The foundations of educational technologies: a brief overview

January 2, 2015 Tony Bates
Image: © University of Florida, 2013

Image: © University of Florida, 2013

I have now completed the first draft of Chapter 8, Understanding technology in education, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Chapter 8, which focuses on the foundations of educational technology, covers the following topics:

Chapter 9 will continue the topic, focusing on making decisions about the choice and use of technology.

Early drafts of nearly all this chapter have appeared previously in this blog, except for Section 8.8, which is offered below:

Understanding the foundations of educational media

I am aware that this chapter may appear somewhat abstract and theoretical, but in any subject domain, it is important to understand the foundations that underpin practice. This applies with even more force to understanding media and technology in education, because it is such a dynamic field that changes all the time. What seem to be the major media developments this year are likely to be eclipsed by new developments in technology next year. In such a shifting sea, it is therefore necessary to look at some guiding concepts or principles that are likely to remain constant, whatever changes take place over the years.

So in summary here are my main navigation stars, the main points that I have been emphasising, throughout this chapter.

Key Takeaways

  1. Technologies are merely tools that can be used in a variety of ways. What matters more is how technologies are applied. The same technology can be applied in different ways, even or especially in education. So in judging the value of a technology, we need to look more closely at the ways in which it is being or could be used. In essence this means focusing more on media – which represent the more holistic use of technologies – than on individual tools or technologies themselves, while still recognising that technology is an essential component of almost all media.
  2. By focusing on media rather than technologies, we can then include face-to-face teaching as a medium, enabling comparisons with more technology-based media to be made along a number of dimensions or characteristics.
  3. Media differ in terms of their formats, symbols systems, and cultural values. These unique features are increasingly referred to as the affordances of media or technology. Thus different media can be used to assist learners to learn in different ways and achieve different outcomes, thus also individualising learning more.
  4. There are many dimensions along which some technologies are similar and others are different. By focusing on these dimensions, we have a basis for analysing new media and technologies, to see where they ‘fit’ within the existing landscape, and to evaluate their potential benefits or limitations for teaching and learning.
  5. There are probably other characteristics or dimensions of educational media that might also be identified, but I believe these four key characteristics or dimensions to be the most important:
    • broadcast vs communicative
    • synchronous (live) vs asynchronous (recorded)
    • passive vs interactive
    • single vs rich media
  6. However, the identification of where a particular medium fits along any specific characteristic or dimension will depend in most cases on how that medium is designed.  At the same time, there is usually a limit to how far a technology can be forced along one of these dimensions; there is likely to be a single, ‘natural’ position on each dimension, subject to good design, in terms of exploiting the educational affordances of the medium.
  7. These characteristics or dimensions of media then need to be evaluated against the learning goals and outcomes desired, while recognising that a new educational medium or application might enable goals to be achieved that had not been previously considered possible.
  8. However, it is worth noting that in recent years, technologies have tended to become more communicative, asynchronous, interactive and rich in media, thus offering teachers and learners more powerful tools for teaching and learning.
  9. The appropriateness of decisions made by teachers (and increasingly learners) about how to use a particular medium, i.e. design decisions, are likely to be more important than the choice of the medium itself. Hence good teaching/good design in terms of for instance student activities might save a poor choice in technology, but technology will never save poor teaching.
  10. If we look carefully at the characteristics of educational media, we shall see that technology is more important in helping to make decisions about modes of delivery (face-to-face, blended or distance) than about teaching methods or pedagogy. This issue will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 10.
  11. The Internet is an extremely powerful medium because through a combination of tools and media it can encompass all the characteristics and dimensions of educational media.

Over to you

It will be difficult to make a judgement on this without seeing the following accompanying chapter on decision-making regarding choice and use of technology. However, recognising that the purpose of this chapter is to provide some sort of foundation for analysing the educational value of rapidly changing technologies:

  1. Does it do the job? Are there other or better frameworks I could have used? If not, what are the advantages of this framework?
  2. Are there other foundational characteristics or dimensions that should have been included? Or should be removed? Why?
  3. Given how rapidly technology changes, is this a futile exercise?
  4. Could you use this analytical framework in your teaching? If not, why not?

Any other comments (such as take up golf instead, for instance) would be most welcome.

Next up

Chapter 9 will look at models for decision making regarding the use of technology for teaching. This will start by examining the pedagogical affordances of different media.

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