Frontier technology and learning

Frontier technology and learning

Colleges that have been experimenting with iPads and other tablet devices as a substitute for textbooks haven’t experienced the immediate success many e-learning advocates predicted. That slow start shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise—integrating frontier technology into education typically is an evolutionary (not revolutionary) process.
Mary Beth Marklein of USA Today recently noted that the trendy portable feature-laden computers have a “bumpy track record” in higher education (“Can college students learn as well on iPads, e-books?”). Princeton and George Washington University found that iPad usage triggered network issues; Reed College students struggled to adapt to reading on the Kindle, finding it cumbersome to navigate. One intriguing finding from preliminary usability studies: students reporting that they needed to disconnect from the Web and other distractions before studying and liked that traditional textbooks lacked the built-in temptations (e-mail, chat, Facebook, Twitter, etc.) of a tablet.
Despite these initial issues (and what innovation doesn’t face challenges?), numerous institutions of higher education are moving ahead with digital books and the new devices. With e-textbooks often half the price of hard copies, the economic rationale for this shift is clear. Publishers are also touting the ability to update the texts on the fly. There’s a corresponding move toward the digital in the book market at large: Amazon sold more e-books than hardcovers in July and its CEO, Jeff Bezos, predicted that digital Kindle sales will surpass paperback sales sometime in the next nine to 12 months.
Over time the shakedown problems will be addressed and mastered. While some, like tech contrarian Nick Carr, have raised concerns about the negative impact of the Internet on attention spans and comprehension, there are effective ways to deal with the challenges of fragmented and fractured learning.
In adapting to this new environment, educators will need to balance quick-hitting apps and long-form reading (yes, texts will remain a vital part of learning!), and meld learner-directed exploration with sequenced and structured forms of instruction. Many teachers will discover that they need to guide students in dealing with the distractions and recognizing the potential cognitive toll of incessant multi-tasking. (They will be helped in crafting curriculum by emerging research about the way the brain processes information.) The second or third wave of e-learning will move beyond the flashy whizz-bang and focus on applying technology, where appropriate, to the key elements of learning.
Imagine a portfolio learning approach, where online, blended, and classroom instruction are aligned with the student’s needs, or virtual tutors (backed by artificial intelligence) able to respond and adapt to learners. Or, for that matter, immersive learning experiences yet to be designed that tightly fuse knowledge and skills. All of this is possible, and more.
Those involved in educational research and development should, I would suggest, recognize that this exciting frontier technology represents a means to an end, not an end in itself–that end, after all, is sparking the imagination of learners and making education more effective.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders