Introduction to Learning Technologies

Reading through the history of learning technologies presents a woefully consistent approach. From the earliest mechanical computation machines, through television, the internet, and now virtual reality and artificial intelligence, the trend has always been for those in power to become enamored with the latest technology and try to shoe-horn it into the education space. Instead of asking “what is the cheapest way we can use this exciting new thing in education?”, we should be asking: “where are the weak points in education and what kind of technology would strengthen them?”

“En l’an 2000”, Villemard 1910

Of course, it is not until recently that we would even have the tools to ask those questions. Since the American public school classroom was invented in the mid-19th century, we have used the “banking model of education” as Freire described it in 1968. Teachers explained facts and procedures and students were expected to memorize them. As technology made the rest of the 20th century more efficient in every way, why should it not also increase the efficiency of this transmission?

It is half-heartening to note that since 1991, there has been an academic field called “Learning Sciences”, whose goal it is to explore exactly those topics. I say “half-heartening” because despite over 30 years of research, very little has changed in the classroom. There are many factors that could be investigated, from “this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it”-ism, to the unconscionable amounts of money in standardized testing and related fields, but the fact remains that the vast majority of students spend 8 hours a day in columns and rows of single seats, memorizing facts and procedures in exactly the same way their great-great-great-grandparents did.

Of course, this also highlights the separation between “learning” and “schooling”, which is not often addressed in the literature. To paraphrase Angela Valenzuela in Subtractive Schooling (1999), it doesn’t matter how much you study “learning” without understanding the context and effect of the schooling environment, especially on students from non-dominant cultures.

As far back as 1984, Nel Noddings wrote about the fundamental need for relationships in education in her book Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education. Yet how many technological tools have we ever seen which enables or amplifies caring relationships in the classroom?

My contention is, first, that we should want more from our educational efforts than adequate academic achievement and, second, that we will not achieve even that meager success unless our children believe that they themselves are cared for and learn to care for others.

– Nel Noddings, 1984

Even in areas with vast amounts of supporting research such as more effective and efficient ways of grading, teachers are tired and burnt out. They feel that every few years a new strategy appears which will “cure all ills”. Some teachers refuse to implement new strategies, and some implement them in name only, with the expectation of failure. The chasm between research and practice is large in the world of education, and I see no solution on the horizon.

(Aside: I have no source for this, but I wonder if some of the lack of teacher adaptation of new pedagogy and technology is also simply anxiety about our own ability to properly implement the changes. It’s psychologically easier to say “I am an expert and I know this will never work” and then let it fail and fulfill that prophecy, than to try hard and wonder if it’s one’s own lack of understanding/ability that is not allowing the “silver bullet” to work. Teachers’ sense of our own caring and competency is critical and understandably forms a large part of our self-worth. Please share your thoughts in the comments.)

With regards to learning technologies, therefore, perhaps the current practice is the most effective, despite all of its flaws. When iPads and 1-to-1 implementation were first rolled out, teachers complained loudly (and rightfully!) of a lack of training and support. The “technology gap” initially widened, as those with support at home were able to succeed while those who have historically been marginalized were left even further behind. And yet as teachers gained their footing and accepted this new role, as schools started hiring “technology integrationists”, and as students became more familiar with the new learning tools (especially during the Covid era), we have seen the technology gap begin to revert.

Perhaps as teachers and students are forced to adopt new technologies and seek out new ways of teaching and learning, it will mitigate some of the historical inequities in public schools. While it is certainly not fair to put this work on already over-burdened teachers, and while the scattershot approach is certainly not the most efficient, it’s possible that it gives enough different options and space to try them out. I am hopeful that over time, teachers and students will figure out what works best for them and will share this knowledge with others, including researchers, so that we can continue to understand what are the weak points in education, and what kind of technology will strengthen them.