H809: Week 3

March 2009

Two themes seemed to keep coming up this week in H809: how approaches to research in educational technology have changed over time and the problem of context-dependence in such research.

Our first reading was Laurillard, D. (1994) ‘How can learning technologies improve learning?’, Law Technology Journal, vol. 3, no. 2. This argued that the question 'How does technology X improve learning?' is not a useful one to ask because it has been asked countless times before, and with exactly the same findings each time. These being that: everybody is enthusiastic about the technology, there isn't really any difference in learning outcomes, there were technical or logistical difficulties that meant the technology did not reach its potential, senior management support helps, integration with assessment makes a difference, and there was clear potential for the technology to improve learning. I do wonder if whether when a technology has reached a point where the technology and organisational issues have been resolved, it isn't regarded as interesting to research any longer  because it is taken for granted. For instance, I wonder how much research happens on the use of e-mail or static websites in education these days?

The paper went on to talk about how research that looks at the impact of context is more interesting. One of several examples given was about introducing a simulation. A 'functional' task description led to instrumental descriptions of the situation, whereas a 'structural' task description elicited 'real-world' description. Following more examples like this, there was a summary of the general findings about what can improve the use of computer based learning material (remember this is 1994) within the remit of the typical lecturerer. These were things along the lines of 'check whether pre-requisitive knowledge and skills are cover' and 'Review the material to decide on additional support necessary'. The paper ended with a call to action that to make improvements beyond these is going to require change beyond that possible at the grassroots level.

I certainly agree with the general stance in the paper. Last week in the forums, I wrote this about the Hiltz and Meinke paper: 'It's probably not a great analogy, but if you treat what's happening with learning and teaching as a black box, this paper seems to be putting in one set of variables and looking at some that come out the other end, which tells us so little about what the black box is doing. I think trying to break open the box is a better way to figure out what it does'. One of the things that possibly slows progress in educational research is a lack of strong tradition in people trying to falsify existing findings. This might be because confirmatory research doesn't tend to get published so it is risky to try, or because very understandably nobody wants to try things that could lead to people learning less well.

The course notes asked an interesting question about what we should make of the use of the word 'improve' in the title of the paper. I think almost everybody who works in this area does so because of some underlying desire to improve learning rather than just because they are trying to understand human nature better and maybe that biases us all as researchers - we hope our interventions work! However, I also can't help wondering if the word 'improve' implies if there is some implication that the quality of learning can be objectively measured.

The second reading was the chapter Oliver, M., Roberts, G., Beetham, H., Ingraham, B. and Dyke, M. (2007) ‘Knowledge, society and perspectives on learning technology’ in Conole, G. and Oliver, M. (eds) Contemporary Perspectives on E-learning Research, London, RoutledgeFalmer. This is an introductory chapter to a book giving an account of various theoretical perspectives, contrasting 'out-there' epistemologies such as positivism with those of 'in-here' like constructivism. This included a discussion of how views of knowledge have changed over time, critical theory gets a mention as does 'communatarianism' - the use of education to make more people like you, that is, to build a tribe. One interesting point was the fact that there is evidence that the purported approach of teachers may not correspond to their actual behaviour.

The chapter took us through Helen Beethams' four kinds of learning theories: associative, cognitive constructivist, social constructivist and situativist, Lyotard's 'grand narratives' vs. 'petits recits' (it is easy to come up with a theory that excludes anything that falls outside its explanatory power) and the 'paradigm debate' of qualitative vs. quantitative methods. The difference between method and methodology was explained and the importance of stating one's methodology asserted. Moving onto e-learning, the importance of context was pointed out, with the example of a set of students who 'faked' an online discussion to ensure they got good marks. The book itself takes the approach of having 'two textual elements: a central narrative of each chapter, and call-out boxes positioned alongside the text that offer differerent (often dissenting) perspectives on what is being discussed'.

One part of the chapter that I especially enjoyed was the fictional case describing the circumstances of a new sociology lecture and the course he had inherited, looking at various approaches in turn and for each of those describing what sort of research the lecturer might do that would fit with that approach. The perspectives covered were those of action research, behaviourism, activity theory and a socio-cultural theories of power. I definitely found it helpful to have concrete examples of what the different approaches might entail.

As well as the reading this week we were asked to discuss how one might categorise shifts in educational technology over time and to look at the papers from last week and how they were cited and what their impact was. The final activity was to listen to and comment on a podcast containing a conversation between James Aczel, Grainne Conole and Peter Twining. Various topics were touched upon: the gap between rhetoric and reality, frameworks and the confusion over terminology, the adaption of technology to current practices rather than technology changing practice, and the fact that theoretical stances and the problems with the adoption of technology haven't fundamentally changed.

I must admit as a relative newcomer to this area, I have found it a much harder an area to navigate than I did mathematics or cryptography. I think this is possibly partly the fact that it's a very young discipline, and although the fact that it is an interdisciplinary field is part of what makes it such a fun place to be, it also comes with difficulties. I suspect the dominance of constructivist paradigms might also bear on research- is there perhaps an ongoing reluctance to try to say 'here is what we know so far' because of a feeling that we don't know anything for certain? I know that educational research has a bad rep with a lot of people who actually teach at universities for its lack of relevance and obscurity. Stuart Lee gave a very eloquent explanation of this in his keynote at last year's CETIS conference in fact. Much research isn't going to be relevant to individual lecturers for good reasons but if none of it is and if nobody is communicating it effectively, then something is going wrong I think.