No need to take notes—they'll be on the website [3]

Technology and the culture of
learning and teaching

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New Technology and Learning

Remember this is from 2001

Everyone tells us that the new technologies, particularly those based on the internet, are likely to revolutionise learning and teaching, although so far—like the much vaunted e-commerce and the .com revolution—there is not that much evidence of the change. Let's use the approach of the earlier part of the paper to see what the impact may be.

Demands on learners

LearnDirect is setting out to offer lifelong learning programmes via the new technologies. Part of its mission is to increase access, and to make use of the flexibility of web-based learning to make courses available to learners on demand, wherever they may be.

There are of course, only a limited range of subjects which can be delivered purely through multimedia and web-based text, however "interactive" it is supposed to be. Learning to get the right consistency of frying batter is not easy over the net. You learn how to handle a torque wrench by handling it (even when it has a digital readout), and a theoretical understanding of soldering only goes so far. I have serious reservations about resource-based learning (RBL) approaches to teaching counselling, and driving schools still need real cars and real traffic — the theory test notwithstanding

But beyond this is the problem of the skills which people need to study with, in the first place. In the face-to-face (or "f2f") classroom, coming back to study can be difficult enough, but if you make mistakes in how you study, it does not usually block you from learning altogether. Tutors and fellow- students can usually give you a hand concurrently with learning the subject. In the brave new world of RBL, however, if you can't access the net, you can't even start. On an RBL-based Master's module I teach on, some students started up to three weeks late because of difficulties installing the conferencing software. So you need a new form of literacy before you start.

You also need to be able to manage your time. You need to find slots in a busy schedule, with many competing commitments, to devote to study. You have the superficial freedom of deciding when it will be: but the artificial constraint of having to be in a classroom between certain hours may paradoxically be easier to manage.

You need to be sufficiently motivated to work on your own. In school, the peer group can be a distraction and undermine the work: in adult learning it is more likely to be a support. Explanations of stuff you don't understand from your classmates has a different quality from that from a tutor (even if it is not as reliable). Classmates help see you through bad patches, which tutors often do not know about. Many RBL packages make real efforts to incorporate tutorial support, but it is still not the same: it does not have the spontaneity and the richness of peer help.

Whose knowledge?

We saw that for the learner without books or other sources, learning means memorising. In some sense, of course, it will always mean that, even if the "memory" in question is the practised use of a tool or a musical instrument rather than the recall on demand of an item of information. But as far as that recall of information is concerned, first the availability of books, and then of information technology makes a radical difference.

Not only is there too much information for an individual actually to memorise, storage in a permanent medium (paper or CD-ROM) is infinitely more reliable: and storage on the internet has almost infinite capacity.

So learning becomes something different — it becomes about "knowing how to find out". To waste effort on memorising is inefficient and counter-productive. The sheer "knowledge" level of Bloom's taxonomy requires less attention — as long, that is, as the learner is in intimate and continual symbiosis with some kind of library. Nevertheless, if you pursue this argument it means that what you teach changes radically. Allow calculators (or even log tables or a slide-rule) into a maths lesson, for example, and you no longer have to bother with the mechanics of manually working out square roots (how many of you can remember how to do that?): you can concentrate on what you can do with square roots — but you make students more dependent on their tools.

The kind of knowledge which helps win a million pounds on a quiz programme is irrelevant. What is relevant is the capacity to find and then to evaluate the knowledge out there in the libraries — and particularly on the net. The ease with which I can set out these half-baked burblings, and publish them so that you can read them, not merely uncensored but also unedited, means that that Oakeshott's "continuing conversation across the ages" just got a lot louder. Of course you can trust what I say, but what about all the other nutters out there? Sometimes it matters — how do you evaluate the enormous range of often questionable medical information available?

One route is to follow the postmodernists such as Lyotard (it is particularly unfortunate that his name reminds one so readily of "leotard", leading to an image which it is hard to take seriously — but is nevertheless profoundly postmodern) — who, as that silly excursion is intended to illustrate, deny that there is any objective "truth". It is all an expression of a point of view... (Actually, pace the point about being wrong, this is a rather crude account of a multi-faceted phenomenon).

However, this notion sits rather uneasily with ideas of "education": on the whole we want people to learn the right stuff. The other end of the spectrum from amateurish bottom-up democratic (or even anarchic) essays like this on the web or on usenet is the use of the net for the presentation of a sophisticated resource-based learning package with multimedia bells and whistles. That is horribly expensive. Local colleges and single universities cannot afford to develop it. Its economies of scale only work if thousands of students use it — but the payback is enormous. Microsoft, Pearson and Disney are already active in the field. They can recruit world-class names to present material supported by state-of-the-art instructional technology — so all the local tutor has to do is to help the student to access it.

Note, 2009; as is so often the case with the net, on the whole this vision has not materialised. Instead, Web 2.0 (social networking) has become more significant. Meanwhile back in 2001...

The consequence of all this may be the exact opposite of the democratic vision of the net-worked world. We may be delivering more power over the way we think into the hands of the global corporations. Or not.

Lynn White Jr. could see the impact of the stirrup from a distance of six hundred years, if he got it right. The people of the day were too close to see it*, as we are to this current revolution (or ripple). But it does seem clear that the technology is not neutral: it affects our practice and our role as teachers, and perhaps even what constitutes education.

"profoundly postmodern"—Oh no it isn't! Oh, yes it is! The thing about postmodernism is that no-one can say you are wrong. See here [Back]

* See JENNINGS H (1995) Pandaemonium: the coming of the machine as seen by contemporary observers London: Papermac 

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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