Learning Technology: The Myths and Facts

Interoperability

Closely related to the concept of reusability is that of interoperability. Essentially this means ensuring that where reusable learning materials are created they are truly reusable, by different institutions and across different delivery platforms.

To this end a number of bodies are working towards the development of standards. These bodies include the IEEE Learning Technology Standards Committee (LTSC), Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL) Initiative (developers of SCORM – the Sharable Content Object Reference Model) and the Instructional Management System (IMS) Global Learning Consortium. Specifications are emerging to describe things like learning object metadata, content packaging and question and test interoperability. The UK Centre for Educational Technology Interoperability Standards has described the adoption of standards as being “key to the realisation of Life Long Learning and a global education marketplace.” (CETIS 2002).

Although much work is being done in this area few standards have been officially ratified. The learning technology practitioner would be advised to become acquainted with the current state of affairs and to ensure that any deliverables are broadly compatible with existing recommendations whilst watching closely for further developments.

The Understanding Mismatch

One of the greatest difficulties in implementing learning technology projects is the need for mutual understanding between a diverse range of skill sets.

This difficulty exists to a lesser degree in traditional education where those with the greatest subject knowledge aren’t always the most able to impart it to others. In the UK this is more of a problem in higher education, where academic staff are selected solely for expertise in their field and are not required to possess any qualifications in education.

The problem is intensified in technology mediated learning as not only subject specialists and educationalists need to be involved the process but also a whole range of technical experts (systems administrators, web/multimedia designers/developers, support staff…).

The successful development of a learning technology project from conception to delivery requires that each of these specialists is able to work together, each having an appreciation of the role played by the others. Without this mutual understanding the dangers are that the subject experts will simply regurgitate what they know without regard to how the learner will engage with it; the educationalist will produce unrealistic expectations of the technology, or worse, have little understanding of the technology’s potential; and the technologists will create excellent demonstrations of their specific skills and knowledge that stand as works of art but do little to enhance the learner’s understanding.

In an attempt to address the problem of understanding mismatch two relatively new professions have emerged from the learning technology industry, namely the instructional designer and learning technologist (or educational technologist).

The instructional designer is able to work with subject experts to create a learning experience appropriate to the target learner. It is a role that should be found throughout traditional educational establishments, particularly those of higher education. Indeed in the UK more and more higher education institutions are introducing learning and teaching units with a view to helping academics improve the quality of learning presented to their students.

The learning technologist is likely to be technically skilled as well as being able to communicate with other technical experts and will have a good awareness of the potentials of technology in promoting learning. Most importantly he/she will be able to communicate with subject experts and/or educationalists to advise where and how technology might enhance the learning experience that is being developed. The learning technologist may demonstrate a range of examples to inspire ideas, and will then work to refine those ideas into a realisable form.

These roles are intended to serve as an interface between subject specialist and technical expert. They will ensure that the right amount and level of subject knowledge is presented to the learner in the appropriate form for the most effective learning to take place.

As the discipline of learning technology matures it is likely a number of project lifecycle methodologies that enshrine best practice will emerge. However, it is the author’s opinion that the field is currently too young to be so rigidly constrained and that further experimentation and innovation are required if its full potential is to be realised.

Effective Learning Technology

How may learning technology be most effectively deployed? And what might be the characteristics of the resulting learning experience?

Technology has the potential to facilitate communication across physical boundaries. It also has the potential to involve the learner, particularly the distance learner, to a high degree as well as being able to present a highly personalized learning experience.

We might expect an effective technologically mediated learning experience to offer the opportunity for communication and collaboration with similarly minded individuals from around the world. These individuals would comprise both peers and mentors and would ideally form communities in which different members could take the lead at different stages of the learning process. The communication facility could take any form from the simple e-mail list and/or discussion board through to intelligent avatars inhabiting three-dimensional virtual worlds.

The experience would employ different media to achieve different ends. In many cases, depending on the nature of the course, there would be a significant reading component. This reading need not be delivered as bundles of paper. Instead it could be distributed as PDF files for the learner to print locally. It is likely these files will be fully indexed and searchable to enable the learner to quickly retrieve relevant content. There may also be some form of computerized organizer, note taker and annotation tool, which some learners might find beneficial.

Where the computer is used to present learning there is likely to be a high degree of learner involvement. Rich simulations and models will allow the learner to experiment in a variety of novel situations, learning from the experience of active participation and the resulting feedback. There will not be a pre-determined pathway through the computer-presented component. Instead it will adapt itself to the characteristics, needs and earlier performance of the individual learner.

Audio and video elements will also be offered where these media are most appropriate for presenting the learning material. Where a course of study is comprised of different media (print, computer, audio, video) each component will be of sufficient size to provide a study session of satisfying length and substance, i.e. learners will not be required to switch from screen to paper and back every few minutes. Multi-media courses may also provide a printed “summary” of key concepts for revision purposes. This summary could be in skeletal form to be expanded upon by the learner as they progress.

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