Technology, Learning and Teaching

16 December 2010


After the naivete of the Digital Native narrative its interesting to see a richer, more nuanced engagement with the impact of technology on learning and teaching start to emerge. The Chronicle of Higher Education has published a couple of articles recently which nicely capture range of issues that are being traversed in universities worldwide.

Tomorrow's College illustrates through a number of cases the realisation that 'distance online learning' is having a significant impact on the ability of students to be more flexible in their time use:

"As online education goes mainstream, it's no longer just about access for distant learners who never set foot in the student union. Web courses are rewiring what it means to be a "traditional" student..."

The article nicely traverses the range of opportunities that online courses give students to manage their time and balance study with other other activities. Of course, there are also the concerns of some that unstructured flexibility will lead to 'slacking' and poor performance, however the article does note that much of that can be addressed with solid course design and effective feedback/assessment strategies. The closing quote from a student also nicely addresses the romanticisation of traditional teaching:

"If you want to encounter distance education, a student once said, sit in the back of a 500-seat lecture."

For new practices and technologies to really have an impact though, staff need to be supported in understanding how to change their practice. The Benefits of Confusion examines the need for a thoughtful response:

"...what seems to me to be crucial are three tendencies. First, retaining the habit of deep thought which is a crucial element of the academic tradition of thinking but which is currently threatened on many sides by cut and paste culture. Second, continuing to investigate alternatives to the traditional lecture or tutorial whilst thinking hard about how to retain the best characteristics of face to face communication, and especially its ability to show and tell simultaneously. Third, exploring the ability to produce new forms of personalisation which move beyond the industrial models currently on offer."

The article also nicely addresses the arguments of those who say that 'e-learning' in its manyfold guises are merely distractions that can be safely ignored by the prefection of the unchanging university:

"Even though the information technology infrastructure is now in place on most campuses to take advantage of alternatives, I am certainly not one of those who think we have to just pander to the shift that now seems to be going on but neither can it just be ignored or timed out. Our students demand more. Not all that more is valuable or resonant. So we need to make sure we can give them the right kind of more or they will seek out lesser alternatives."

I just finished reading Nicholas Carr's book The Shallows and it also sits within this space as an account of the struggle that all academics and students must experience to work out how technology sits amongst the range of tools that support and shape our thinking. If nothing else, this 'confusion' re-emphasizes the need to be active in our engagement with technology and information, rather than passive consumers of transient experiences. The quote I used recently in a paper on organisational change I think also speaks well to the individual experience:

"Simple understandings lead to general rules to be applied in all situations; complicated understandings suggest that situations differ and that reliance on experiences of the past may prove dysfunctional. [] Only complicated understandings can see the many and conflicting realities of complicated situations. (Birnbaum 1988, 209)"