If technology-enhanced learning’s capabilities are carefully designed, it can help teachers foster active independent learning in several ways:
Active learning: multimodal technologies (pictures, videos, sounds, animations, text) help teachers explain concepts and rehearse skills in engaging ways. They can also set inquiry learning activities that students work through at their own pace as, for example, in Stanford University’s Star Legacy.
Independent social learning: online technologies allow students to support each other in teacher-structured discussions as, for example, in the Interloc games that promote dialogue and debate.
Adaptive, personalised learning: simulation and modelling environments mean teachers can give students intensive practice on intellectual or skill-oriented challenges. Feedback is meaningful, changing in response to how well – or not – the student is progressing. Such personalised feedback encourages them to spend more of their own time practising – making the exercise even more worthwhile.
The value of this approach has been shown by hapTEL, one of the eight Technology Enhanced Learning research programme projects. Dental students are trained on virtual jaws equipped with haptic or sense-of-touch technology. They can feel exactly what it is like to drill in to a tooth and the system gives them instant feedback on how much decay they have removed. With an inexhaustible supply of virtual teeth, they have endless opportunities to practice.
Collaborative learning: user-generated content tools (digital documents, virtual 3D environments, videos, spreadsheets) and online discussion forums allow teachers to devise activities in which students can work and learn together. Students submit the final product, whether it is a shared understanding or a polished skill, to their peers for constructive comment and then on to their teacher for formative feedback.
Technology-enhanced learning makes it possible for teachers to promote learning without being physically or even virtually present. Instead of teaching through lectures, class presentations and tutorials, teachers
can use multimodal web resources, simulations and online peer support. This maintains, or even improves the quality of learning experience. It can also make teachers more productive as some variable-cost activities (linked to student numbers) switch to fixed-cost (technology enhanced learning) activities. With fewer variable-cost activities student numbers can increase without a corresponding increase in teacher time.
It’s expensive to develop technology-enhanced learning resources and activities, so for low student numbers the per-student cost is high. As numbers increase technology-enhanced learning becomes much more cost efficient.
For example, a teacher might currently spend three hours preparing materials for six two-hour tutorials during which she will teach a total of 24 students. By contrast, the same teacher could spend eight hours preparing web resources for 48 students to work online in independent groups, and then 15 minutes with each group helping them sum up what they have learnt. The conventional approach has taken 15 hours of her time for 24 students. The technology-enhanced learning approach has taken 11 hours and helped 48 students.
Peer support is crucial here, and the key to success is the online activity. If it is well designed, it can promote active, as well as independent and collaborative, learning while preserving the all-important teacher feedback. We know that ‘collaborative learning’ activities are hard to get right, and teachers need help
designing them. Perhaps technology enhanced learning has a role here too?
Teachers already help each other by sharing resources and lesson plans, or learning designs – distillations of the best of teaching practice. Technology-enhanced learning can make sharing more efficient. At university level, the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement has already funded collections of online learning resources, such as MERLOT, Jorum, OpenLearn and the MIT open courseware initiative.
Teachers could draw on existing learning technology resources to save substantial amounts of time, but we need to understand the different metrics of teacher time: it may take 100 hours (for a teacher and technical assistant) to create a good animation resource; how many hours does it take another teacher to find it, evaluate its relevance, and weave it into their teaching approach? Five? Ten? It will vary, of course. And what is the best way of weaving the animation into their teaching? Tried and tested exemplars would help.
This is why teachers need to share the learning designs they have found to work, for example, to help students collaborate on a summary of what they have learned from the animation resource identified by their teacher.
Teachers, like all professionals, need technology to help them become more productive. They are design professionals, working out every day how best to help their learners achieve their aims, and revising their methods on the basis of what happens in practice. They need design tools to capture their pedagogic ideas,
test them out, and rework them, building on what others have done before and sharing their results with their community.
The Learning Designer is a tool to help teachers with the difficult task of working together to improve learning. A TEL programme research project, it gives them a way of expressing their best ideas, using formal categories, such as learning outcome, teaching-learning activity, learning experience, duration, group size, and so on.