Chapter 6: Understanding technology in education

6.1 Choosing technologies for teaching and learning: the challenge

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Image: Tony Bates, 2014

Figure 6.1 How many technologies in this photo?

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Even an electronics engineer will be hard pressed to identify all the technologies in the photo 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, satellite)
  • 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 too many to list. 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 its 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?

The aim of the next chapters 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, 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?

These are questions that will be tackled later in the book, 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 and the next 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.

In the meantime let’s start with what your views are at the moment about choosing technology for teaching and learning.

Activity 6.1 How do you currently make decisions about what technology to use for teaching?

1. How do you decide at the moment about what technologies to use for teaching? Use what’s in the room? Ask the IT support people? Do you have a theory or set of principles for making such a decision?

2. Is this an easy question to answer? Why (not)?

3. How many technologies can you see in Figure 6.1? List them

Please share your answers in the comment box below. For my answer to question 3, see Feedback on Activity 6.1