What can be done to ensure that technology truly improves learning outcomes?
Two thoughts for a complicated scenario. I started teaching in the pre-digital era, and moved into education technology as a professional when I discovered just how it could help improve the learning outcomes for my students. And these were analogue technologies that at that time were significantly more challenging, and certainly more expensive, than their modern-day digital counterparts. So why do I believe that they were so successful, and had such impact on my students’ learning, my teaching, and my subsequent career?
First, an example. Anyone teaching biology knows the challenge of teaching microscopy. Really ‘seeing’ what is on a microscope slide requires a shared observational experience between teacher and student, and an understanding of how each other is interpreting the content in the field of view. A video camera coupling the microscope to a TV monitor radically transformed the learning in my classroom. It enabled a sharing of experience previously denied to both teacher and student, and greatly assisted the development of interpretative skills. We could each be confident of what each other was seeing and interpreting. My teaching of microscopy, and my students’ learning, were both radically improved, and there was measurable impact on learning outcomes.
This exemplifies one key component of an effective educational technology implementation – it addresses a genuine and fundamental learning problem that both the teacher and the learner actually face! Much unsuccessful ed tech does little to enhance the efficiency or effectiveness of the actual learning experience. It may engage, it may delight, but unless it actually improves the learning outcomes it will not and generally should not justify its expense in time and money. The challenge for educational technology is always keeping the focus on the education, not on the technology, whether analogue or digital!
Secondly, when it comes to the application of digital technologies to education, I suspect the outcomes so far are similar to those seen in other fields. Simply automating what already happens generally achieves little in terms of improvements in outcomes – typically of the order of 4% across a wide range of sectors. Learning outcomes are probably no different, with 4% gains being typical when interventions are investigated?
To achieve the 40% improvements that digital can potentially bring to the piece, as seen elsewhere, requires transformation not simply automation. In industrial terms, business process re-engineering. Could this work for learning? Well the learning, capabilities and skills of both fighter pilots and surgeons have been greatly improved via transformational technologies and techniques brought over from the digital gaming world.
As yet few educators in the mainstream have had both the vision and the practical opportunity to explore whether radical attempts at transforming education to take advantage of such affordances is effective. And so, so often in education technology I’m afraid the focus remains fixated upon the device, ie the technology, rather than the education itself, ie the learning outcomes. MAINTAIN FOCUS!