Do we need a term for ‘Learning Technology’?

Over the years, there have been many terms used to describe the use of technology within education. If I go back to my early teaching days in the late 1990s – schools referred to it as ‘ICT’, Colleges called it ‘ILT’ and Universities called it ‘eLearning’. Since then we have also used (amongst others) the terms ‘Learning Technology’ and ‘Technology Enhanced Learning’.

The terms ICT, ILT, eLearning and Learning Technology make no quality judgements about the use of technology (e.g. the use could be good, bad or indifferent), whereas the term Technology Enhanced Learning does make a judgment (e.g. it only refers to the uses that actually enhance the learning) – and this was discussed in my last blog post – Does Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) actually enhance learning?

So if using the term TEL, has in essence filtered out the bad and indifferent uses if technology – could we go one step further and remove the term altogether, and simply refer to this as teaching and learning? This is an ideological and philosophical question that is often asked – and the short answer is that yes, at some point in the future, hopefully the use of learning technology will be so well embedded that it won’t need its own name or definition, it will be just part and parcel of teaching and learning. However we are not there yet, and the rest of this post will explore why.

When I first became the ILT coordinator at a college, one of the first decisions that I made, was to scrap the College’s ILT strategy (the very document that had actually created my post) – my argument being that for ILT to be successful it has to be embedded fully and not seen as a ‘bolt-on’, so I scrapped the strategy and subsumed the useful bits of it into other college strategies – mainly the teaching, learning and assessment strategy, but also the IT strategy and a few others. This proved to be very useful, and I think was a key factor in the college’s successful progression in this area of work. We did have problems at the time, in that we were often bidding for pots of money for projects from the myriad of external agencies, who often required that we submitted a copy of our ILT strategy as part of the bid. I would send in the teaching and learning strategy, which was often rejected, so we did have to recreate a sort of ILT strategy, just so we had something to submit as part of this bid process. This annoyed me somewhat, that the external agencies were forcing us to take a step backwards.

Square root of 2 triangleA few years later I was attending a conference, where the night before there was a pre-conference dinner with guest speakers and an ‘ask the experts’ panel, and the question about whether we need a term to describe this area of work was raised there. Most of the panel members, (who clearly struggled with the question) waffled on a bit about something and nothing, and then concluded that we could get rid of the term, until the last person to answer spoke, and his background was actually the history of mathematics, and he used the analogy of irrational numbers (e.g. the square root of 2, pi, and various others) – which although first identified in ancient Greek times, it wasn’t given a name until much later. People that understand mathematics to a high level* understand the concept of irrational numbers, and therefore don’t need a name to conceptualise or use it – but most people don’t understand it, and partly because it is an abstract concept, they have difficulty conceptualising something that doesn’t have a name and therefore (in their eyes) ‘doesn’t exist’. The introduction of the term irrational numbers wasn’t for the benefit of mathematicians, but for the benefit of the average user.

He argued that the main purpose of terms to describe ‘learning technology’ is to make the concept of it more real and less abstract, which is essential for the understanding of the average person, and is essential for its adoption of propagation within education.

This answer from the mathematician, resonated with me – as I had often ideologically been trying to drop the term, but realised that we aren’t ready yet for such a move.

So – my argument is that there is a need for a term – and I don’t really care what the term is, along as it is universally understood within the organisation or situation, it could be ILT, Learning Technology, eLearning, TEL, or Geoffrey – it doesn’t matter as long as its use is consistent. What is important is that there are active steps taken to make sure that over time this area of work is truly embedded into practice, and doesn’t become further detached from the core business of teaching and learning (and assessment). Something that I am slightly concerned about at the moment, is this area of work has expanded rapidly in recent years, with many organisations now having dedicated ‘Learning technology’ teams, and there is now a recognised career path for someone to become a learning technologist – and there is a risk that this could actually move further away from the core practice, rather than closer to.


*Please note that I am not a mathematician by background, so apologies in advance to any mathematicians if my analogy hasn’t been articulated 100% accurately.

Why a VLE is like a pizza

Earlier this week I was presenting at an event on behalf of the HE Academy, and one of the fellow presenters Santanu Vasant quoted that a VLE is a bit like a pizza, which I thought was an excellent analogy which I will build upon here:

pizzas_2011_001

Image of a pizza

Many educational establishments including schools, colleges and universities will have a VLE or Virtual Learning Environment (e.g. Moodle, Blakboard, Frog, Fronter etc) and these are used to a lesser or greater extent (sadly usually lesser) with a varying range of some just using it as a place to dump files others using it to its full potential.

So

  1. If we think of a blank course on the VLE itself as the pizza base – this is technically edible but not very tasty or useful on its own.
  2. To improve the pizza we will put some tomato puree and cheese on top and make this into a basic cheese and tomato pizza, a bit more tasty but not very exciting. The VLE analogy would be adding some basic content to the VLE – e.g. PowerPoint presentations, course notes, links to a few websites and assignment information. This is now edible and you could live on this, but not very exciting, challenging or demanding and not likely to make you lots of money if the only thing offered on the menu. This sadly is where most people get to.
  3. The next step is to add toppings to the pizza – and by having a different selection of toppings used in different quantities we can create an almost infinite combination of  pizza flavours, from hot and spicy, to meat feast, to cheese supreme or a seafood special. In VLE terms, all of the different activity types that are available (discussion forums, quizzes, wiki activities etc. each being a different topping).

So the skill of the tutor is to be more like a master pizza chef and knowing which toppings to use and how much of each to create the ‘perfect pizza’. Jalapeno peppers I think are a great pizza toping, but if that was the only topping on the pizza and there were lots of them it wouldn’t make for a pleasant meal – similarly with VLE use – activities like quizzes are great, but if that is the only activity used then students will start to disengage.