‘Ed’ Before ‘Tech’: Why Effective Learning Technology Must Be Education-First, by Emily Spicer

Date of Publication: 03 July 2019

 

We have all heard the claims that hail software solutions, apps, and technological breakthroughs that will revolutionise education. We’ve heard that students can forget learning facts with search engines at their fingertips. We’ve heard tech giants plug their wares to institutions, insisting that students need access to tablets and laptops in order for learning to be effective in the 21st century.

As a product manager at Oxford Summer Courses, developing some of our technological offerings for learning, it is vitally important to me to know that the online courses and solutions we offer to our students won’t be based on fads or empty promises. I’m constantly seeking a deeper understanding of how learning works, and how tech might build on or support that. The better we understand learning, the more likely we are to use tech well.

To this end, I spent much of last week out and about, hearing from some of the brightest and best in the EdTech industry and the teaching profession at two fantastic events: EdtechX Europe and the Festival of Education. I’ll be picking out some of the key themes from both events in these blog posts over the next few weeks, as I did following my time at the BETT show earlier this year.

While a variety of academic researchers, tech giants, mature education companies, and start-ups raised some interesting questions across both events, Daisy Christodoulou’s talks at the Festival of Education were the stand-out act, having left me still mulling them over several days later. A well-known figure in the education sphere, Daisy is Director of Education at No More Marking, a company who set out to provide more reliable technology-assisted assessment for schools.

Her first talk of the day, entitled ‘what is EdTech good for?’ took a systematic look at the myths around EdTech. How are we kidding ourselves when we think about EdTech? What claims made by the edtech industry are directly countered by education research? These questions are important to consider if we are to use technology effectively in education, now and in the future.

I wonder if you have heard any of these claims, or similar ones:

  1. ‘EdTech delivers personalised education, allowing students to learn how they want to, in the learning style most suited to them’
  2. ‘EdTech means that students don’t need to learn facts anymore; they can just look up information when they need it’
  3. ‘Students can use technology to learn in novel ways: they can learn by doing, by creating a movie about cooking to learn maths concepts’
  4. ‘You can give students a laptop, walk away and they will learn how to use it’

Do any of these sound familiar? I flinched slightly at the second claim, having been a child who was a little too proud to reel off my times tables and enjoyed my school spelling tests – I for one don’t think fact learning is dead. But I had certainly come across most of these in my time working in educational publishing and now educational technology.

Daisy systematically dispelled these myths, drawing on educational research which helped me to make sense of my instant discomfort around some of these claims:

  1. Firstly, personal choice in learning styles does not make students learn concepts more effectively; students are often not equipped to know what they need to learn (and why should they be?). We need to memorise facts; our working memory is much more limited than you might think. So technology which allows students to choose how they learn will never be effective.
  2. Secondly, we can’t actually keep more than around five or six items in our minds at once, which is why we need to memorise facts and put them in our long-term memory, so that we can draw on them quickly without adding to the ‘cognitive load’ of our working memories. An internet search is also only as good as its construction and interpretation; if students don’t know how to do this their use of search engines is likely to have limited success.
  3. Thirdly, when we learn we tend to remember the thing we were thinking about during a process. So, if a teacher tells us to learn in a novel way, by making a movie, though it might be fun and engaging, we’ll likely remember a huge amount about creating that movie but not a lot about the mathematical concepts behind it.
  4. Finally, we have to remember that laptops (and other devices) are made for distraction; they are not made by educators. So, while we can use them for educational gain, that is unlikely to happen without careful guidance by a teacher.

So, what’s the bottom line? Is it all bad news? No, but we do have to be careful how we use EdTech. We shouldn’t be using EdTech to give students personal choices about how they learn, to blindly look up information, to learn concepts in ways totally unrelated to that concept, or to take part in unaided screen-based learning. Educational processes using technology need to be designed carefully to make sure students have plenty of guidance, that they have the tools to use the technology in front of them well, and that their attention is on the right things.

 

What is EdTech good for, then?

Should we avoid using it at all and just stick to conventional classrooms? Not at all. But we need to focus the things that are difficult for us to do without technology.

Tech can help us by offering ways to scale the best in education; offering good quality education to more students. It can help us to offer adaptive learning: this is the breed of ‘personalised’ education not based around what a student wants, but what a student needs – by looking at how students answered previous questions it can help to point them to what they need to learn next. Finally, it can help to see trends which enable better student support: if all students are making the same plant biology or maths, why are they making those mistakes and how can a computer provide automated support to save the teacher repeatedly giving the same advice.

As I work on online courses at Oxford Summer Courses, I am committed to only using technology which stands up to questioning. We won’t be offering our students technology based on empty promises or fads, but we’re committed to a research-based, solid approach to online learning for using education technology in the most effective way possible.

Last week, at one of our courses running in India, students wrote about how friendly our staff were, the great structure of the learning experience, and that ‘the tutors were amazing and of extremely high calibre’. We want more students to be able to experience the sheer joy of this kind of education. We want to open up our high-quality education, expert tutors, and diverse, international student groups to a wider audience.

We’re excited for the opportunity to use the best in EdTech to help us do this, but we’re aware of the dangers. We’re glad of EdTech movers and shakers like Daisy helping us to keep thinking, keep learning, and keep offering you the best. Online courses coming soon!


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