Can Technology Help Us Learn?

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When it comes to answering the question “Can Technology Help Us Learn?”, identify how technology can work against learning is a good place to start because understanding what doesn’t work can help us discover what does.

Students are expected to learn and apply a vast amount of information. Any technology tool that appears to make dealing with lots of information easier would naturally be assumed to be helpful to learning but, thanks to the unique features of the human brain, it’s not that simple.

For example, more and more students are using their laptops to make notes during lectures. Students who take notes using their laptops tend to take more notes and those notes tend to be verbatim – capturing the professor’s every word. You’d think that “not missing a word” and being able to access all that information after you leave the classroom would give you a learning advantage. Turns out, that’s not necessarily the case.

Technology is making it easier to “mix it up” when it comes to creating tools and exercises that serve the variety of learning styles.

Research comparing Typers (students who take notes using their laptop) with Writers (students who take handwritten notes) found that the Writers had a stronger understanding of concepts and were more successful integrating and applying the material presented in lectures. The researchers suggested that writing by hand requires your brain to do a different type of processing from that used to type notes word-for-word. Since the Writer can’t hope to copy down every word the professor says, they are forced to listen, digest and summarize succinctly to capture the essence of the information. This type of “mental heavy lifting” seems to help understanding and memory. When Typers type, they produce a record without deeply processing the information (almost as if the information was going in their ears and out their fingertips, without making much of a stopover in the brain). And, when given the opportunity to study their notes and be tested a week later, Typers still didn’t perform as well on tests as Writers. It would seem that, even when technology allows us to do more in less time, it doesn’t necessarily help us achieve our end goal, especially when that goal is to learn.1

If using a laptop to take lecture notes may make learning more difficult, what effect does reading an e-textbook on a device have on learning?

The summary of research presented in, “Are Paperless Textbooks the Future?” would seem to indicate that paper is the superior technology for learning from text when compared to reading the same text on devices such as computers and ereaders. Our brains appear to depend on the many “contextual aids” associated with the paper book reading experience to help us take-in, organize and learn information. Plus, anything that reduces our ability to get a good night’s sleep (such as using an ereader in the hours before bedtime) can make learning more difficult.
So is there anything unique about how devices and computer technology deliver information and experiences that supports how humans learn and can be used along with printed text?

Turning Homework on its Ear

One way in which technology may be used to take advantage of its strengths is in the “Flipped Classroom”. In a flipped classroom, students watch pre-recorded video lessons or lectures on their device or computer at home and at their own pace, communicating with classmates and teachers online. The classroom teacher’s role is that of a guide and facilitator. Time in school is used to practice applying the knowledge learned in the lecture by doing exercises and assignments – the type of learning traditionally relegated to homework – with the teacher easily accessible to answer questions. In the flipped classroom, teachers coach students through the applied portion of the learning process so that they become knowledgeable and capable of using that knowledge. In the traditional teaching model, students are left to stumble through large portions of the applied aspects of learning, at first with the help parents and then their peers or perhaps with some help from a graduate student in weekly tutorials. The flipped classroom has the potential to be a much more efficient and effective way to learn.
Using games and simulations as teaching aids is nothing new but today’s technology has the potential to take this type of tool to the next level. The “gamification” of learning exercises has appeal for both students and teachers because games have been shown to be a very engaging way to learn. This is because video games allow students to take a more active role in learning, allowing them to make choices and explore different solutions as they learn to solve problems. Video games also give immediate feedback so both the student and teacher have real-time information about how well the student understands what they’re trying to learn. This, in turn, creates opportunities for teachers to provide timely coaching to address weak areas or gaps in student’s understanding which saves time and frustration for both. Unfortunately, very little research has been done on the impact of video games on learning and the limited research available would seem to indicate that “brain-training video games improve children’s performance only on very similar games, an effect that likely results from practice.”2

That said, it’s probably too soon to write-off video games as a learning tool. When performing research on learning, scientists randomly choose mixed groups of students in the hope of coming up with results that can be applied to the majority of people. An important consideration that may be left out of broad based studies is the impact of each student’s “Learning Style” on a particular tool’s usefulness.

Stylized Learning

Everyone has a preferred learning style. Neil D. Fleming and Dr. Charles Bonwell developed what has become one of the most widely used categorization models for learning style. Their system is called VARK, which stands for Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinesthetic.3

Visual learners most easily take in information when it’s presented in graphs, charts, diagrams and other symbolic ways of representing information. Aural learners like to listen to and talk about what they’re learning. Read/write learners are similar to Visual learners in that they like to see the information but they prefer to see it as words. Kinesthetic learners, one of the most common learning styles, prefer real life examples and practice where they can use many of their senses. A person can have one strongly preferred learning style or a combination of two, three or all four styles.

Less than a fifth of us are strictly the Read/write type, which is quite interesting when you think about how our schools have traditionally taught students. The most common learning style (roughly a third of those who have completed the VARK profile questionnaire) is a preference for using all four ways of learning. The vast majority of people have a learning style that is a combination of two or more types.
Reading and writing have been the cornerstones of teaching and testing for almost as long as schools have existed. And while there is genius in the ability of the written word to convey a concept and promote understanding, if we don’t make use of tools based on the other three types of learning the benefits of schooling will be skewed to serve only one segment of the population leaving the talents and potential of a great many students underdeveloped. An education system to fails to support the full development of children and young adults is a poor use of the public purse and the post-secondary education savings of parents.

Technology is making it easier to “mix it up” when it comes to creating tools and exercises that serve the variety of learning styles.

Infographics draw a picture to tell a story. Many of the infographics we see in our daily life appear in the media because they make complicated information easy to understand at a glance. From an educational perspective, infographics hit a “sweet spot” where Read/Write, Aural, Visual and Kinesthetic learning meet.4 The mental processing that goes into both learning from viewing and learning from making infographics help students integrate information, see connections and generally understand how things work. These same mental processes are similar to something called “Computational Thinking” which has to do with using your critical thinking skills along with the power of computers to come up with solutions to problems. For example, students might figure out all the steps in a process and then use a software program to make a diagram or flow chart of that process. They could then examine and play around with all the parts in order to find the answer to a question or problem much more quickly and easily than if they had drawn that chart by hand. Since today’s students can expect to work with some form of technology once they enter the world of work, these types of thinking skills along with opportunities to gain experience using technology will be very useful later on and should be encouraged.

Memory is critical to learning and our educational systems often focus on testing a student’s memory of what they learned from reading and writing in tests that largely involve reading and writing. Given what we now know about learning styles, it seems quite possible that there are types of memory and learning that aren’t being tested and, therefore, not being fully developed.
Taking advantage of technologies that support the full potential of a variety of learning styles, such as flipped classrooms, video games and infographics and computational thinking, represent a new and exciting frontier to be explored as we continue to discover how technology tools can help us learn.

Pick Your Portal

The third prize winner of the CST Learning Project competition, which provides funds to innovative programs that support the learning and development of children from infancy to age 17, is a Canadian example of how insightful use of technology can create opportunities for global learning that would not otherwise exist. Students in Guelph, Ontario are using the technology of the internet to bring world-leading teachers into the classroom. Scientists, conservationists and thought-leaders from around the world present to and interact with Grade 8 students over a video Skype connection. These students benefit not only from the latest thinking but also have the still rare opportunity to ask direct questions to some of the best minds in their respective fields – an interactive form of learning that could not be accomplished with a textbook.5

The Guelph Learning Project winning idea illustrates an important aspect of today’s technology that has a massive potential to globally impact learning centers round the concept of access. The Gutenberg printing press broke open the small, largely closed club of people who had access to the world of knowledge, which up until its invention had been confined to scrolls and books written and reproduced by hand, by making easy reproduction of books both feasible and profitable. An entire industry grew up around printing and selling books. Shifts and innovations affecting entire societies occurred, including the introduction of a widely accessible public educational system built around words and numbers shared through of vast collection of printed books. Creation and wide distribution of newspapers also became possible and, with it, the rapid spread of new information.

Just twenty some odd years after the internet came into wide use, it has become something we largely take for granted. But this “plumbing of the information age”, as John Naughton6 describes it, has created the gateway to the next great leap forward in delivering education to everyone.

MOOCs and Reshaping the Credential Landscape

One example of how technology is taking access to education to everyone with a device and internet connection is the MOOC or Massive Open Online Course. MOOCs are free, online courses with open, unlimited enrollment that are offered by a number of leading universities. The courses are taught using video lectures supported by online discussion and study groups as well as online access to instructors. As MOOCs have become more sophisticated, these courses are being increasingly “designed specifically for the online environment…breaking down programs into easily digestible segments” that are easy to navigate and “illustrating complex ideas visually instead of just presenting talking heads”.7 The MOOCs provided by Udacity.com even offer students virtual fieldtrips. 8
Some MOOCs require that students move through the learning material and complete tests and assignments in the same timeframe as those attending the course in person. Other MOOCs allow the students to work at their own pace. Because MOOCs have been largely dependent on the “honour code” regarding honesty in the completion of tests and many assessments are graded by peers (as opposed to instructors), creating a system that would allow MOOCs to be recognized as trustworthy credentials by potential employers is still in its infancy.

The digital “badge” movement promises to transform competent completion of MOOCs into credentials that have currency in the job market. The concept of badges was borrowed from video games. A badge is a symbol (usually a digital image) that indicates specific knowledge or skills. Unlike traditional diplomas and certificates, badges are more than just images, they’re “portals that lead to large amounts of information about what their bearers know and can do”.9 For example, a student who completes a MOOC and receives at least 60% on the final exam would receive an email with a file attached. The file would be a digital image that the student could copy into an online job application. When the prospective employer clicked on the image, they would be shown an assortment of indepth information such as the date the badge was issued, the name, title and organizational affiliation of the teacher who verified the badge, the score the student received on the final exam and a link to exam questions.9 Badges may be free or the student may have to pay a small fee to participate in the evaluation and grading process.

The abundance of learning available through MOOCs to anyone with access to a device and an internet connection is itself revolutionary. When combined with a recognized and respected credential system, MOOCs and badges have the potential to transform how education that leads to employment is delivered, while lowering great many economic and geographic barriers. In this way, technology could do more than help us learn, it could raise the standard of living of people worldwide.

1 “A Learning Secret: Don’t Take Notes with a Laptop”, Cindy May, Scientific American, June 3, 2014.
2 “Fact or Fiction?: Video Games Are the Future of Education”, Elena Malykhina, Scientific American, September 12, 2014.
3 http://vark-learn.com/introduction-to-vark/
4 “Infographics: More Than Words Can Say”, Jane Krauss, ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education), February 2012.
5 http://learningproject.cst.org/ideas/556
6 From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet, John Naughton.
7 The State of Education Video 2013, Paul Riismandel, http://www.streamingmedia.com/Articles/Editorial/Featured-Articles/The-State-of-Education-Video-2013-87980.aspx
8 The Future of E-Ducation: The Impact of Technology and Analysis on the Education Industry, Gold Mercury International 2014.
9 “Show Me Your Badge”, Kevin Carey, New York Times, November 2, 2012.