Technology, resources and learning

The role of technology in the learning process is something to which many hours of management consultancy time have been devoted in recent history. It is also something which academic institutions, sceptical at first, have increasingly embraced with open arms; as we are tweeted, podcast, prezi’d and interactive whiteboarded into a more enlightened future. Technology has nonetheless been a subject of study broadly within sociology for a number of years. Such studies have emphasised that the tendency to identify technology as an independent ‘actor’ outside of social relations is misleading at best (see Grint and Woolgar 1997). Rather, technology can be understood as an extension of the roles humans might perform, as a heavy weight on a hotel key ‘stands in’ for a door steward, or a ‘sleeping policeman’ prevents speeding by standing in for the real thing. Technologies are also not necessarily limited to artefacts. Winner (1986) argued that technology could be defined in three aspects; as apparatus, technique or organization, though admittedly it is difficult to distinguish these in practice. This is one expression of a broader philosophical argument which defines technology as an extension of human capabilities in both an abstract and practical sense (see Rothenberg 1993; Brey 2000), thus a bicycle extends our capacities for swift movement or a calculator extends our (individual) capacities for arithmetic. Based on this understanding of technology, many objects in common use for teaching and learning activities fulfil the definition. Some examples might be;

  • improved memory (often through artefacts of data/information storage and categorisation such as books or databases)
  • faster and more reliable calculation (through mathematical techniques algorithms and the encoding of these techniques into everyday items such as calculators or computers)
  • consistent, comprehensible methods of communication (the organization of the written word, in all its forms, represents one of the most significant technologies of our society, and is often manifest in software to support word processing, spell checking and so on)
  • extended voice (projection of messages across space and/or time through recording, telephony, radio, translation software et cetera)
  • extended social reach (adaptation of material for people of different languages or abilities, use of online networks to circulate material more widely or to collaboarate in virtual ‘classrooms’)

Such examples suggest that technology as an extension of human capacities offers powerful potential to improve the efficiency of the learning experience. Yet the technological objects only offer potential; capacities have to be realised. Unfamiliar technologies may be as great an impediment to the development of learning as no technologies at all where there is no support for accessing and learning how to use the technology (again, see Grint & Woolgar 1997). Artefacts often make no distinction between different types of user or student, and as students transition from routines familiar to sixth form colleges or other educational establishments to the less cohesive structures of diverse university departments they are likely to encounter significant changes in their experiences with different technologies. The learning ‘gap’ for each student with respect to making the best use of the technology, in my experience, will be different.

Generational distinctions are, in addition, often highlighted as a ‘gap’ between the cultures of the ‘out of touch’ academy and the ‘technologically native’ youth. By implication, engagement with up to date technologies by the academy offers a bridge by means of which students may be reached. However, my own (anecdotal) experience suggests this may well be mythical, since I have encountered many academics who are thoroughly competent in the use of the most cutting edge technology as well as regular Luddites among the student population.  In addition, this understanding of technology does not encompass the full range of learning technologies we have at our disposal: although we might often think of PCs and wireless internet access as the main ‘technologies’ used in contemporary learning, the way technology is defined encompasses a wide range of learning resources, including printed books and strategies of organizing learning time. This mythical simplification not only presents technology as a simple apparatus but in addition conceals the work undertaken to learn technique and build organization. Within the myth lies two significant potentials, one being the importance of breaking down barriers between the academy and the ‘real world’ (of students, not the same as the ‘real world’ of the employers/employed or of politics), and the second potential being accessibility of knowledge.

Do students care about learning technology?

This post was influenced by a key question in the national student survey (NSS); which asks students how well their university has provided access to resources. This concern fundamentally relates to access to knowledge. Writing, as the long lasting record and encoding of knowledge, is one of the most advanced technologies we possess, yet access to written records is becoming ever more complex. This matter concerns issues as diverse as the opening hours and physical book collections of libraries, and status hierarchies in academia informing the choice of subscription-restricted peer reviewed journals. In this way the written artefact becomes embroiled in more complicated networks of access which students have trouble navigating, either through lack of consultation or through lack of training in technique and organization of these materials. The accessibility of digital media is also relevant, as open access podcasts may be freely available, but only to those lucky enough or wealthy enough to have a reliable internet connection at home, since IT facilities on campus may often be full to capacity or in use for teaching. When I consulted with students on the problem of accessible materials, it became evident that the main concern of students was in navigating these complex circumstances, and the most effective and immediate solution for my teaching was to engage with a ‘low’ technology solution, that is, to provide guidance on accessing print books in the library, provide printed copies of notes and easy to print accessible PDF document links for core readings which would not take long to access or could be accessed using alternative electronic devices such as smart phones or tablets. This is not to suggest, however, that a ‘low’ tech solution is always best: to facilitate revision for students on the same module I have found developing a series of flashcards using the online website studyblue.com very useful as these can be easily printed or used via any mobile device.

The term ‘blended learning’ is frequently used to describe the application of technology to programme or session design, particularly the use of online delivery of materials or activities. While the definition of ‘blended learning’ is roving and contested (Oliver & Trigwell 2005), there are some discussions over whether this approach to teaching should also be considered ‘theory’. Considering the theoretical approaches highlighted in my previous entry on learning theory, the addition of technology to the process of learning seems to be one which makes no intrinsic assumptions regarding the learning process, though the application of certain technologies may indicate a sympathy with cognitive approaches by broadening student choice regarding the order of content, or with behaviourist approaches where technology is used to monitor assessment outcomes (formative and summative alike). To some degree, the discussion of learning technologies highlight the potential for adaptability, suggesting that the fundamental value of using such technology lies in the potential to accommodate a range of individual learning needs in a diverse cohort such as those posed by disability or diverse learning backgrounds. However, these rely on considerable evaluation of student’s requirements which if not conducted comprehensively may act against student’s interests as they are required to learn not only the content of a given session, but also a way of interacting with the technology. Oliver & Trigwell (2005) highlight that a significant limitation of the approach to ‘blended learning’ lies in an absence of analysis from the perspective of a learner but also that technology does offer the potential for varied experiences. Such varied experiences may contribute towards an enhanced learning experience, or place the student under an additional burden of isolation and estrangement from the rest of the class and the learning material. I feel it is important to recognise that for many students of differing competencies, too much application of ‘learning technology’ may present this risk; impeding their individual learning rather than facilitating it.

Looking at the theoretical confusion surrounding these issues, it seems that while technology may offer significant potential to improve the learning experience, it may also serve to confuse students and suffer from in-built prejudice regarding the access to knowledge. Consequently, I believe the implementation of new learning technologies should take account of student’s needs in a comprehensive way and they should not suffer the consequences of adoption before analysis.

The importance of feedback: Where and When students learn (to learn)

A reflection on a ‘critical incident’: an occurrence during teaching that encouraged me to reflect on my practice and assumptions.

Should the classroom be the ‘learning’ environment, or should ‘learning’ occur elsewhere? I have always felt that the traditional ‘chalk and talk’ method of lectures assumes the classroom to be the space where students are given a guided tour to the literature on their chosen topic, but that they need to visit those foreign shores themselves in that terrifying time often labelled as ‘independent study’. In a previous post I have suggested that there are particular theoretical answers to the ‘why’ students study (their motivations to learn) that are intrinsically linked to our views on ‘how’ they study. This post focuses on the question of and assumptions about where learning takes place. In many contemporary universities, students are now also being expected to learn ‘virtually’; in times and spaces facilitated by online materials and engagement with technology and social media. Following on from an assumption that all students are digital ‘natives’ already thoroughly engaged in an electronic world, I have a few concerns with the promotion of technological spaces as learning environments, though I will consider this in detail in a future post.

I teach a course in a business school which deals with theoretical areas of sociology; areas which students have little prior knowledge of and often limited awareness of the historical context in which the relevant ideas have been developed and applied. The size of the class varies but would often be considered ‘large’ for a humanities subject. Many of the students are from China, some from south-east Asia, a few European students and a mixture of students come from throughout the UK. A common learning or cultural background is therefore not something to be taken for granted. None have been required to have previous experience of social science subjects in order to enrol on the course, and many are simultaneously studying finance, economics or accounting. These subjects are not wholly quantitative, but that often forms a frequent part of their assessment and skill set in such programmes. Appreciating that the education system often filters students into ‘good at mathematics and science’ versus ‘good at humanities and languages’, I imagine many students of this background enter my compulsory course feeling at a disadvantage. Equally, the majority of students represent the 18-20 year old demographic, and will have recently come from a setting where learning occurs in the classroom, or in set assignments at regulated intervals. The notion of learning according to a timetable is imprinted, draconian fashion, in their institutionalised bodies.

This reflection is based on the following ‘critical incident’: In a large tutorial group (30 students), after going through discussion on that week’s assigned reading, I was explaining the criteria for the written assessment (a conventional academic essay). This assessment was based on the topics we had just been discussing, and students were concerned about the system of grading. I had provided an overview of how the assessment would be graded as a handout in the previous lecture.  One particularly adept student asked “if so much of the grade is based on study skills, why are you teaching us about these concepts and not teaching us to write essays?” I replied that the university supplied various workshops and activities to hone essay writing skills and that this was why I had been informing them about these workshops repeatedly at the beginning of lectures. However, the incident gave me pause to consider; students seemed to expect a ‘classroom model’ of total and complete learning delivery which was simply not the way I had planned to deliver the module, instead expecting and encouraging students to develop these generic skills through independent study.

This seems to suggest a conflict between a more ‘behaviourist’ model of learning expected by students (see Theories of Learning) and an independent or self-directed model which is significantly more ‘constructivist’ in thinking.  One development in ‘constructivist’ approaches to learning attempts to incorporate elements of practice common to the behaviourist model, and is regularly cited; Kolb’s (1983) model of experiential learning.

Kolb’s (1984) model of experiential learning  comprises a cycle of learning activity, whereby students progress between different types or styles of activity to learn from active engagement. On the horizontal axis, the model presents observation and action (very similarly to stimulus and response) while the vertical axis attempts to ‘fill in the black box’ with internal cognitive processes.

Kolb’s learning styles (copied from ruspat.wordpress.com)

This distinction of mental processes harks back to the Greek distinction between techne, or hands-on knowledge, and episteme ‘justified true belief’ (or abstract knowledge). This approach to learning further suggests that learners have particular preferences for different stages in this cycle, and so may be at their most effective in different environments. However, the entire cycle is the aim. The role of the teacher and the pupil, according to this pluralist approach, is more complex. The teacher is responsible for ensuring as many of the stages as possible are represented and facilitated through learning activities under their control, but it is the student’s responsibility to actually go through the process. While this process is likely to incorporate many aspects outside the teacher’s control (in particular, concrete experience), and even in the case of higher education outside the sphere of the degree programme, it is implicit in these theoretical approaches that student engagement will follow from appropriate course and activity design.

Following on from Kolb’s theory to return to my course design, I had expected that reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation were the tasks for the classroom, whereas concrete experience or active experience in social and business problems (as the topic of the course) and in reading and writing practices (as the medium of learning) were outside of my control. Although I was certain that work and life experience would be of benefit to students in better appreciating the content of the course, I was not sure if attempting to embed teaching activities on how to write into the module would in fact benefit students, or if my role was to attempt to communicate more strongly the extent to which they have to independently engage with the process of developing their writing skills.

Allan and Clarke (2007) discuss the struggles of designing programmes with embedded teaching of study skills over those without. In their research, they highlight a distinction between ‘generic’, ‘subject-related’, and ‘metacognitive’ skills.

Generic skills are those such as effective communication through presentation and/or writing, using information technology and working with others. The authors found that for some students, formal teaching of these skills could build confidence and improve expertise. Other students did not successfully engage with the activities, for various reasons all relating to the perception of the training as lacking relevance.

Subject-related skills are those which are directly related to the learning activities and assessments specific to the subject programme or module. So for this module that may include reading and comprehension skills (especially evaluating the meaning of the author compared to the student’s interpretation), essay planning and writing skills, notetaking, or producing answers under exam conditions. In Allan & Clarke’s (2007) study, for some students these were considered irrelevant or in some cases particular matters which were relevant to them were not available in sufficient depth.

Metacognitive skills are those which relate to the student’s awareness of their own performance and areas of improvement. In this sense they are directly related to assessment and feedback. Encouraging students to develop these skills related specifically to developing a more reflective awareness and personal development. Students on the whole engaged with activities related to this aspect of teaching.

Allan & Clarke (2007) advocate that following from their research, attempts should be made to embed the teaching of study-related and metacognitive skills within subject teaching. They further imply that this requires commitment from several lecturers across entire degree programmes. However, they also indicate that further research is required to identify if this is effective for students.

Considering the issue further:

Following this reflection, I have made strong attempts to incorporate some study-related skills into the course, although I have made a less concerted effort to explicitly address metacognitive skills. In order to develop reading and comprehension skills, I have provided more preparatory exercises such as questions for weekly readings which incorporate components from Bloom’s taxonomy.  Students are given access to online flashcard datasets which allow them to undertake multiple choice tests on these questions which incentivise their week by week completion and allow them to check their progress. Essay planning and writing skills are promoted through provision of resources and a specific session of relevant activities prior to the essay submission, but these are not motivated though clear (behaviourist) rewards.

Due to the limits on classroom time, few explicit sessions on developing metacognitive skills are included in the course. What the module does do at present is attempt to get students to develop these through implicit demands made of them in the classroom, such as asking students to relate their question answers to their own experience, or to things they may be familiar with from the news or even from popular fiction. There is also a more explicit session at the beginning of the course, prior to any teaching on the content, where metacognitve skills are taught more explicitly. Allan and Clarke (2007) suggest that these might be embedded in subject teaching, but incorporating them in a single module might be counterproductive due to the short timeframe (12 weeks) and repetition on other modules. At this point in time, I feel that a single session in the classroom with the option of further one-to-one discussion on specific assignments does well to support the development of metacognitive skills but without fatiguing students with repetition.

I do have concerns that to attempt to ’embed’ these skills in a module too strongly could result in overburdening the students or with over-assessment. Many of the generic skills are now being introduced as a compulsory part of initial study in a number of universities, but there is (understandably) no corresponding decrease in the expectations for academic content. The question of where and when students learn is also a key concern of applicants, often wondering where their money (from the increased student contribution to fees) is being spent. There is a competitive view on contact hours among applicants (and their parents) which seems to demand more classroom time, and which implies more responsibility for learning outcomes being attributed to the teaching rather than the learning effort. An attempt to placate these demands with unspecified additional time in a room with a tutor or some new nifty social networking learning platform without thorough consideration of where and when students learn metacognitive skills as well as content seems fraught with peril for any university.