FAQ: Is EdTech changing the way we learn?

This might be somewhat controversial, but I suggest that the answer is probably no.

There are a few levels of analysis available here.

On the one hand we can look at learning as an activity and talk about what people do and how they approach learning; on the other hand, we can look at learning as a cognitive process and talk about how learning occurs in the brain.

Because we don’t know very much about the latter, we tend to look at the former. Unfortunately, the former is often a bad measure of what is good for learning, it tends to describe people’s preferences rather than the effectiveness of those preferences. So that gives us two questions:

Question 1: Is EdTech changing the way people approach learning?

Superficially yes, but more accurately, no. And where yes, not necessarily for the better. Allow me to explain…

When we see EdTech in practice, it looks as though learning approaches have changed massively. We see learners looking at laptops instead of textbooks; we see learners learning outside of the classroom; we see learners enjoying themselves.

In most cases, though, the underlying activities are much the same. Instead of watching the teacher give a lecture at the front of the classroom, learners are watching a video lecture; instead of completing worksheets and quizzes on paper in the classroom, their completing quizzes on their digital devices at home; instead of finding learning boring and arduous, they are enjoying playing games but not necessarily enjoying learning.

That last point brings me to my suggestion that where learning has changed, it might not be for the better…

“Gamification” is a very popular concept within education at the moment. This follows its popularity in the business world. But as I suggested at the top, “popular” doesn’t necessarily mean “effective”.

In business, “gamification” was introduced as a way to increase productivity. By turning tasks and duties into games and competitions, we found that employees achieved more because they found it enjoyable. They were motivated to make more widgets if they scored points for each one, for example.

This concept was then coopted by the education world, but doing so was a mistake, in my opinion. The problem is that “productivity” is not the same as “learning”. In school, “productivity” translates more readily to “grades”. So what was being increased in education by using gamification was not learning. We can see students getting higher grades, but not because they are learning more; instead, they are getting better at “winning the game” of school. They are finding techniques for increasing their scores without actually learning more, and the teachers are helping them do so.

This might seem like a very negative answer, but please note that it is really only that last point about gamification that is actually negative. The points before it are simply neutral. What looks like change is not really change.

Can EdTech cause meaningful, positive change in education?

I believe it can. Areas to focus on would be increasing learner autonomy and flexibility through the use of EdTech, increasing differentiation and personalisation in education, increasing application of learning and connection to real-world scenarios and providing greater opportunities for meaningful feedback from teachers.

Question 2: Is EdTech changing the way learning occurs in the brain?

There is a lot we don’t yet know about this, but probably not.

Learning as a cognitive process is still not very well understood, but what we can say is that it is a process of physical changes within the brain as neural pathways are constructed and strengthened. This involves steps like decoding, storing, and recalling information.

Moving to digital media and EdTech is not likely to change this fundamental concept. It just changes the platform on which it occurs.

Potentially, the increase of digital media in our environment is changing the way we consume information: we are more easily distracted, we have shorter attention spans, we are overwhelmed with more information but not very good at assessing it for quality, all of which means that we might see more but learn less and end up learning ‘bad’ information along the way.

On the other side of that coin, we can say that greater access to media and information means that there is actually less need to spend our learning efforts on knowledge storage, and instead we can spend more time on developing skills. The knowledge doesn’t need to be stored in our brains if anybody can call it up online with a few seconds and a good search engine. So we should instead focus on developing ways of using that information effectively.

Unfortunately, this is one way that mainstream education has proven very slow to adapt. Even though the accessible, collective information database (the internet) grows gigabytes by the hour, schools are still focused on getting students to memorise as much information as they can before they graduate.

In short…

Has EdTech changed the way we approach learning? Probably not, or else not in good ways.

Could it change the way we approach learning for the better? Absolutely, but it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon.

Has EdTech changed the way our brains process learning? Probably not, though the digital media explosion may have made us less efficient learners, but that’s not necessarily as terrible as it sounds.

This question was first asked on Quora.

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