths of a target medium, e.g. a novel and a screenplay of the same story are quite different. Thus in trying to author an object for a number of formats there is a risk of compromising the strengths of each and delivering a mediocre product.

Despite these criticisms reusable learning objects will most likely play a major role in the future of learning presentation. The focus at this stage should be on identifying those scenarios in which the approach has most to offer.

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