Why is choosing the right technology such a challenge for education?

December 9, 2014 Tony Bates
How many technologies can you spot in this photo?

How many technologies can you spot in this photo?

I’m now starting on my next chapter for my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’, and this chapter, called ‘Understanding Technology in Education’, is one of the most crucial and yet most challenging. I’m going to need all the help I can get, dear blog readers!

Here’s what I’m planning to cover:

  • 8.1 Choosing technologies for teaching and learning: the challenge
  • 8.2 A short history of educational technology
  • 8.3 Media or technology?
  • 8.4 Main characteristics of media and technology in education:
    • Broadcast vs communicative technologies
    • Synchronous vs asynchronous
    • Transient vs recorded
  • 8.5 Pedagogical roles for text, audio and video
  • 8.6 Computers and learning
  • 8.7 The pedagogical significance of the Internet, the World Wide Web and social media
  • 8.8 A model for choosing media and technologies

Fortunately, I’m not starting from scratch, having spent almost 40 years doing research on this topic, and as I already have some stuff already written in this blog, I’m afraid that regular readers of this blog will have seen some excerpts from the chapter in earlier blog posts. But I seem to be getting more new readers all the time, so I hope my regular readers will forgive a little repetition, and will also still be generous enough to make constructive comments. So here’e the first, introductory section, and I will aim to post a section daily until the chapter is complete.

Incidentally, the first seven chapter of the book are now published at ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ and are available for free downloading, in whole or in parts.

Choosing technologies for teaching and learning: the challenge

Even an electronics engineer will be hard pressed to answer the question in the photo caption of a not untypical home entertainment system in a North American home in 2014. The answer will depend on what you mean by technology:

  • hardware? (e.g. TV monitor)
  • software? (e.g. audio-visual/digital convertor)
  • networks? (e.g. Internet)
  • services? (e.g. television, Twitter)

The answer of course is all these, plus the systems that enable everything to be integrated. Indeed, the technologies represented in just this one photograph are probably too many to list (if you don’t believe me, just try it – I did!). In a digital age we are immersed in technology. Education, although often a laggard in technology adoption, is nevertheless no exception today. Yet learning is also a fundamental human activity that can function quite well (some would say better) without any technological intervention. So in an age immersed in technology, what is the role of technology in education? What are its strengths (or affordances) and what are its limitations in education? When should we use technology, and which technologies should we use for what purposes?

The aim of this chapter is to provide some frameworks or models for decision-making that are both soundly based on theory and research and are also pragmatic within the context of education.

This will not be an easy exercise. There are deep philosophical, technical and pragmatic challenges in trying to provide a model or set of models flexible but practical enough to handle the huge range of factors involved. For instance, theories and beliefs about education will influence strongly the choice and use of different technologies. On the technical side, it is becoming increasingly difficult to classify or categorize technologies, not just because they are changing so fast, but also because technologies have many different qualities and affordances that change according to the contexts in which they are used. On the pragmatic side, it would be a mistake to focus solely on the educational characteristics of technologies. There are social, organizational, cost and accessibility issues also to be considered. The selection and use of technologies for teaching and learning is driven, once again, as much by context and values and beliefs as by hard scientific evidence or rigorous theory. So there will not be one ‘best’ framework or model. On the other hand, without some guiding principles, and given the rapidly escalating range of technologies, educators are open to technological determinism (MOOCs, anyone?) or the total rejection of technology for teaching, unless there are some models to guide their selection and use.

In fact, there are still some fundamental questions to be answered regarding technology for teaching, including:

  • what is best done face-to-face and what online, and in what contexts?
  • what is the role of the human teacher, and can/should/will the human teacher be replaced by technology?

But if we consider a teacher facing a group of students and a curriculum to teach, or a learner seeking to develop their own learning, they need practical guidance now when they consider whether or not to use one technology or another. In this chapter I will provide some models or frameworks that will enable such questions to be answered effectively and pragmatically so that the learning experience is optimized.

Feedback

You probably don’t have enough to go on at the moment, but nevertheless:

Am I asking the right questions, e.g.

  • what is the role of technology role in education?
  • What are the strengths (or affordances) and what are the limitations of technology in education?
  • When should we use technology, and which technologies should we use for what purposes?
  • what is best done face-to-face and what online, and in what contexts?
  • what is the role of the human teacher, and can/should/will the human teacher be replaced by technology?

Now is the time to tell me, before I try to answer them! And are there other questions I should also be asking?

Next

A short history of educational technology

How many technologies did you spot?

Well, this is an unfair question, partly because the photo doesn’t show all the technologies, and also because you wouldn’t know what software or services were included, but just for the record, here’s my list:

Hardware

1. Laptop computer

2. Music CD

3. Book: yes, a printed book is a technological artefact! It doesn’t have to be digital to be a technology.

4. Mobile phone

5. Satellite receiver/converter

6. Television monitor

7. DVD player

8. Apple TV box

9. Audio-visual receiver/control box with 7 channels, 1080p HDMI, Dolby and DTS format support

10. Loudspeakers (3 in picture, including a woofer, back right)

11. Remote control (one: for all equipment except computer, mobile phone and book)

Software

Almost impossible to list and unobservable anyway, but would include iTunes, iPhoto (uses photos from iPhoto library as a screen saver for the TV monitor when music is playing), digital conversion in the A/V receiver, etc., etc.

Networks

Wi-fi

Internet

Telephone

Radio

Satellite TV (could have been cable, or broadband telephone, but isn’t)

Services

Satellite broadcast television channels

Radio stations (global choice, via Sonos)

Apple TV (including Netflix and other streaming services)

Sonos music (including Deezer, a service similar to Netflix for music)

Necessary for integration

Single remote control (eHarmony)

Audio-visual receiver

Apple TV

Apple Mac Pro laptop computer

Mobile phone (controls Sonos and iTunes)

My wish for the future: one portable box, please!!!!!!!!

I think whoever owns this home entertainment system could do with a model for technology selection (OK, I’ll admit it, it’s mine). Or is it that the home entertainment industry needs to get its act together? But I digress.

 

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A short history of educational technology
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The first section of my chapter on ‘Understanding Technology in Education’...

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