What can be done to ensure that technology truly improves learning outcomes

One of the biggest problem facing education technology today is the way in which existing learning materials are translated onto new technology platforms, without real consideration for the “baggage” technology brings along.

Technology brings a lot of extra baggage

Let’s take the example of the humble text book – we’ve modernised this learning delivery mechanism, translated it into well-indexed, searchable, ebooks. We can annotate, cross reference and access their content within ways we never would have thought possible.

Ultimately this translated ebook still contain the same content as it’s paper cousin, the same pages and chapters, constructed with the same prose. This is a legitimate approach for some subject topics, where the content itself regardless of format is the focus – I wouldn’t want the eBook version of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species to be different from the hardback copy. Those already struggling to learn from a textbook, eBooks as a learning mechanism aren’t going to suddenly enlighten the learner past this initial novelty.

This same problem occurs with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), the tried-and-tested course of lectures and seminars translated into videos and assignments coupled with forums to drive discussion. In theory this sounds great, take a world class course at roughly your own pace, and substitute seminars with peer driven online web forums.

So why do MOOCs suffer from abysmal drop-off rates? Numerous studies across popular and well-trusted platforms like edX and Coursera have shown many 9-12 week courses have a  completion rate under 10%, in many cases over 80% never get past the first lecture. Underlying problems vary from a lack of motivation or time, to support issues, and bad experiences with their online peers, many don’t even intend to complete the course.

These examples illustrate the change in the delivery mechanism – the affordance and flexibility inherently offered by the new technology platforms like tablets and mobile devices. It start to become clear that the radical shift in total ownership of your educational goals comes with some extra baggage in the form of self-motivation, engagement and a sense of accomplishment.

Don’t forget the learning environment

Returning to our original question, we can begin to understand the problems education technology faces; many of today’s ed-tech solutions are designed around fewer teacher interventions, and more autonomous self-learning. Ed-tech struggles when these issues are not addressed, unlike in real-world learning environments.

One of the first steps to delivering better learning outcomes with technology is to tackle the learning problem from the ground-up, and realise that one size über solutions will not fit all. This means creating learning solutions that harmoniously deliver quality content which is not only engaging in itself, that has been designed to fit a carefully structured learning framework, that  accommodates for motivational issues, and other external forces to which the learner is exposed. Seems like a lot to ask, but only when we begin to factor in these elements will we begin to see an improvement in learning outcomes.

The great learning experience

Ultimately we’re looking at creating great learning experiences, experiences that delight and draw upon known pedagogical insights, consider the context of usage, and realise that the content itself needs to be modified and adapted to accommodate these myriad of factors. Much can be learnt from the video games industry, they have been dealing with these issues for many years albeit with fun being their primary outcome.

We must also accept that there is new ground to be broken, the technology and environment both socially, and physical is radically different from decades past. The learning frameworks need to begin to factor in these elements, and leverage the existing learned behaviours for these technology platforms to truly exploit ways to maximise learning outcomes.

The ed-tech mix: pedagogy, technology platform, engagement and motivation.

We are beginning to see that next wave of ed-tech that begins to embrace these factors wholeheartedly, products like Duolingo – have turned language learning on their head to make it an addictive and fun game-like experience. Kahoot have infused play into game-like activities that learners can play and use collaboratively.

Only when we begin to look head-on at the learning problem, deal with our technology baggage and accommodate for the learning context will we be able to truly build inspiring technology driven learning experiences – that will leave learners wanting more.