The state of the art of educational technology
This blog post is a draft of a chapter I am writing on the emergence of research into the use of technologies to support education. It describes the nature of the field, along with some of the current ways in which technologies are being used. Does it adequately describe the nature of the field? Is there anything missing? Are there other research questions I should include at the end? Any thoughts or comments welcome!
Educational technology has been used in earnest in education for over forty years, from the development of interactive multimedia resources through to the use of the Internet, mobile and augmented technologies in recent years (Spector 2008). This chapter provides a review of the area and reflects on the promises and challenges of trying to incorporate technologies into education. Research in the field has matured and there are now a vibrant sub-set of different research areas, such as exploring learners’ perceptions of the use of technologies, practitioners’ practices, the use of Open Educational Resource and more broadly open approaches to the design and delivery of educational offerings, as well as approaches which help guide practice such as the use of pedagogical patterns and learning design as a methodology to enable teachers to make informed decisions about using technologies.
The chapter provides an overview of the research field, its key characteristics and associated theoretical and methodological perspectives. It draws on relevant research literature and on a series of interviews with leading Technology Enhanced Learning researchers (Conole, Scanlon et al. 2010).
The emergence of the field
Educational technology as a field can be traced back to the beginning of the 19th Century, however significant investment in the field dates back to the sixties with the development and use of teaching machines and the emergence of multimedia software in the eighties. In parallel there was a shift from a focus on behaviorist approaches to learning (with a focus on the individual and stimulus and response approaches) to more constructivist (building on prior knowledge) and social situative (learning with others and in a context) approaches. New technologies appeared to offer much to support these new pedagogies, particularly through new social and participatory media that have emerged in the last five years or so.
In addition to educational technology, over the years different terms have been used with respect to researching the use of technologies for learning and teaching. These include elearning, learning technology, networked learning and Technology-Enhanced Learning; each with a subtle nuance. For example, Kehrwald (2010) citing Steeples and Jones (2002) argues that:
Networked Learning, by definition, involves the use of information and communication technologies to create connections (Jones & Steeples, 2002). By utilising those connections, learners have opportunities for interpersonal interaction and more complex social activity. Thus, networked learning is an active, social endeavour in which the mediating technologies provide an infrastructure for social activity.
Educational technology suggests the emphasis is on formal learning, whereas it is important that the term covers non-formal and informal learning as well. Conole and Oliver (2007) favour the term elearning and make the following distinctions:
E-learning is the term most commonly used to represent the broader domain of development and research activities on the application of technologies to education. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) refers to the broad range of technologies, which are used in education. When these are used with reference to their use in learning and teaching we tend to use the term ‘learning technologies’.
For some, the term elearning has become too closely tied in with a particular subset of technologies, namely Learning Management System and the term Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) has been favoured in many European contexts, as it is felt that TEL emphasises the support of learning by technologies. For the purpose of this chapter the term elearning will be used as I feel it most adequately encapsulates the nature of the field, i.e. researching the use of technologies (covering Internet-based technologies as well as mobile and other devices) to support learning and teaching.
Theory and methodology
Elearning as a field is inherently applied and interdisciplinary; researchers come from a wide range of disciplines and hence bring with them a rich set of theoretical perspectives and methodologies.
In a series of interviews with key researchers in the field,(Conole, Scanlon et al. 2010) a group of influential thinkers were identified. There does appear to be a common shared discourse underpinning the field. Socio-cultural approaches – in particular the work of (Vygotsky 1978), Engeström and others around Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) (Engeström, Punamäki-Gitai et al. 1999), Laurillard’s ‘Rethinking university teaching and learning’ (Laurillard 2002) and Mason (Mason and Kaye 1989). Other theoretical perspectives these researchers are drawing on include: Alan Collins (Collins 1992) (design-based research); Michael Patton (Patton 2008) (utilisation focused evaluation); Barbara Rogoff (Rogoff 2003) (cultural psychology); Maggie Boden (Boden 1989) (artificial Intelligence and psychology); Lave and Wenger (Lave and Wenger 1998) (communities of practice); Alan Blackwell (Blackwell, Wilson et al. 2009) (interdisciplinarity); Howard Gardner (Gardener 1993) (multiple intelligences); James Wertsch (Wertsch 1991) (mediating artefacts); and Michael Cole (Cole, Engeström et al. 1997).
Looking at some of the specific texts that were cited as influences is also insightful. These included ‘Educating the Reflective Practitioner’ (Schön 1987), ‘Academic Tribes and ‘Territories: Intellectual Enquiry and the Cultures of Discipline’ (Becher & Trowler 2001), ‘Distributed Cognition’ (Salomon 1997), ‘Plans and situated actions: the problem of human-machine communication’ (Suchman 1987), ‘A dynamic medium for creative thought’, (Kay 1972), ‘‘Doing Research/Reading Research Re-interrogating Education’, (Dowling and Brown 2010) and ‘Common and Border Lands’ (Strathern 2004).
In the same interviews the following were cited as the methodologies that were most frequently used: socio-cultural research, Activity Theory, Qualitative Research Methodology, Design Research Methodology and Grounded Theory. It should be noted that these researchers were primarily European and arguably more quantitative approaches are evident in other parts of the world, such as North America.
This section will provide a review of the current spectrum of technologies that are available to support learning and will consider some of the ways in which they are being used to support different pedagogical approaches,
Conole et al. (Conole, Smith et al. 2007) provide a timeline of technologies in education from the sixties to 2000. They describe the emergence and influence of the following: mainframe computers, desktop computers, graphical interfaces, the Internet, Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), Managed Learning Environments (MLEs), and mobile and wireless devices. Use of these tools included the creation of interactive multimedia materials and e-assessment, the creation of departmental web pages to store course materials, the use of email and discussion forums to support communication between tutors and learners and the creation of holistic online learning environments using VLEs.
Since 2000 we have since the emergence of new technologies that provide a plethora of ways in which teachers and learners can interact and communicate. These include new social and participatory media, which O’Reilly referred to as Web 2.0 technologies (O’Reilly 2004; O’Reilly 2005), virtual worlds such as Second Life, game-based technologies and more recently augmented and gesture technologies. The annual horizon report (NMC 2011) lists the technologies that are most likely to have an impact within a one, three and five year timeframe. For 2011, these were: ebooks and mobile devices, augmented and gesture technologies and within five years learning analytics (Elias 2011). Siemens (2010) defines learning analytics as:
the use of intelligent data, learner-produced data, and analysis models to discover information and social connections, and to predict and advise on learning.
In a review of social and participatory media, Conole and Alevizou (2010) categorise them as follows: media sharing (such as YouTube and Flickr), media manipulation and mash ups, instant messaging, online games and virtual worlds, social networking, blogs, social bookmarking, recommender systems, wikis and collaborative editors, and syndication tools. In addition they identified a number of important affordances (Gibson 1979) that these technologies offer to support learning. De Freitas and Conole (2010) list the following as key technological trends that have emerged in recent years:
1. A shift towards ubiquitous and networked technologies.
2. The emergence of context and location aware devices.
3. The increasingly rich and diverse different forms of representation and stimulatory environments possible.
4. The trend towards more mobile and adaptive devices.
5. A technical infrastructure that is global, distributed and interoperable.
Conole (Forthcoming) notes the following trends:
1. A shift from the Web as a content repository and information mechanism to a Web that enables more social mediation and user generation of content.
2. New practices of sharing (such as the use of Flickr for images, YouTube for videos, and SlideShare for presentations) and mechanisms for content production, communication and collaboration (through blogs, wikis and micro-blogging services such as Twitter). Social networking sites provide a mechanism for connecting people and supporting different communities of practice (such as Facebook, Elgg and Ning).
3. A scale or ‘network effect’ is emerging as a result of the quantity of information available on the Web; he multiplicity of connectivity and the scale of user participation, and as a result new possibilities for sharing and harnessing these ‘network effects’ is occurring.
She goes on to argue that these trends point to new ways in which users are behaving in online spaces. They provide a range of opportunities for supporting learning and teaching practices. Through these new technologies the Web is more participatory and user centered, supporting more open practices. A number of characteristics define social and participatory media and demonstrate the ways in which they enable these more participatory approaches. Firstly, the ability to peer critique on the work of others is now common practice in the blogosphere for example. Secondly, tools to enable users to generate their own content. Thirdly, these technologies enable collective aggregation on a global scale, which refers both to the ways in which individuals can collate and order content to suit their individual needs and personal preferences, as well as the ways individual content can be enriched. Fourthly, a rich ecology of community formations have now emerged; from tightly defined Communities of Practice (Wenger 1998) through to looser networks and collectives (Dron and Anderson 2007). Finally, new forms of digital identity are emerging; individuals need to define their digital identity and how they ‘present’ themselves across these spaces. The avatars we choose to represent ourselves, the style of language we use and the degree to which we are open (both professionally and personally) within these spaces, give a collective picture of how we are viewed by others.
In addition to social and participatory media, we have seen the emergence of smart phones, tablets and e-book devices in recent years, which provide learners with access to a rich range of learning materials. Many of these devices enable some degree of interactivity, for example the ability to annotate resources or share and discuss them with others. The affordances of mobile learning, including the ability to learn anywhere and anytime and being able to bridge between formal, informal and non-formal learning. In the MyArtSpace project, Shaples et al. explored the use of mobile devices between schools and museums (Sharples, Meek et al. 2007). The students were able to view multimedia presentations of museum exhibits, take photos, make voice recordings, write notes and see who else has viewed the exhibit. Mobile devices are particular powerful when combined with location aware functionality and can be used to promote activities such as geocaching. Clough defines geocaching as ‘a leisure activity in which participants use a global positioning system (GPS) mobile device to locate a hidden ‘cache’. The cache is usually a physical container concealed somewhere in the landscape. Participants are given a starting location (a car park or other easily identifiable spot) and then use the GPS coordinates to guide them to the cache. Geocaching involves exercise and getting about outdoors’. Clough reports on a study on the use of GPS with social technologies. The study aimed to consider whether whether these technologies can provide an effective focus for community activities and, if so, whether this combination of location-awareness, mobile, and Web 2.0 technology results in the creation of novel informal learning opportunities (Clough 2010).
An active area of research is the exploratory of the use of games and virtual worlds to support learning. These can be particularly useful in fostering situative pedagogies such as authentic and role-based learning. JISC refers to these as Game-Base Learning (GBL), which range from rich immersive virtual worlds such as Second Life to simple interactive and quiz-based games (JISC 2007). The report argues that serious games services and applications have a role to play in relation to their potential to provide greater opportunities for personalising learning experiences (O’Donoghue 2010). The report goes on to cite a number of benefits of GBL, these include: motivation, integrating a range of tools and the spontaneous formation of social networks. Games such as WorldofWarCraft have a vibrant and extensive network of online gamers distributed worldwide, supporting and peer critiquing each other as they develop their gaming competences. Gros (2010) lists the following as some of the benefits of Games-Based Learning: games as a powerful context, immersive learning, development of soft skills, and the ability to support complex learning. Virtual worlds, such as Second Life can promote authentic and role-based learning. For example, it can be used to create Art galleries and museums, to support virtual exhibitions, to simulate Medical ward or Law courtroom role plays (EDUCAUSE 2008). The power is Second Life is that it provides an authentic virtual environment acting as a proxy for the real world and allowing users to inhabit personas and situations that might otherwise be unavailable to them. The SWIFT project has created a virtual Genetics laboratory that is being used with students at the University of Leicester to provide them with an authentic environment to get accustomed to working in a laboratory; from learning basic safety rules through to use of virtual equipment such as microscopes and centrifuges (Rudman, Levelle et al. 2010).
Haptic technologies are increasingly being used particularly in vocational, applied learning contexts. For example, Tse et al. describe a virtual dental training system (hapTEL), which allows dental students to learn and practice procedures such as dental drilling, caries removal and cavity prevention for tooth restoration.
One of the key affordance of many new technologies, particularly social and participatory technologies, is the way in which they can promote more open approaches to practice. Conole considers what adopting more open practices might mean in terms of the design and delivery of educational interventions and in terms of digital scholarship and more open approaches to research (Conole Forthcoming).
In terms of open delivery, an area of interest that has emerged in recent years is the development and promotion of Open Educational Resources. The OER movement is based on the premise that educational resources should be freely available. It has been promoted by organizations such as the Hewlett Foundation and UNESCO. Early work focused on the creation and population of OER repositories and there was perhaps a naïve assumption that if these resources were made available learners and teachers would use and repurpose them. However evaluation of the use of this repositories showed that this was not the case (Petrides and Jimes 2006; McAndrew, Santos et al. 2009). As a result research effort has now shifted to identifying the practices around the design, use and repurposing of OER. The OPAL initiative analysed over 60 case studies of OER initiatives and from this derived a set of OER practices, namely: strategy and policy, staff development and support, tools and tool practices, and enablers and barriers (Conole Forthcoming). These have now being incorporated into a set of guidelines for key stakeholders (learners, teachers, institutional managers and policy makers). Individuals or organizations can use the guidelines to benchmark their existing OER practices and then as a guide to the creation of a vision and implementation plan. The hope is that practical use of these guidelines will result in better uptake and use of OER.
In addition to free resources, we have also seen the emergence of free courses, often referred to as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). For example, Siemens and Downes developed and delivered a twelve-week online course on Connectivism, called ‘Connectivism and Connective Knowledge’. Not only were the tools and resources they used in the course free, but also the expertise. An impressive 2 400 joined the first course in 2008, although ultimately the number of active participants was only about 200. The course provides a nice example of an extension of the open movement, moving beyond the OER movement to providing a totally free course. However, these free resources and courses are challenging existing educational institutions, in a context where expertise, tools and resources are free, what is the role of traditional institutions? In addition, we are seeing new business models emerging as a result, such as the Peer-to-Peer University, which provides a peer-accredited ‘badging’ scheme for competences and the OER University, which is an international consortium of institutions. With OER University, learners can work through any materials they want and when they are ready can choose to be accredited through one of the consortium member institutions.
Weller discusses what it might mean to adopt more open approaches to scholarship and research (Weller Forthcoming). He argues that there are three inter-related characteristics: open, digital and networked. He argues that new technologies mean we can do things differently. He cites the way in which Twitter, for example, can enable researchers to have access to immediate expertise. We have also seen how the social networking site, Cloudworks, that we have developed for academics can be used as a means of promoting the sharing and discussing on learning and teaching ideas. Academics are increasingly using a range of social tools (such as Twitter, blogs, wikis, social networking sites, social bookmarking sites, etc.) to support their academic practice and to be part of a global network of peers.
The new technologies described in this chapter clearly have significant potential to transform learning and teaching. The emergence of these technologies has shifted practice on the Internet away from passive, information provision to active, user engagement. They offer learners and teachers a plethora of ways to communicate and collaborate, to connect with a distributed network of peers, and to find and manipulate information. We are beginning to see ways in which teacher and learner practice and experience is changing as a result, however, we are only beginning to understand how to utilize these effectively.
They also raise challenging questions, such as: what are the implications for traditional educational institutions in a world where content and expertise is increasingly free? What is the appropriate balance of institutional Learning Management Systems vs. cloud-based computing? How are roles and identities changing? What are the implications of the increased blurred context of formal/informal learning, and teaching/learning?
Conole argues that a number of shifts in practice are evident (Conole Forthcoming). Firstly, that researchers are increasingly adopting more open practices in how they disseminate and communicate their research findings. Many researchers now keep blogs as a means of publishing ideas in progress, which compliment more traditional forms of publication through journals and books. In addition, many institutions now have open research repositories and require researchers to deposit their research outputs. Secondly, we are beginning to see a harnesses of the collective wisdom of the crowd (Surowiecki 2004), through use of an individual’s Twitter network to ask questions and provide answers through to harnessing the collective mass to address large-scale research questions and data collection. Thirdly, digital scholarship is beginning increasingly important and is challenging traditional metrics for measuring academic impact. Fourthly, open resources and courses are challenging traditional educational offerings and we are seeing the emergence of new alliances and business models as a result. Fifthly, learners are now technologically immersed and see technologies as a core learning tool. They are adopting more just-in-time approaches to learning, and increasingly working more collaboratively (Sharpe and Beetham 2010). Finally, the plethora of tools now available is bewildering and institutions and individuals increasingly need to make informed choices of which technologies to use in which contexts, mixing institutional systems with freely available, cloud-bases services.
Conole then concludes with a series of suggested topics for future research in the field, which include:
1. What might a coherent learning design language look like and how might it be shared?
2. What other Mediating Artefacts do we need to develop to enable learners and teachers make more effective use of technologies to support learning? What are the different ways in which learning interventions can be represented?
3. How can we foster a global network and Community of Practice to enable learners and teachers to share and discuss learning and teaching ideas? How can social networking and other dialogic tools be used to enable teachers to share and discuss their learning and teaching practices, ideas and designs?
4. What tools do we need to guide design practice, visualise designs and provide a digital environment for learners and teachers to share and discuss?
5. What are the implications and likely impact of social and participatory media for education and how can they be harnessed more effectively to support learning?
6. What will be the impact of new emergent technologies on the stakeholders involved in education?
7. What new pedagogies are emerging as a result of these new technologies?
8. What are the implications for learners, teachers and institutions of new social and participatory media?
9. How will the processes of supporting learning (design, delivery, support and assessment) change as a result of new technologies?
10. What social exclusion issues are arising with the increased use of new technologies? How can we promote more socially inclusive practices?
11. How are Open Educational Resources being design, used and repurposed?
12. What are the implications for formal institutions of the increasingly availability of free resources, tools and even total educational offerings, such as Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs)?
13. What digital literacy skills do learners and teachers need to make effective use of these technologies and resources? To what extent are they evident and how can they be developed?
14. How are the ways in which learners and teachers communicate and collaborate changing with the use of these technologies?
15. How can we create effective new digital learning environments to promote the use of social and participatory media and OER?
16. How can informal learning using OER be assessed and accredited?
17. What kinds of policy directives are in place to promote social inclusion through the use of OER and how effective are they?
18. What new methodologies and theoretical perspectives will be needed to address these research questions and to interpret the findings?
This is an exciting but challenging time for education, where we operate within an increasing networked society (Castells 2000) and are having to operate within increasing financial constraints. Industrial modes of learning are no longer appropriate and do not meet the needs of an individual in today’s society. Learning needs to be contextualized, relevant, social and just-in-time. New technologies provide an important part of the solution in terms of addressing this, but teachers and learners need support and guidance to make informed decisions on how to harness these technologies for their particular needs.
Conole, G., J. Smith, et al. (2007). A critique of the impact of policy and funding on practice. In G. Conole and M. Oliver (Eds) Contemporary perspectives in e-learning research: themes, methods and impact on practice. Oxford, RoutledgeFalmer.
De Freitas, S. and G. Conole (2010). Learners experiences: how pervasive and integrative tools influence expectations of study. Rethinking learning for the digital age: how learnes shape their own experiences. London, Routledge.
Dron, J. and T. Anderson (2007). Collectives, networks and groups in social software for e-Learning. Proceedings of World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare, and Higher Education Quebec. Retrieved Feb. 16: 2008.
EDUCAUSE (2008). “7 things you should know about Second Life.” from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ELI7038.pdf.
Elias, T. (2011). “Learning analytics: definitions, processes and potential.” from http://learninganalytics.net/LearningAnalyticsDefinitionsProcessesPotential.pdf.
Gros, B. (2010). Game-base learning: a strategy to integrate digital games in schools. Technology Implementation and Teacher Education: Reflective Models. J. Yamamoto, J. C. Kush, R. Lombard and C. J. Hertzog. Hershey, New York, IGI.
 Also termed Learning Management Systems (LMSs)