January 25, 2015

Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of computing

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Figure 9.5.1 A computer-marked assignment form (University of Western Australia)

Figure 9.5.1 A computer-marked assignment form (University of Western Australia)

This is the fourth post on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

This was a fun one to do, mainly because I ignored any previous research on this topic, because I rarely, to my shame, read articles in journals on computing and education. When I have done, the articles seem to be about another world of education in which I don’t – or didn’t – work. So I deserve your criticisms of this post, and, if I’m honest, I would welcome direction to any references that I ought to take account of, so long as they will enable me to help faculty in their teaching.

A volatile and comprehensive medium

It is debatable whether computing should be considered a medium, but I am using the term broadly, and not in the technical sense of writing code. The Internet in particular is an all-embracing medium that accommodates text, audio, video and computing, as well as providing other elements such as distributed communication and access to educational opportunities. Computing is also still an area that is fast developing, with new products and services emerging all the time. Indeed, I will treat recent developments in social media separately from computing, although technically they are a sub-category. Once again, though, social media contain affordances that are not so prevalent in more conventional computing-based learning environments.

In such a volatile medium, it would be foolish to be dogmatic about unique media characteristics, but once again, the purpose of this chapter is not to provide a definitive analysis, but a way of thinking about technology that will facilitate an instructor’s choice and use of technology. The focus is: what are the pedagogical affordances of computing that are different from those of other media (other than the important fact that it can embrace all the other media characteristics)?

Although there has been a great deal of research into computers in education, there has been less focus on the specifics of its pedagogical media characteristics, although a great deal of interesting research and development has taken place and continues in human-machine interaction and to a lesser extent (in terms of interesting) in artificial intelligence. Thus I am relying more on analysis and experience than research in this section.

Presentational features

Figure 9.5 'Screen size can be a real presentational limitation with smaller, mobile devices'

Figure 9.5 ‘Screen size can be a real presentational limitation with smaller, mobile devices’

This is not really where the educational strength of computing lies. Computing can represent text and audio reasonably well, and video less well, because of the limited size of the screen (which video often has to share with text) and the bandwidth/pixels/download time required. Screen size can be a real presentational limitation with smaller, mobile devices, although tablets such as the iPad are a major advance in screen quality. The traditional user interface for computing, such as pull-down menus, cursor screen navigation, and an algorithmic-based filing or storage system, while all very functional, are not intuitive and can be quite restricting from an educational point of view.

However, unlike the other media, computing enables the end user to interact directly with the medium, to the extent that the end user (in education, the student) can add to, change or interact with the content, at least to a certain extent. In this sense, computing comes closer to a complete, if virtual, learning environment.

Thus in presentational terms computing can be used to:

  • create and present (original) teaching content in a rich and varied way (using a combination of text, audio, video and webinars)
  • enable access to other sources of (secondary) ‘rich’ content through the Internet
  • create and present computer-based animations and simulations
  • structure and manage content through the use of web sites, learning management systems and other similar technologies
  • with adaptive learning, offer learners alternative routes through learning materials, providing an element of personalisation
  • enable students to communicate both synchronously and asynchronously with the instructor and other students
  • set multiple-choice tests, automatically mark such tests, and provide immediate feedback to learners
  • enable learners digitally to submit written (essay-type), or multimedia (project-based) assignments through the use of e-portfolios
  • create virtual worlds or virtual environments/contexts through technology such as Second Life

Skills development

Loyalist College's virtual border crossing

Loyalist College’s virtual border crossing

Skills development in a computing environment will once again depend very much on the epistemological approach to teaching. Computing can be used to focus on comprehension and understanding, through a behaviourist approach to computer-based learning. However, the communications element of computing also enables more constructivist approaches, through online student discussion and student-created multimedia work.

Thus computing can be used (uniquely) to:

  • develop and test student comprehension of content through computer-based learning/testing
  • develop computer coding and other ICT knowledge and skills
  • develop decision-making skills through the use of simulations and/or virtual worlds
  • develop skills of reasoning, evidence-based argument, and collaboration through instructor-moderated online discussion forums
  • enable students to create their own artefacts/online multimedia work through the use of e-portfolios, thus improving their digital communication skills as well as assessing their knowledge
  • develop skills of experimental design, through the use of simulations, virtual laboratory equipment and remote labs
  • develop skills of knowledge management and problem-solving, by requiring students to find, analyse, evaluate and apply content accessed through the Internet to real world problems
  • develop spoken and written language skills through both presentation of language and through communication with other students and/or native language speakers via the Internet.

These skills of course are in addition to the skills that other media can support within a broader computing environment.

Strengths and weaknesses of computing as a teaching medium

Many teachers and instructors avoid the use of computing because they fear it may be used to replace them, or because they believe it results in a very mechanical approach to teaching and learning. This is not helped by misinformed computer scientists, politicians and industry leaders who argue that computers can replace or reduce the need for humans in teaching. Both viewpoints show a misunderstanding of both the sophistication and complexity of teaching and learning, and the flexibility and advantages that computing can bring to teaching.

So here are some of the advantages of computing as a teaching medium:

  • it is a very powerful teaching medium in terms of its unique pedagogical characteristics, in that it can combine the pedagogical characteristics of text, audio, video and computing in an integrated manner
  • its unique pedagogical characteristics are useful for teaching many of the skills learners need in a digital age
  • computing enables learners to have more power and choice in accessing and creating their own learning and learning contexts
  • computing enables learners to interact directly with learning materials and receive immediate feedback, thus, when well designed, increasing the speed and depth of their learning
  • computing enables anyone with Internet access and a computing device to study or learn at any time or place
  • computing enables regular and frequent communication between student, instructors and other students
  • computing is flexible enough to be used to support a wide range of teaching philosophies and approaches
  • computing can help with some of the ‘grunt’ work in assessment and tracking of student performance, freeing up an instructor to focus on the more complex forms of assessment and interaction with students.

On the other hand, the disadvantages of computing are:

  • many teachers and instructors often have no training in or awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of computing as a teaching medium
  • computing is too often oversold as a panacea for education; it is a powerful teaching medium, but it needs to be managed and controlled by educators
  • there is a tendency for computer scientists and engineers to adopt behaviourist approaches to the use of computing, which not only alienates constructivist-oriented teachers and learners, but also underestimates or underuses the true power of computing for teaching and learning
  • despite computing’s power as a teaching medium, there are other aspects of teaching and learning that require the personal interaction of a student and teacher (this will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 10). These aspects are probably less than many teachers believe, but more than many advocates of computer learning understand.
  • computing needs the input and management of teachers and educators, and to some extent learners, to determine the conditions under which computing can best operate as a teaching medium; and teachers need to be in control of the decisions on when and how to use computing for teaching and learning
  • to use computing well, teachers need to work closely with other specialists, such as instructional designers and IT staff.

The issue around the value of computing as a medium for teaching is less about its pedagogical value and more about control. Because of the complexity of teaching and learning, it is essential that the use of computing for teaching and learning is controlled and managed by educators. As long as teachers and instructors have control, and have the necessary knowledge and training about the pedagogical advantages and limitations of computing, then computing is an essential medium for teaching in a digital age.

Assessment

There is a tendency to focus assessment in computing on multiple choice questions and ‘correct’ answers. Although this form of assessment has its value in assessing comprehension, and ability in a limited range of mechanical procedures, computing allows for a wider range of assessment techniques, from learner-created blogs and wikis to e-portfolios. These more flexible forms of computer-based assessment are more in alignment with measuring the knowledge and skills that many learners will need in a digital age.

Activity 9.5.4

1. Take one of the courses you are teaching. What key presentational aspects of computing could be important for this course?

2. Look at the skills listed in Section 1.3 of this book. Which of these skills would best be developed through the use of computing rather than other media? How would you do this using computer-based teaching?

3. Under what conditions would it be more appropriate in any of your courses for students to be assessed by asking them to create their own multimedia project portfolios rather than through a written exam? What assessment conditions would be necessary to ensure the authenticity of a student’s work? Would this form of assessment be extra work for you?

4. What are the main barriers to your using computing more in your teaching? Philosophical? Practical? Lack of training or confidence in technology use? Or lack of institutional support? What could be done to remove some of these barriers?

Over to you

OK, let me have it on this.

1. Is it OK to think of computing as an educational medium, in the sense in which I have used it?

2. What key pedagogical characteristics of computing have I missed (remember, though: there’s a whole section on social media coming next)?

3. Do you agree with my criticism of the limitations of computer screens in terms of representing knowledge and poor user interfaces? Or am I just jaded from too much time spent trying to get my computer to do what I want it to do?

4. I have to add examples for each of the presentational and skills development characteristics. Suggestions (with links if possible) would be welcome.

5. You can see I have a love/hate relationship with computing as an educational medium. Has this unduly influenced my analysis? If so, which side has won – love or hate? Is it too personal and not objective enough? (In answering this question, please state whether you are a behaviourist, constructivist or connectivist).

6. Do you think this post would be of any assistance or help to a faculty member? If no, why not? How would you approach this issue of deciding on appropriate media for teaching?

Next up

The unique pedagogical characteristics of social media – this will be my last on pedagogical affordances. I will discuss the uniqueness of face-to-face teaching in Chapter 10, which is on modes of delivery.

After social media, there will be a brief section on design issues in multimedia, a concluding section on Teaching Functions, then short sections on the ONS of the SECTIONS model. I know: the book is getting more like a marathon than a sprint.

 

Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of video

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Figure 9. The Open University on iTunesU

Figure 9. The Open University on iTunesU

This is the third post on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Although it will be seen that there are good pedagogical reasons for using video, it presents much more of a challenge to faculty than the use of text or audio. Producing video that exploits the unique characteristics of video is not something that most faculty have the time or ability to do themselves, and adds substantial cost to a course.

The alternative of course is video available as an open educational resources, and good luck with that. I had great difficulty in finding suitable open educational resources to use as examples (although there are talking heads in abundance). If anything, the availability of good quality video OERs has declined recently, with much of the material previously available through Open Learn and other sources such as iTunesU and even YouTube now removed. Copyright of good quality educational video is still pretty restricted, probably because of the high cost of producing it.

Reliability of OERs is becoming a critically important issue. If an instructor cannot rely on an OER being available in a year or two after incorporation into their teaching, OERs won’t get used. Maybe this is after all a good reason for learning object repositories.

Ideally, I would like to be able to link each one of these unique features to an open source video example. After two days trawling, I’ve come up with one (thank you, University of Nottingham, and Clint Lalonde for suggesting it!) So any suggestions for ‘open’ videos that provide examples for each of the characteristics below would be really appreciated. (Yes, I know I should ask a librarian, but I’m working on my own these days).

More power, more complexity

Although there have been massive changes in video technology over the last 25 years, resulting in dramatic reductions in the costs of both creating and distributing video, the unique educational characteristics are largely unaffected. (More recent computer-generated media such as simulations, will be analysed under ‘Computing’, in Section 9.5.4).

Video is a much richer medium than either text or audio, as in addition to its ability to offer text and sound, it can also offer dynamic or moving pictures. Thus while it can offer all the affordances of audio, and some of text, it also has unique pedagogical characteristics of its own. Once again, there has been considerable research on the use of video in education, and again I will be drawing on research from the Open University (Bates, 1985 2005; Koumi, 2006) as well as from Mayer (2009).

Presentational features

Video can be used to:

  • demonstrate experiments or experimental situations, particularly:
  • illustrate principles involving dynamic change or movement
  • illustrate abstract principles through the use of specially constructed physical models
  • illustrate principles involving three-dimensional space
  • demonstrate changes over time through the use of animation, slow-motion, or speeded-up video
  • substitute for a field visit, by:
    • providing students with an accurate, comprehensive visual picture of a site, in order to place the topic under study in context
    • demonstrating the relationship between different elements of a system under study (e.g. production processes, ecological balance)
    • by identifying and distinguishing between different classes or categories of phenomena at the site (e.g. in forest ecology)
    • to observe differences in scale and process between laboratory and mass-production techniques
    • through the use of models, animations or simulations, to teach certain advanced scientific or technological concepts (such as theories of relativity or quantum physics) without students having to master highly advanced mathematical techniques,
  • bring students primary resource or case-study material, i.e. recording of naturally occurring events which, through editing and selection, demonstrate or illustrate principles covered elsewhere in a course
  • demonstrate ways in which abstract principles or concepts developed elsewhere in the course have been applied to real-world problems
  • synthesise a wide range of variables into a single recorded event, e.g. to suggest how real world problems can be resolved
  • demonstrate decision-making processes or decisions ‘in action’ (e.g. triage in an emergency situation) by:
    • recording the decision-making process as it occurs in real contexts
    • recording ‘staged’ simulations, dramatisation or role-playing
  • demonstrate correct procedures in using tools or equipment (including safety procedures)
  • demonstrate methods or techniques of performance (e.g. mechanical skills such as stripping and re-assembling a carburetor, sketching, drawing or painting techniques, or dance)
  • record and archive events that are crucial to topics in a course, but which may disappear or be destroyed in the near future, such as, for instance, street graffiti or condemned buildings
  • demonstrate practical activities to be carried out by students, on their own.

Skills development

This usually requires the video to be integrated with student activities. The ability to stop, rewind and replay video becomes crucial for skills development, as student activity usually takes place separately from the actual viewing of the video. This may mean thinking through carefully activities for students related to the use of video.

If video is not used directly for lecturing, research clearly indicates that students generally need to be guided as to what to look for in video, at least initially in their use of video for learning. There are various techniques for relating concrete events with abstract principles, such as through audio narration, using a still frame to highlight the observation, or repeating a small section of the program. Bates and Gallagher (1977) found that using video for developing higher order analysis or evaluation was a teachable skill that needs to be built into the development of a course or program, to get the best results.

Typical uses of video for skills development include:

  • enabling students to recognize naturally occurring phenomena or classifications (e.g. teaching strategies, symptoms of mental illness, classroom behaviour) in context
  • enabling students to analyse a situation, using principles either introduced in the video recording or covered elsewhere in the course, such as a textbook or lecture
  • interpreting artistic performance (e.g. drama, spoken poetry, movies, paintings, sculpture, or other works of art)
  • analysis of music composition, through the use of musical performance, narration and graphics
  • testing the applicability or relevance of abstract concepts or generalisations in real world contexts
  • looking for alternative explanations for real world phenomena.

Strengths and weaknesses of video as a teaching medium

One factor that makes video powerful for learning is its ability to show the relationship between concrete examples and abstract principles, with usually the sound track relating the abstract principles to concrete events shown in the video. Video is particularly useful for recording events or situations where it would be too difficult, dangerous, expensive or impractical to bring students to such events.

Thus its main strengths are as follows:

  • linking concrete events and phenomena to abstract principles and vice versa
  • the ability of students to stop and start, so they can integrate activities with video
  • provides alternative approaches that can help students having difficulties in learning abstract concepts
  • adds substantial interest to a course by linking it to real world issues
  • a growing amount of freely available, high quality academic videos
  • good for developing some of the higher level intellectual skills and some of the more practical skills needed in a digital age
  • the use of low cost cameras and free editing software enables some forms of video to be cheaply produced.

The main weaknesses of video are:

  • many faculty have no knowledge or experience in using video other than for recording lecturing
  • there is currently a very limited amount of high quality educational video free for downloading, because the cost of developing high quality educational video that exploits the unique characteristics of the medium is still relatively high. Links also often go dead after a while, affecting the reliability of outsourced video. The availability of free material for educational use will improve over time, but currently finding appropriate and free videos that meet the specific needs of a teacher or instructor can be time-consuming or such material may just not be available or reliable
  • creating original material that exploits the unique characteristics of video is time-consuming, and still relatively expensive, because it usually needs professional video production
  • to get the most out of educational video, students need specially designed activities that sit outside the video itself
  • students often reject videos that require them to do analysis or interpretation; they often prefer direct instruction that focuses primarily on comprehension. Such students need to be trained to use video differently, which requires time to be devoted to developing such skills.

For these reasons, video is not being used enough education. When used it is often an afterthought or an ‘extra’, rather than an integral part of the design, or is used merely to replicate a classroom lecture, rather than exploiting the unique characteristics of video.

 Assessment

If video is being used to develop the skills outlined in Section 9.5.3.3, then it is essential that these skills are assessed and count for grading. Indeed, one possible means of assessment might be to ask students to analyse or interpret a selected video, or even to develop their own media project, using video they themselves have collected or produced, using their own devices.

Activity 9.4

1. Take one of the courses you are teaching. What key presentational aspects of video could be important for this course?

2. Look at the skills listed in Section 1.3 of this book. Which of these skills would best be developed through the use of video rather than other media? How would you do this using video-based teaching?

3. Under what conditions would it be more appropriate for students to be assessed by asking them to analyse or make their own video recording? How could this be done under assessment conditions?

4. Type in the name of your topic + video into Google.

  • How many videos come up?
  • What’s their quality like?
  • Could you use any of them in your teaching?
  • If so, how would you integrate them into your course?
  • Could you make a better video on the topic?
  • What would enable you to do this?

Here are some criteria I would apply to what you find:

  • it is relevant to what you want to teach
  • it demonstrates clearly a particular topic or subject and links it to what the student is intended to learn
  • it is short and to the point
  • the example is well produced (clear camera work, good presenter, clear audio)
  • it provides something that I could not do easily myself
  • it is freely available for non-commercial use

I have to say that most of the examples I found on the Internet do NOT meet all of these criteria! The videos I have linked to in this section do, but then some are produced for the Open University. Can traditional university in-house media departments meet this standard?

Feedback

1. Are there other characteristics unique to video that I’ve missed?

2. Is this the best way to approach this topic? (I accept I need lots more examples in video format). Will this approach to choosing/ using video be helpful for faculty?

3. Any examples of using video for assessment?

4. What do you think of the principles I suggested for selecting video OERs in the activity?  Can traditional university in-house media departments meet this standard in producing OERs, or is it just too expensive to make these kinds of video?

5. Any other suggested references?

References

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables (out of print – try a good library)

Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Koumi, J. (2006). Designing video and multimedia for open and flexible learning. London: Routledge.

Mayer, R. E. (2009). Multimedia learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press.

 

Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of audio

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Image: More4kids.com, 2013

Image: More4kids.com, 201

This is the second post on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age.

As you will see, I am a great fan of recorded audio in education, and believe it is very much under-exploited medium.

© InnerFidelity, 2012

‘Sounds, such as the noise of certain machinery, or the background hum of daily life, have an associative as well as a pure meaning, which can be used to evoke images or ideas relevant to the main substance of what is being taught. There are, in other words, instances where audio is essential for efficiently mediating certain kinds of information’

Durbridge, 1984

Audio: the unappreciated medium

We have seen that oral communication has a long history, and continues today in classroom teaching and in general radio programming. In this section though I am focusing primarily on recorded audio, which I will argue is a very powerful educational medium when used well.

There has been a good deal of research on the unique pedagogical characteristics of audio. At the UK Open University course teams had to bid for media resources to supplement specially designed printed materials. Because media resources were developed initially by the BBC, and hence were limited and  expensive to produce, course teams (in conjunction with their allocated BBC producer) had to specify how radio or television would be used to support learning. In particular, the course teams were asked to identify what teaching functions television and radio would uniquely contribute to the teaching. After allocation and development of a course, samples of the programs were evaluated in terms of how well they met these functions, as well as how the students responded to the programming. In later years, the same approach was used when production moved to audio and video cassettes. This process of identifying unique roles then evaluating the programs allowed the OU, over a period of several years, to identify which roles or functions were particularly appropriate to different media (Bates, 1985). Koumi (2006), himself a former BBC/OU producer, followed up on this research and identified several more key functions for audio and video. Over a somewhat similar period, Richard Mayer, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, was conducting his own research into the use of multimedia in education (Mayer, 2009).

Although there have been continuous developments of audio technology, from audio-cassettes to Sony Walkman’s to podcasts, the educational features of audio have remained remarkably constant.

Presentational features

Although audio can be used on its own, it is often used in combination with other media, particularly text. On its own, it can present:

  • spoken language (including foreign languages) for analysis or practice
  • music, either as a performance or for analysis
  • students with a condensed argument that may:
    • reinforce points made elsewhere in the course
    • introduce new points not made elsewhere in the course
    • provide an alternative viewpoint to the perspectives in the rest of the course
    • analyse or critique materials elsewhere in the course
    • summarize or condense the main ideas or major points covered in the course
    • provide new evidence in support of or against the arguments or perspectives covered elsewhere in the course
  • interviews with leading researchers or experts
  • discussion between two or more people to provide various views on a topic
  • primary audio sources, such as bird song, children talking, eye witness accounts, or recorded performances (drama, concerts)
  • analysis of primary audio sources, by playing the source followed by analysis
  • ‘breaking news’ that emphasizes the relevance or application of concepts within the course
  • the instructor’s personal spin on a topic related to the course.

Audio however has been found to be particularly ‘potent’ when combined with text, because it enables students to use both eyes and ears in conjunction. Audio has been found to be especially useful for:

  • explaining or ‘talking through’ materials presented through text, such as mathematical equations, reproductions of paintings, graphs, statistical tables, and even physical rock samples.

This technique was later further developed by Salman Khan, but using video to combine voice-over explanation with visual presentation.

Skills development

Because of the ability of the learner to stop and start recorded audio, it has been found to be particularly useful for:

  • enabling students through repetition and practice to master certain auditory skills or techniques (e.g. language pronunciation, analysis of musical structure, mathematical computation)
  • getting students to analyse primary audio sources, such as children’s use of language, or attitudes to immigration from recordings of interviewed people
  • changing student attitudes by
    • presenting material in a novel or unfamiliar perspective
    • by presenting material in a dramatized form, enabling students to identify with someone with a different perspective

Strengths and weaknesses of audio as a teaching medium

First, some advantages:

  • it is much easier to make an audio clip or podcast than a video clip or a simulation
  • audio requires far less bandwidth than video or simulations, hence downloads quicker and can be used over relatively low bandwidths
  • it is easily combined with other media such as text, mathematical symbols, and graphics, allowing more than one sense to be used and allowing for ‘integration’.
  • some students prefer to learn by listening compared with reading;
  • audio combined with text can help develop literacy skills or support students with low levels of literacy;
  • audio provides variety and another perspective from text, a ‘break’ in learning that refreshes the learner and maintains interest
  • Nicola Durbridge, in her research at the Open University, found that audio increased distance students’ feelings of personal ‘closeness’ with the instructor compared with video or text, i.e. it is a more intimate medium.

In particular, added flexibility and learner control means that students will often learn better from preprepared audio recordings combined with accompanying textual material (such as a web site with slides) than they will from a live classroom lecture.

There are also of course disadvantages of audio:

  • audio-based learning is difficult for people with a hearing disability
  • creating audio is extra work for an instructor
  • audio is often best used in conjunction with other media such as text or graphics thus adding complexity to the design of teaching
  • recording audio requires a minimal level of technical proficiency
  • spoken language tends to be less precise than text.

Increasingly video is now be used to combine audio over images, such as in the Khan Academy, but there are many instances, such as where students are studying from prescribed texts, where recorded audio works better than a video recording.

So let’s hear it for audio!

Feedback

I need to add some example podcasts to illustrate some of these unique characteristics. Unfortunately many of my intended examples are not publicly accessible, being behind password protected university or college firewalls (or are no longer available). Any suggestions for open access podcasts that illustrate one or more of these functions will be particularly appreciated.

Other questions for you:

1. Are there other unique characteristics of audio, or advantages or disadvantages, that I have missed and should include?

2. Do you share my enthusiasm for recorded audio? If not, why not?

3. Is this section useful for teachers and instructors?

References and further reading

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables (out of print – try a good library)

Bates, A. (2005) Technology, e-Learning and Distance Education London/New York: Routledge

Durbridge, N. (1982) Audio-cassettes in Higher Education Milton Keynes: The Open University (mimeo)

Durbridge, N. (1984) Audio-cassettes, in Bates, A. (ed.) The Role of Technology in Distance Education London/New York: Croom Hill/St Martin’s Press

EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (2005) Seven things you should know about… podcasting Boulder CO: EDUCAUSE, June

Postlethwaite, S. N. (1969) The Audio-Tutorial Approach to Learning Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company

Salmon, G. and Edirisingha, P. (2008) Podcasting for Learning in Universities Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Wright, S. and Haines, R, (1981) Audio-tapes for Teaching Science Teaching at a Distance, Vol. 20 (Open University journal now out of print).

Note: Although some of the Open University publications are not available online, hard copies/pdf files should be available from: The Open University International Centre for Distance Learning, which is now part of the Open University Library.

 

 

Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of text and print

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There's nothing like a good book - or is there?

There’s nothing like a good book – or is there?

This is the first of several posts on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. I’m starting with text, because it is – or perhaps more accurately, has been – fundamental to the development of academic knowledge. However, writing about its unique pedagogical features is rather like asking a fish to describe water. We are so immersed in text in academia that it is hard to imagine studying without texts to read and learn from.

However, with the increasing availability of other media, what is so special about text? How does it differ from other media? I have found writing about this particularly difficult. I have lots of empirical evidence on the pedagogical influences of audio, video and computing, but almost nothing on text, because in a sense it is the default medium for academic learning, the base against which other media tend to be judged. Now much has been published on what makes for good writing, and even what makes for good academic writing, but that is different from asking what can text do for learning that is unique from other media.

As a result, the following section strikes me as being rather unacademic, more of an opinion piece than an empirically supported and theoretically based account of the strengths and weaknesses of text as a teaching medium. So please bear this in mind when reading it, and if you have suggestions for improving it, or other work of which I should be aware, please provide feedback.

The unique pedagogical features of text

Ever since the invention of the Gutenberg press, print has been a dominant teaching technology, arguably at least as influential as the spoken word of the teacher. Even today, textbooks, mainly in printed format, but increasingly also in digital format, still play a major role in formal education, training and distance education. Many fully online courses still make extensive use of text-based learning management systems and online asynchronous discussion forums.

Why is this? What makes text such a powerful teaching medium, and will it remain so, given the latest developments in information technology?

In essence, I am arguing that the unique pedagogical characteristics of text are as follows:

  • text is particularly good at handling abstraction and generalisation, mainly through written language
  • text enables the linear sequencing of information in a structured format
  • text can present and separate empirical evidence or data from the abstractions, conclusions or generalisations derived from the empirical evidence
  • text’s linear structure enables the development of coherent, sequential argument or discussion
  • at the same time text can relate evidence to argument and vice versa
  • text’s recorded and permanent nature enables independent analysis and critique of its content

There is some overlap of each of these features with other media, but no other medium combines all these characteristics, or is as powerful as text with respect to these characteristics.

Text can come in many formats, including printed textbooks, text messages, novels, magazines, newspapers, scribbled notes, journal articles, essays, novels, online asynchronous discussions and so on. I want to focus particularly on the role of the book, because of its centrality in academic learning.

The book and knowledge

Earlier (Chapter 2, Section 2.4,) I argued that academic knowledge is a specific form of knowledge that has characteristics that differentiate it from other kinds of knowledge, and particularly from knowledge or beliefs based solely on direct personal experience. Academic knowledge is a second-order form of knowledge that seeks abstractions and generalizations based on reasoning and evidence.

Fundamental components of academic knowledge are:

  • codification: knowledge can be consistently represented in some form (words, symbols, video)
  • transparency: the source of the knowledge can be traced and verified
  • reproduction: knowledge can be reproduced or have multiple copies
  • communicability: knowledge must be in a form such that it can be communicated and challenged by others.

The book has proved to be a remarkably powerful medium for the development and transmission of academic knowledge, since it meets all four criteria above, but to what extent can new media such as blogs, wikis, multimedia, and social media replace the book in academic knowledge? New media can in fact handle just as well some of these criteria, and provide indeed added value, such as speed of reproduction and ubiquity, but the book still has some unique qualities. A key advantage of a book is that it allows for the development of a sustained, coherent, and comprehensive argument with evidence to support the argument. Blogs can do this only to a limited extent (otherwise they cease to be blogs and become articles or a digital book).

Quantity is important sometimes and books allow for the collection of a great deal of evidence and supporting argument, and allow for a wider exploration of an issue or theme, within a relatively condensed and portable format. A consistent and well supported argument, with evidence, alternative explanations or even counter positions, requires the extra ‘space’ of a book. Above all, books can provide coherence or a sustained, particular position or approach to a problem or issue, a necessary balance to the chaos and confusion of the many new forms of digital media that constantly compete for our attention, but in much smaller ‘chunks’ that are overall more difficult to integrate and digest.

Another important academic feature of text is that it can be carefully scrutinised, analysed and constantly checked, partly because it is largely linear, and also permanent once published, enabling more rigorous challenge or testing in terms of evidence, rationality, and consistency. Multimedia in recorded format can come close to meeting these criteria, but text can also provide more convenience and in media terms, more simplicity. For instance I repeatedly find analysing video, which incorporates many variables and symbol systems, more complex than analysing a linear text, even if both contain equally rigorous (or equally sloppy) arguments.

Form and function

Does the form or technological representation of a book matter any more? Is a book still a book if downloaded and read on an iPad or Kindle, rather than as printed text?

For the purposes of knowledge acquisition, it probably isn’t any different. Indeed, for study purposes, a digital version is probably more convenient because carrying an iPad around with maybe hundreds of books downloaded on it is certainly preferable to carrying around the printed versions of the same books. There are still complaints by students about the difficulties of annotating e-books, but this will almost certainly become a standard feature available for e-books in the future.

If the whole book is downloaded, then the function of a book doesn’t change much just because it is available digitally. However, there are some subtle changes. Some would argue that scanning is still easier with a printed version. Have you ever had the difficulty of finding a particular quotation in a digital book compared with the printed version? Sure, you can use the search facility, but that means knowing exactly the correct words or the name of the person being quoted. With a printed book, I can often find a quotation just by flicking the pages, because I am using context and rapid eye scanning to locate the source, even when I don’t know exactly what I am looking for. On the other hand, searching when you do know what you are looking for (e.g. a reference by a particular author) is much easier digitally.

The other thing that happens when books are digitally available is that often, users can download only the selected chapters that are of interest to them. This is valuable if you know just what you want, but there are also dangers. For instance in my book on the strategic management of technology, the last chapter summarizes the rest of the book. If the book had been digital, the temptation then would be to just download the final chapter. You’d have all the important messages in the book, right? Well, no. What you would be missing is the evidence for the conclusions. Now the book on strategic management is based on case studies, so it would be really important to check back with how the case studies were interpreted to get to the conclusions, as this will affect the confidence you would have as a reader in the conclusions that were drawn. If just the digital version of only the last chapter is downloaded, you also lose the context of the whole book. Having the whole book gives readers more freedom to interpret and add their own conclusions than just having a summary chapter.

In conclusion, then, there are advantages and disadvantages of digitizing a book, but the essence of a book is not greatly changed when it becomes digital rather than printed.

A new niche for books in academia

We have seen historically that new media often do not entirely replace an older medium, but the old medium finds a new ‘niche’. Thus television did not lead to the complete demise of radio. Similarly, I suspect that there will be a continued role for the book in academic knowledge, enabling the book (whether digital or printed) to thrive alongside new media and formats in academia.

However, books that retain their value academically will likely need to be much more specific in their format and their purpose than has been the case to date. For instance, I see the end of books consisting mainly of a collection of loosely connected but semi-independent chapters from different authors, unless there is a strong cohesion and edited presence that provides an integrated argument or consistent set of data across all the chapters. Most of all, books may need to change some of their features, to allow for more interaction and input from readers, and more links to the outside world. It is much more unlikely though that books will survive in a printed format, because digital publication allows for many more features to be added, reduces the environmental footprint, and is much more portable and transferable.

Lastly, this is not an argument for ignoring the academic benefits of new media. The value of graphics, video and animation for representing knowledge, the ability to interact asynchronously with other learners, and the value of social networks, are all under-exploited in academia. But text and books are still important.

For another perspective on this, see Clive Shepherd’s blog: Weighing up the benefits of traditional book publishing

Text and other forms of knowledge

I have focused particularly on text and academic knowledge, because of the traditional importance of text and printed knowledge in academia. The unique pedagogical characteristics of text though may be less for other forms of knowledge. Indeed, multimedia may have many more advantages in vocational and technical education, as we shall see.

In the k-12 or school sector, text and print are likely to remain important, because reading and writing are likely to remain important – perhaps even more important – in a digital age, so the study of text (digital and printed) will remain important if only for developing literacy skills.

More evidence, please

Although there has been extensive research on the pedagogical features of other media such as audio, video and computing, text has generally been treated as the default mode, the base against which other media are compared. As a result print in particular is largely taken for granted in academia. We are now though at the stage where we need to pay much more attention to the unique characteristics of text in its various formats, in relation to other media. Until though we have more empirical studies on the unique characteristics of text and print, it would be unwise to reject the value of text for academic learning.

Feedback

I am so unsure about this section I am tempted to publish it as ‘Still under construction.’ Ideally, I’d like to link this section to a better source, as I feel it is so inadequate. So if you are in a position to offer any help or suggestions, I will be extremely grateful, as will readers of the book.

Up next

The unique pedagogical characteristics of audio.

Identifying the unique educational characteristics of a medium for online learning

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Writing can sometimes be painfully slow. I’m trying to get to the unique characteristics of different media for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age, but there are concepts to be discussed first, and this is not a topic on which there is a great deal of agreement. So here’s my introduction to the topic

Figure 9. Is slow motion a unique characteristic of video? Image: Poring mercury into liquid nitrogen: University of Nottingham Image:

Figure 9. Is slow motion a unique characteristic of video?
Image: Pouring mercury into liquid nitrogen: University of Nottingham
Click on image to see video

Identifying the unique educational characteristics of a medium

Most teachers and instructors would put the effectiveness of a medium for teaching and learning as the first criterion. If the technology is not educationally effective, why would you use it? However, if a student cannot access or use a technology, there will be no learning from that technology, no matter how it is designed. Furthermore, motivated teachers will overcome weaknesses in a particular technology, or conversely teachers inexperienced in using media will often under-exploit the potential of a technology. Design decisions are critical in influencing the effectiveness of a particular technology. Thus well-designed lectures will teach better than a poorly designed online course, and vice versa. Similarly, students will respond differently to different technologies due to preferred learning styles or differences in motivation. Students who work hard can overcome poor use of learning technologies.

It is not surprising then that with so many variables involved, teaching and learning is a difficult discriminator for selecting and using technologies. Access (and ease of use) are stronger discriminators than teaching effectiveness in selecting media. Nevertheless, different media have different potential or ‘affordances’ for different types of learning. One of the arts of teaching is often finding the best match between media and learning objectives. We explore this relationship in this section, but first, a little theory, based on a substantial amount of excellent past research on this topic (see, for instance, Trenaman, 1967; Olson and Bruner, 1974; Schramm, 1977; Salomon, 1979, 1981; Clark, 1983; Bates, 1985; Koumi, 2006; Berk, 2009; Mayer, 2009).

Embedded within any decision about the use of technology in education and training will be assumptions about the learning process. We have already seen earlier in this book how different epistemological positions and theories of learning affect the design of teaching, and these influences will also determine a teacher’s or an instructor’s choice of appropriate media.

There are four critical questions that need to be asked about teaching and learning in order to select and use appropriate media/technologies:

  • what are the desired learning outcomes from the teaching?
  • what instructional strategies will be employed to facilitate the learning outcomes?
  • what are the unique educational characteristics of each medium/technology, and how well do these match the learning and teaching requirements?
  • what resources are available?

These are not questions best asked sequentially, but in a cyclical manner, as media affordances may suggest alternative instructional strategies or even the possibility of learning outcomes that had not been initially considered (see Figure 9.6 below)

Figure 9. The four steps for media selection

Figure 9. The four steps for media selection

9.5.2 Content and skills

When preparing for decisions about technology use, it is useful to make a distinction between content and skills. Olson and Bruner (1974) argue that learning involves two distinct aspects: acquiring knowledge of facts, principles, ideas, concepts, events, relationships, rules and laws; and using or working on that knowledge to develop skills. Again, this is not necessarily a sequential process. Identifying skills then working back to identify the concepts and principles needed to underpin the skills may be another valid way of working. In reality, learning content and skills development will often be integrated in any learning process.

9.5.2.1 The representation of content

Media differ in the extent to which they can represent different kinds of content, because they vary in the symbol systems (text, sound, still pictures, moving images, etc.) that they use to encode information (Salomon, 1979). Different media are capable of combining different symbol systems. Books can represent content through text and still pictures, but not through sound or moving pictures. In this respect, computers in the past have been similar to books, although now they can also incorporate sound and moving pictures (i.e. multimedia). Television and film in the past have been the richest media symbolically. They were the only media which could encompass text, still and moving pictures, natural language, natural movement, music and other sounds, and full colour. Computer-based technology now surpasses television, film and video in this respect, because not only can computer-based technologies such as the Internet represent the same rich media as television, film and video, it can also include animation and simulation, virtual worlds and computerized control of learning.

Differences between media in the way they combine symbol systems influence the way in which different media represent content. Thus there is a difference between a direct experience, a written description, a televised recording, and a computer simulation of the same scientific experiment. Different symbol systems are being used, conveying different kinds of information about the same experiment. For instance, our concept of heat can be derived from touch, mathematical symbols (800 celsius), words (random movement of particles), animation, or observance of experiments. Our ‘knowledge’ of heat is as a result not static, but developmental. A large part of learning requires the mental integration of content acquired through different media and symbol systems. For this reason, deeper understanding of a concept or an idea is often the result of the integration of content derived from a variety of sources (Mayer, 2009).

Media also differ in their ability to handle concrete or abstract knowledge. Abstract knowledge is handled primarily through language. While all media can handle language, either in written or spoken form, media vary in their ability to represent concrete knowledge. For instance, television can show concrete examples of abstract concepts, the video showing the concrete ‘event’, and the sound track analyzing the event in abstract terms. Well-designed media can help learners move from the concrete to the abstract and back again, once more leading to deeper understanding.

9.5.2.2 Content structure

Media also differ in the way they structure content. Books, the telephone, radio, podcasts and face-to-face teaching all tend to present content linearly or sequentially. While parallel activities can be represented through these media (for example, different chapters dealing with different events occurring simultaneously) these activities still have to be presented sequentially through these media. Computers and television are more able to present or simulate the inter-relationship of multiple variables simultaneously occurring. Computers can also handle branching or alternative routes through information, but usually within closely defined limits.

Subject matter varies a great deal in the way in which information needs to be structured. Subject areas (for example, natural sciences, history) structure content in particular ways determined by the internal logic of the subject matter. This structure may be very tight or logical, requiring particular sequences or relationships between different concepts, or very open or loose, requiring learners to deal with highly complex material in an open-ended or intuitive way.

If media then vary both in the way they present information symbolically and in the way they handle the structures required within different subject areas, media which best match the required mode of presentation and the dominant structure of the subject matter need to be selected. Consequently, different subject areas will require a different balance of media. This means that subject experts should be deeply involved in decisions about the choice and use of media, to ensure that the chosen media appropriately match the presentational and structural requirements of the subject matter.

 9.5.2.3 The development of skills

Media also differ in the extent to which they can help develop different skills. Skills can range from intellectual to psychomotor to affective (emotions, feelings). Koumi (2015) has used Krathwohl’s (2002) revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Objectives (1956) to assign affordances of text and video to learning objectives using Krathwold’s classification of learning objectives.

Comprehension is likely to be the minimal level of intellectual learning outcome for most education courses. Some researchers (for example, Marton and Säljö, 1976) make a distinction between surface and deep comprehension. At the highest level of skills comes the application of what one has comprehended to new situations. Here it becomes necessary to develop skills of analysis, evaluation, and problem solving.

Thus a first step is to identify learning objectives or outcomes, while being aware that the use of some media may result in new possibilities in terms of learning outcomes.

9.5.3 Pedagogical affordances – or unique media characteristics?

‘Affordances’ is a term originally developed by the psychologist James Gibson (1977) to describe the perceived possibilities of an object in relation to its environment (e.g. a door knob suggests to a user that it should be turned or pulled, while a flat plate on a door suggests that it should be pushed.). The term has been appropriated by a number of fields, including instructional design and human-machine interaction.

Thus the pedagogical affordances of a medium relate to the possibilities of using that medium for specific teaching purposes. It should be noted that an affordance depends on the subjective interpretation of the user (in this case a teacher or instructor), and it is often possible to use a medium in ways that are not unique to that medium. For instance video can be used for recording and delivering a lecture. In that sense there is a similarity in at least one affordance for a lecture and a video. Also students may choose not to use a medium in the way intended by the instructor. For instance, Bates and Gallagher (1977) found that some social science students objected to documentary-style television programs requiring application of knowledge or analysis rather than presentation of concepts.

Others (such as myself) have used the term ‘unique characteristics’ of a medium rather than affordances, since ‘unique characteristics’ suggest that there are particular uses of a medium that are less easily replicated by other media, and hence act as a better discriminator in selecting and using media. For instance, using video to demonstrate in slow motion a mechanical process is much more difficult (but not impossible) to replicate in other media. In what follows, my focus is more on unique or particular rather than general affordances of each medium, although the subjective and flexible nature of media interpretation makes it difficult to come to any hard and fast conclusions.

I will now attempt in the next sections to identify some of the unique pedagogical characteristics of the following media:

  • text
  • audio
  • video
  • computing
  • social media
  • face-to-face teaching

Feedback

I’ve always found media selection a difficult topic. It should be relatively simple to say that text is better for this and audio is better for that, but in practice it’s much more complicated. There is so much overlap and so many other factors that can influence the value of a particular media application other than the ‘pure’ educational affordances.

I struggled particularly with the concept of pedagogical affordances of media. It’s the term that is now commonly used, but it doesn’t work for me as a differentiator of media, for the reasons I put in the extract.

At the same time, it seems to me that there are important differences between media, and that these are as much to do with the nature of knowledge as they are to do with teaching effectiveness. In other words, there are many different ways of knowing something, and there isn’t necessarily one right way. So if I understand what happens when mercury is added to liquid nitrogen from watching a slow motion video, but don’t understand the chemical equations behind it, what is the nature of what I know? This just strengthens my belief that knowledge is dynamic, not static, and multiple ways to present knowledge is necessary for true understanding. And that academic knowledge is somehow different, and this impacts on what media are ‘valid’ in teaching.

But what are your views on this?

In particular, am I going down a very long and dark alley leading to nowhere in this chapter?

References

Bates, A. (1985) Broadcasting in Education: An Evaluation London: Constables

Bates, A. and Gallagher, M. (1977) Improving the Effectiveness of Open University Television Case-Studies and Documentaries Milton Keynes: The Open University (I.E.T. Papers on Broadcasting, No. 77)

Berk, R.A. (2009) Multimedia teaching with video clips: TV, movies, YouTube and mtvU in the college classroom, International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, Vol. 91, No. 5

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Clark, R. (1983) Reconsidering research on learning from media Review of Educational Research, Vol. 53. No. 4

Gibson, J.J.  (1979) The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception Boston: Houghton Mifflin

Koumi, J. (2006) Designing video and multimedia for open and flexible learning. London: Routledge.

Koumi, J. (2015) Learning outcomes afforded by self-assessed, segmented video-print combinations Academia.edu (unpublished to date)

Krathwohl, D.R. (2002) A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy: An Overview. In Theory into Practice, Vol. 41, No. 4  College of Education, The Ohio State University. Retrieved from http://www.unco.edu/cetl/sir/stating_outcome/documents/Krathwohl.pdf

Marton, F. and Säljö, R. (1997) Approaches to learning, in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The experience of learning: Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press (out of press, but available online)

Mayer, R. E. (2009) Multimedia learning (2nd ed). New York: Cambridge University Press

Olson, D. and Bruner, J. (1974) ‘Learning through experience and learning through media’, in Olson, D. (ed.) Media and Symbols: the Forms of Expression Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Salomon, G. (1979) Interaction of Media, Cognition and Learning San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

Salomon, G. (1981) Communication and Education Beverley Hills CA/London: Sage

Schramm, W. (1977) Big Media, Little Media Beverley Hills CA/London: Sage

Trenaman, J. (1967) Communication and Comprehension London: Longmans