I was very interested to see technology selection as a topic for discussion in ocTEL a couple of weeks back. Its taken me a while to catch up and in some ways I wish I hadn’t.
The aim is to think about how pedagogy drives technology selection and the context is provided by a model expounded by Hill et al (2012) in discussing the derivation of electronic course templates for use in higher education. In the way of all good learning experiences, applying the details of the model to an instance of our own personal experience should help better assimilation of it.
A case in point: sharing resources
The instance of technology selection that immediately sprang to mind was the choice of a platform to allow online students to share resources. The issues at the time that came to mind in considering the desired technological properties focussed on:
- would everyone have access to the technology chosen (i.e accessibility)
- would everyone be able to find out/know how to use it (navigability)
- would everyone find it easy to incorporate its use into their studies (interaction)
The pedagogical purpose of the technology was taken as a given. A creative activity normally done in a face to face context was being moved online. The main learning outcome was to explore how different online services could be mashed up (in terms of data and/or functionality) to produce new, useful systems. In the f2f activity, learners would go on to undertake a group project, sharing and refining ideas about what they would do. In the online version, learners would undertake an individual project where the refinement process would benefit from support from tutors and fellow students. In flavour, this is could be seen as taking a constructive approach with students having ownership of the task and being coached and supported in developing their understanding of how to characterise and decompose services.
Modelling the pedagogy
Hill’s framework proposes a number of different pedagogical dimensions which can be used to analyse a course to facilitate the choice and method of use of technologies, albeit in the context of a course VLE/MLE template. These pedagogical dimensions include:
- logistical: capturing differences in how many learners were taking the module, and when
- practice: “emerging” from teaching and learning activities, and participants prior expertise
- purpose: with a plan fostered by a teaching approach, strategy and/or theory
- participation: dealing with the contact environment and extent of online activity or “web work”
In principle these dimensions could be applied to analyse the case study above to identify technology requirements. Logistically we could be dealing with 20-30 masters students in either a f2f or online course instance. The activity itself (i.e. practice), however it is undertaken, is identical in outcome, with the same purpose (as part of a cognitive approach with situative overtones). The main area of difference is in participation in which online students are supported by technology in sharing resources and discussing ideas, whereas f2f students are left to manage this themselves within their own groups.
In practice, I find Hill’s dimensions are poorly delineated and hard to relate to desired properties of technology. In particular, in designing a teaching and learning task, one needs to consider why it is being done (purpose), what will be done (practice) how people will engage in it (participation), and how well it will scale (logistics). These decisions are not independent, as suggested by the notion of different “dimensions”. Given this, it is unsurprising that the authors of this model struggled to identify “robust associations between pedagogical dimensions and course site properties”.
Scaling the pedagogy/technology choice
The core role of pedagogy in deciding technology can be seen in examples taken from Hill et al. They provide technology templates to support:
- a Cornerstones approach in which a content repository supports a didactic, on campus delivery model
- a Web 2.0 approach in which functionality is provided to support collaboration outside of class in a situative, blended model
However, these examples also highlight the poor structure of Hill’s approach to thinking about or decomposing the pedagogy. This is most strongly shown in the stated purpose of the Web 2.0 template, which should according to the description of dimensions of the model should state the “teaching philosophy or methodology” and “include(s) pedagogical intentions”. While this is partly addressed by stating a desire to “foster collaboration”, this philosophy is undermined by a list of functionality which includes “wikis, blogs, polls and social networking”. While the case could be made for these tools as part of the pedagogic intent, the same cannot be said for also including – as part of the pedagogic purpose – “filespace, announcements, calendar, discussions, project assignments, and (asynchronous) messages”.
The Web 2.0 template described above is a great example of poor course design in which technology is substituted for pedagogy. In the same way adding a user profiles to an e-commerce site does not turn it into a social network, adding a a range of web 2.0 technology to a VLE does not turn a course into a collaborative, situative/contructivist learning experience.
Pedagogy not Technology
So if Hill’s pedagogy/technology lattice does not help us in technology selection, what should we be doing? My short answer would be that we should be separating learning design from technology selection.
I am all in favour of seeing technology as an enabler. Indeed, I am keen on adapting Bismark and seeing it as defining the “art of the possible”. However, I believe we need to think about pedagogy before technology.
This view is very well articulated by Mayes and de Freitas in which they observe that the idea that
“the presentation of subject matter using multimedia … would lead to better
learning … was responsible for much of the disillusionment that resulted
from computer-based learning in the 1980s and 90s”.
I believe simply adding YouTube videos or leaderboards to a VLE will have a similar effect in the 2010s.
Selecting Technology – Revisited
So if your course design process has identified a need for a collaborative blogging platform or a video sharing site, and to Hill’s model is not useful in actually helping you select one, what is going to help?
There a a whole range of methodologies, strategies and issues to think about. One of my favourites is the technology acceptance model which focusses on usefulness and usability. But a more widely adopted idea, that builds on the idea of usability, is that of User eXperience (UX) design or modelling, which is in fact one of the parts of Hill’s model. Its worth pointing out that this is not a question of what experience a user brings to a particular interaction, website or system. Instead, it focusses on what kind of experience a visitor has and how they perceive the system in question.
User experience encompasses a whole range of ideas including consideration of:
– different user profiles, demographics, goals, technology etc
– visual design, including layout, metaphors, affordances etc
– information architecture that determines the structure and navigation of content
– interaction design to consider how users do things with the system
– affective design about how users emotions and mental state may be varied
– personalisation and adaptability
… and a bunch more beside.
While consideration of the user experience won’t in and of itself tell you which system or platform to choose, it may help you with the questions you need to ask of any one solution you might be considering.