Technologies and learning

I’ve spent far more time than is healthy over the past few years thinking about technology, learning and education, and how they fit with each other. I was interested to read this recent meta-meta-study on the effects of computers in education, but it really tells us nothing we did not already know (though it has some good insights into why it is tricky and what may be needed).

The trouble with a focus on a tool, especially something like a computer that is a potentially infinite number of tools, is that it tells us practically nothing at all of value about the learning technology. All education, bar none, is technology-enhanced learning and all, bar none, involves tools – minimally, cognitive/social tools like pedagogies that are assumed to lead to learning (and, usually, tools to assess it has happened), organisational tools to support bringing people together, clocks to assist that process, spaces constructed to not hinder it too much, not to mention the ultimate toolset, language itself. That’s just a small part of the list, of course. Most education, especially in a formal context, involves dozens or even hundreds or thousands of tools, assembled into technologies which may themselves be part of technological assemblies, in order for it to happen. The issue is not whether a technology like language (say) is used, but how it is used. And that’s what no metastudy that focuses on a single set of tools will ever tell us in any useful way. For that matter, it seldom comes out properly in the original studies themselves. You might just as stupidly ask what effect chalk has on learning. Used well, in conjunction with other tools like blackboards, classroom seating arrangements, intelligent pedagogies and a caring teacher, it can have a hugely beneficial effect and, without it (assuming other co-occurring variables like the presence of a blackboard and a pedagogy that requires it) things can go terribly wrong. Defining a technology must include thinking about what it uses and what it is being used for – otherwise it is just talking about objects that are of no interest or value. So, we should be looking at the technological assemblies that we use and how they work together, of which specific tools are a necessary but not even close-to sufficient component. We are not going to show anything valuable about computers per se because they are universal tools, media and environments: because of that flexibility, they can be used to improve learning. They let us do pretty much anything that we want if we can program and use them effectively. If tools can improve learning, and computers can be pretty much any tool, then of course they can be of phenomenal value. That’s just basic logic. It would be stupid to suggest otherwise. It’s not even worth asking the question.  We might ask reasonable questions about the economics of using them, access or health issues and so on, yet it is as certain as night follows day that computers can help people to learn. But how? Now, that is a really good (and less well-answered) research question which actually strikes at the heart of what all education is about.

Bearing that in mind, I have been wondering of late about the differences between social interactions online and face to face. Some differences appear to be obvious, even in the most immersive of online communication systems – the lack of important cues like scent, touch, peripheral vision, limitations on hearing background noises, limitations of rendition of video (even in 3D at high resolution) the fact that no commitment to meet in one place has been made (and therefore no continuation beyond the communication event itself), the fact that each participant exists in an environment where they are differently distracted, and so on. But, of course, such things may occur in face to face environments too. People have disabilities that limit shared sensations, if I sit opposite you at a table, my distractions are different from yours (I once failed an interview at least partly because I alone was facing a window over the sea and thought I could see whales playing in the waves, but that’s another story) and my commitment to go to a class down the hall may be very different from yours to come from a poorly connected village 50 miles away. In most respects, there are analogous situations in the most mundane of face to face meetings to those we experience routinely in online scenarios and, though the scale of effect may vary, the means of dealing with problems may be more straightforward and the ubiquity of the problems may vary, we still have to face them. 

I’d be really interested to hear of any research that has looked into such constraints in a face to face setting without the intervention of computers – differences caused by seating arrangements, differences caused by being at the front of the class or the back, the effects of a teacher with body odour issues, the effects of distance traveled to class on commitment, and so on. Does anyone know of such studies? I’ve read a few here and there but not looked too carefully at the literature. I’m guessing some work must have been done on this, especially with regard to the effects of disabilities. My suspicion is that such easy and commonplace problems might tell us some useful things about how to fill the transactional distance gap in online systems.


I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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