My seven ‘a-ha’ moments in the history of educational technology
A good question
I get asked a lot of questions about online learning, educational technology and distance education, but recently I was asked one that really stumped me, and forced me to reflect on the whole history of educational technology, at least as it has affected me.
The question was simple:
‘You’ve been working in the field now for 44 years. What have been your most seminal moments in terms of what you’ve learned?’
I’ve been able to boil the answer down into seven seminal moments. Here I merely summarize these ‘aha’ moments. I will do a different post on each that will describe both the circumstances that led to the ‘aha’ moment, and the consequent heuristic implications for making more effective decisions about the use of technology.
1. 1970: Media are different
By this, I mean different media have different educational effects or affordances. If you just transfer the same teaching to a different media, you fail to exploit the unique characteristics of that medium. Put more positively, you can do different and often better teaching by adapting it to the medium. That way students will learn more deeply and effectively.
2. 1974: God helps those who help themselves
This stems from my experience of working in developing countries. Ever since I started working in this field, people have argued that ‘Western’ technology is the solution to educational problems in developing countries. This is hubris, and just plain wrong. Progress in education in developing countries has to start at home. Western technology can help, but only as long as it is adapted and transformed locally.
3. 1978: Asynchronous is better
Everyone learns better from media and technologies that allow them to study anywhere, at any time. In particular the ability to repeat and revise recorded material makes learning much more effective than live, synchronous teaching. This ‘insight’ stemmed originally from research on the effectiveness of audio-cassettes compared to broadcast radio, but has subsequently been found true also for television and the Internet.
4. 1986: Computers for communication, not as teaching machines
Until 1986, I had always been skeptical of computers as an effective teaching medium, especially in distance education. Up to then, I had seen them as ‘teaching machines’, attempting, ineffectively to replace teachers. The Internet changed that. In 1986, I realised that computers could allow learners and teachers to communicate effectively over space and time. This fits much better with my philosophy of teaching and learning. Despite developments since then in artificial intelligence, this seminal moment still holds true today.
5. 1995: WWW: a universal standard
Like most people in education, I was caught cold by the World Wide Web. Until 1995, I was still using non-web technology for teaching online. The web allows rich multimedia material to be transmitted to any computer, any software system, anywhere in the world, with an Internet connection. This has had profound implications for the design of online teaching which we still have by no means fully understood or exploited.
6. 1995: Convergence of online learning
This was the year I moved from a distance teaching organization to a campus-based university. The move was partly driven by a growing realization that the technologies being introduced into distance education would eventually transform campus-based teaching as well. This is just beginning to be fully realised 18 years later, through developments such as hybrid learning. The challenge now is to identify what is best done on campus, and what online, when students have the choice of both.
7. 1997: Strategy matters
Having worked as a manager by this time for 7 years, I was beginning to understand the bigger picture regarding the planning and management of learning technologies, and it wasn’t pretty. For educational technology to be used effectively, it has to be planned and managed well, and there were almost no specific guidelines at the time. Almost everything was left to the IT people. This had to change. Academics had to get involved as well. This also is now beginning to happen but we still have a long way to go to be better planners and managers, despite my two books on the subject.
The time perspective
Why nothing in the last 16 years? Well, the further back in time you go, the clearer becomes the signal from the noise. Also, if something is universally true, you are likely to recognize it earlier than later. And in the educational technology field, I doubt if many things are universally true, because it is an area that is still rapidly developing.
The one exception though I might make (an eighth aha) is 2008 when I realised the importance of web 2.0 for enabling more learner-centered teaching and learning, but I still need more time to see the real significance.
In the meantime, I will develop each of these seven themes further in later posts.
What are your ‘seminal,’ aha moments in educational technology? Why?