Technology to Enhance Learning in 2015?

by Derek Morrison, 26 April 2010 (updated 30 April 2010)

Any views expressed in this posting are those of this author alone and should not be construed as necessarily representing those of any other individual or organisation.

I recently gave a presentation on the future uses of technology to enhance students’ learning experiences at a university workshop with the theme “Technology to Enhance Learning in 2015” (Northumbria University, 21 April 2010). Rather than leave delegates with the traditional handout or presentation files I instead referred them to a URL offering a minor variant of this posting. One key benefit of taking this approach is that the original material can be considerably enhanced by providing extended responses to the questions asked by delegates and any related interactions which follow. There’s an opportunity, therefore, to continue to add value to resources which may have been initially generated for one context and event, but which also may of wider utility or interest. The following posting, therefore, offers a synopsis of this presentation plus my extended responses to questions asked.

So what can, should, or will, we offer the digital generation by 2015?

Futurity is always a risky endeavour particularly where technology is concerned either because new left-field arrivals in the landscape completely disrupt existing business or process models or what appeared to be a sustained behaviour-changing trend fizzled away to be replaced by the next “big thing”. Alternatively, a technology which has been simmering away for many years suddenly gains traction and takes on a new social and – or – logistical importance. Consequently, when asked to give presentations such as this I find it useful first to reflect on what I have presented in the past.

Around 2004 what we then considered e-learning was relatively simple with a few challengers for, or pretenders to, the throne. The assumption being that one or others of these providers had the solution (click on image for high resolution view).

e-learning circa 2004

Around 2007, however, we realised we had considerably more to think about and some of the promising ‘actors’ from earlier years had either faded somewhat or had disappeared with new shiny bright technologies and – or – associated movements now thrust into the sunlight (click on image for high resolution view).

e-Learning 2007

So in this apparent plethora and richness of platforms, devices, tools, resources, and visions of a future world much of our earlier focus was on embedding technologies into our institutions and providing support. But what are we embedding? What are we supporting? The challenge to us all here is to ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of technologies actually becoming an innovative way of not enhancing the student learning experience but simply a powerful route for reinforcing a knowledge transfer model (click on image for high resolution view).

Knowledge Transfer Model and Technology

The following recent media-doctored photograph about the new Apple iPad may also help reinforce the point about how technologies constantly challenge our expectations of how we should do things. History is dotted with examples of what happens when we face moments of paradigm shift. Consider this agricultural example. One “hot” technology in 1919 was the Sampson Iron Horse (sic – or is it Samson Iron Horse?) which actually had reins as the steering mechanism. Why? Because that was what farmers were used to, and so by giving the new machine this Iron Horse label and providing reins as the steering control the assumption was that this would sell the concept. Suprisingly, it didn’t catch on. So a key question we need to constantly ask ourselves is whether we are still at the Sampson Iron Horse stage or are ready and able to move on. The catch-22 of course is spotting what technologies are actually Sampson Iron Horses or, alternatively, we fall into the trap of developing Sampson Iron Horse mindsets. The web offers some other useful examples of what happens when there is a mismatch between human thought and technological potential, some of them very amusing but still potentially useful teaching devices, e.g. 15th Century email or Medieval Helpdesk.

One indicator of our awareness of Sampson Iron Horse thinking has been a welcome distinct change in emphasis at both HE national and institution level from the embedding of technology to what enhancements technologies can bring to learning and teaching. It is still useful, however, to compare the two concepts while keeping in mind that a worthwhile goal should convey purpose, advantage, progression, and improvement. The focus of embedding is to “fix in a surrounding mass” or to “sink or fit firmly into a substance” whereas enhancement “heightens or intensifies” or makes “more valuable or attractive”. I suggest that while it is relatively easy to embed the various physical manifestations of learning and teaching technologies in our institutions of learning we also need to be pretty clear about:

  • what it is we are actually embedding
  • what the consequences will be
  • our policies and processes for sustaining, adapting, updating, or even reversing what we embed; else embedding may become a problem, not a solution.

I often illustrate the potential embedding v. enhancement dichotomy by repurposing a couple of perforformance art illustrations available on the web, e.g. Why did you want me to embed again? and Ok, I think it’s embedded – when can I expect to feel the benefits? (the retitling is mine).

The focus now, therefore, needs to be more than on the embedding of the ‘e’ and on to the purpose of all this investment and effort, which should, by this time, be leading to significant improvement or enhancement of the learning and teaching experience. Shouldn’t it? I suggest that the enhancement challenge can only be responded to by how we align or, more accurately, help students align or benefit from alignment. But alignment of what? I use the shorthand “Align the Design” as illustrated in my adaptation and expansion of Biggs’ model of constructive alignment below (click on image for high resolution view).

Align the Design

As you can see from the illustration above, while technological infrastructure is part of the jigsaw, enhancement is primarily a nexus of people and organisation development alignments, inputs, and outputs. Consequently, although the title of the workshop is Technology to Enhance Learning in 2015 I think it we shouldn’t get too focused on trying to predict the technological future, even over the next five years. All that we can really predict is that unforeseen things will happen and these will be vectors for issues that will need to be addressed in a coherent and effective way. Ignoring these technological developments and their associated issues, however, is not an option because that will simply increase risk. Why? Simply because technology has always been a powerful amplifier of human capacities and capabilities; for good or ill. To explore some of the ‘good’ associated with technology and learning then consider or reconsider the 2008 Exploring Tangible Benefits of e-Learning publication (ALT, HE Academy, JISC). To reflect on the ‘ill’ consider the arrival of student essay writing ‘services’ or reflect on the content of my online essay Technology Impeded Learning (TIL)? (Auricle, 29 September 2009).

But despite my desire to avoid putting on a futurist hat there are certain global shifts, foci and commentary that are worth considering and should perhaps inform our thinking and planning. Had time allowed it would have been interesting to have workshop members create their own montage but, to save some time, I offer the following montage of potential techno-influencers on the student learning experience in the next five years (click on image for high resolution view).

What's the future of 'e' montage

The intention of course is to reuse this montage in some future presentation (say 2015) and verify what has grown and what has withered. At this time, however, and based on the best sources of evidence available, the technologies with the greatest potential to impact on the student learning experience are ebooks in their various guises; although I’m personally not convinced that the proprietary format Kindle should become the de facto reference model. I’ve included a couple of ebook examples in my montage including Plastic Logic’s QUE device and the Apple iPad. The QUE has potential but is very costly, currently and is based on the grey-scale only E-Ink technology . The full colour Apple iPad as an ebook reader / media consumption device is certainly interesting and could well redefine what we mean by ‘reading’, e.g. sample the Alice for the iPad video. The eventual response of the competition to the entry of devices like the iPad is probably even more important. The potential of smartphones or other mobile internet connected devices should no longer be considered just a niche interest. Such devices are vectors for carrying and accessing a wide range rich media and information and many even make for an acceptable ebook reader in their own right. Also the modern smartphone is basically a mobile computer capable of interpreting information. For example embedded in the montage is the rather esoteric symbol below (click on image for high resolution view).

QR Code example

I’ve included the above as a bit of a wildcard on my part because, unknown to many users in the UK, many smartphones can interpret this symbol which is actually called a QR Code. Starting the smartphone application and pointing the smartphone camera at such a QR Code can either show information or automatically take you to a web site. The QR Code above would actually connect you to a recent online article I’ve written about this; but readers without such a device can simply select the link in this sentence and, who knows, they may find their own mobile phone is, or can be made, QR Code capable.

I’ve included the BBC iPlayer and UK multi-broadcaster consortium supported Project Canvas because it is they who are beginning to vector internet material to our domestic televison sets thus breaking dependence on media delivery via computer only. I’ve included YouTube because the scale and scope of its repository continues to grow and it has now become a supplementary channel similar to that of iTunesU for dissemination of learning material with the biggest exponent in the UK arguably being the Open University.

I’ve included DSpace and EPrints because they have started to make networks of HEI hosted repositories of research outputs of literature, scientific data, theses and reports or multimedia artefacts a reality and a nascent alternative or – and supplement – to traditional scholarly publishing. Humbox and OER Commons are included to represent aspects of the open content and courseware movement whose global growth in the last five years has been impressive and whose impetus seems likely to continue supported by the Academy & JISC Open Educational Resources Programme. The opinion piece by the University of Westminster’s Russell Stannard A wide-open web of potential (THE, 24 April 2010) argues that a well-conceived and delivered open content strategy is actually a net gain for HEIs. For example, in the THE article Stannard states:

“It is no secret that releasing Open Educational Resources (OER) via the web can lead to greater student numbers. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation was making the point 10 years ago, and the results from the large OER project at The Open University are well documented, with some 7,000 additional students signing up to their courses as a result.”

I’ve included the logo of the current Department for Business Innovation and Skills(DBIS) to represent the inevitable political and strategic dimension to everything we do in this arena. For example DBIS is the political engine behind the June 2009 announcement setting up the Online Learning Task Force which recently published an interim report on the HEFCE Web site (March 2010). No matter the result of the forthcoming election, or how particular government departments evolve, the responsibilities and interests of politicians have inevitably included technologies and the role they anticipate they will play in their vision of our future.

Of course no consideration of the future of technology for the learning and teaching experience would be complete without at least some consideration of ‘the cloud’, i.e. the moving of services and data off local hardware so that it can either be accessed from any location or collaborative endeavours are made much easier. That’s not to imply I’m necessarily convinced that this is the best way to go but simply to admit that the concept is gaining traction and such ‘cloud’ services certainly exist and are growing. That could have significant future implications for how HE currently does it’s business, e.g. who, if anyone, provides the email service, who, if anyone hosts the MLE?

But is there any ‘evidence’ to support what I’ve included in my montage? Part of such evidence is what is already happening in some major HE institutions but also by identifying what is preoccupying the minds of the HE institution and thought leaders in the ‘e’ arena.

Let’s start with the cloud. Here is a recent news item published by the Open University about its adoption of the Google Docs suite. Or sample what’s now available on Apple’s iTunesU. Perspectives on iTunesU is also provided by ‘iTunes university’ better than the real thing (New Scientist, 18 February 2009). Or read the recent Times Higher Education item Outsourcing grows as institutions find silver lining in cloud computing (THE, 8 April 2010) which describes how some institutions have eschewed hosting some of their traditional services. JISC’s recent 05/10 Flexible Delivery call perhaps also illustrates that ‘the cloud’ needs attention if it is not to catch us all unawares.

I also suggest that Google Trends is sometimes a useful source of insights although it’s a far from perfect analytical tool. For example, I did some comparisons of the search terms e-learning, elearning, and online learning from 2004 to 2010 with the results below (click on image for high resolution view).

Google Trends 1

The overall search trend on these specific terms appears to be declining but there are a number of possible explanations for that including that the concept of a standalone e-learning (or elearning as our non-UK cousins appear to prefer) is being slowly replaced by something else (although it doesn’t appear to be TEL or ELT). A similar Google Trends screenshot just for the UK shows the following (click on image for high resolution view):

UK specific screenshot

But just for interest I introduced ebooks (or e-books) and smartphones into the mix and we find (click on image for high resolution view):

Google Trends ebooks and smartphones

And a UK-specific view of the same we find (click on image for high resolution view):

Google Trends UK view ebooks and smartphones

So it looks like the ebook concept has certainly caught the imagination of the Google searching public.

But enter ‘iPhone’ into the mix and it apparently overwhelms all before it (click on image for high resolution view):

Google Trends iPhone

It’s too early for an annual analysis to show up the impact of the Apple iPad but a monthly view certainly shows a lot of interest. I haven’t included this as a screenshot because the novelty aspect is just too distorting. Revisiting it in a couple of years time will be more informative.

Moving on now to what the thought leaders have to say about the future.

I would highly recommend the 2008 Educause publication The Tower and the Cloud. It’s available as a free download in PDF format. It contains such insights as: “Most futurists overstate the proximity of change and understate its magnitude” (preface xiii); “What is the role of the institution in a world where individuals are empowered to seek solutions anywhere in the networked cloud?” (preface xiv); or “… scholarly method is simply not available on terms where it has any chance of competing with Internet search engines.” (p 206).

Next is the joint New Media Consortium and Educause Horizon Report 2010 Edition (free PDF download). Informed by an internationally renowned advisory board It identifies the key trends at 1 year or less (mobile computing, open content), 2-3 years(ebooks, simple augmented reality), and 4-5 years (gesture-based computing, visual data analysis).

The Pew Internet and American Life Project is another invaluable source of analysis from the US. Although the US is not the UK, technological trends and impacts (positive and negative) do tend to cross the Atlantic with bewildering speed. Two reports in particular should be of interest. The Future of the Internet (February 2010) and The Impact of the Internet on Institutions in the Future (March 2010).

The EU offers us the final report on The Impact of Web 2.0 Innovations on Education and Training in Europe (2009) and Learning 2.0 – The Impact of Social Media on Learning in Europe (2010).

UK specific sources like the Oxford Internet Institute are an invaluable source of easily digestible information. For example see their Interent in Britain 2009 report.

The Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association (UCISA) also produces informative material, e.g. their 2008 survey of Technology Enhanced Learning for Higher Education in the UK. Keeping in mind their sampling source for this survey, it provides a useful snapshot of what are the perceived priorities re technologies and learning in UK HE.

We should also not forget OfCom who produce their own research data about their sphere of influence, e.g. the Communications Market 2009 suggests that mobile phones, and specifically smartphones, are becoming increasingly important tools for accessing the internet (page 209; figures 4.13 and 4.18).

The Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience submitted its report Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World in May 2009. Among its many messages the report highlighted that, despite students apparent confidence with information and communication technologies, there is an underlying need for help and support in identifying and evaluating information on the web. One student generated message in the report that those HEIs contemplating exploiting social media for pedagogical purposes may wish to consider was “Facebook and MySpace are avenues to get away from learning not to help learning.”

Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World also referred to the work of the CIBER research group at University College London who, in 2008, produced its JISC/British Library sponsored report the Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future. Among its finding this report appears to suggest that online browsing behaviour may not be the sole province of the student.

In 2009 the UK think tank, Demos, produced its The Edgeless University report which, while emphasizing the changing concept of the university, also suggested that “It is no good lamenting the golden age of universities (or record companies). The goals of the two ‘industries’ remain the same, but they must refocus on how to achieve them. Society’s’aspirations for the sector remain the same, The challenge for institutions is to find the way to do it (p11) … Universities are becoming partners in learning and research rather than sole providers … This is the way in which universities are becoming ‘edgeless’. They are not disappearing, either into the virtual world or out of existence. They are present in new places. Far from being undermined, these new networks can reinforce their importance. Their value is their institutional capital – the spaces they create for learning, the validation they provide for learning and research, and the returns people get from it. (pp 31-32)

JISC has sponsored a significant amount of work in gathering rich learner experience data. A good starting point is the 2009 Guide to Embedding the Learner Voice which provides an excellent overview and onward links to related learner experience projects. The 2008 JISC-sponsored Ipsos MORI report Great Expectations of ICT: How Higher Education Institutions are Measuring Up also remains a very worthwhile read.

Finally, no review of ‘evidence’ sources for future watchers (or creators) would be complete without encouraging use of, and participation in, the Higher Education Academy hosted developing gateway to evidence-informed practice, i.e.EvidenceNet.

Questions from the Floor

A number of questions arose from the floor which I will try and address a little more fully here. I paraphrase the questions so I hope I captured the essence of them accurately.

Q. Although Alice for the iPad was a very good example what is now possible to offer as an ‘ebook’ if students are going to expect things of this quality how can academics possibly live up to such expectations?

A. You can’t and should not try to – unless of course you have received a generous research or production grant to do so. I used Alice for the iPad to illustrate how the very concept of what we count as a book and the act of ‘reading’ are likely to change. There is still, and will continue to be, considerable mileage in text, a point I also emphasized in a recent online essay No country for old readers? (Auricle, 28 February 2010). While it is quite possible to envisage the production values of an Alice for the iPad being applied to other contexts, even higher education, these are likely to be ‘special’ projects of one type or another. The ebook and associated ebook readers, however, are gaining sufficient traction to now enter the mainstream. I suggest, therefore, that this could offer students, academic staff, and HEIs some interesting opportunties that don’t necessarily have to be expensive productions or even require reliance on traditonal publishers. Just as a related aside, JISC’s leadership key role the Open Access movement in the UK should be noted (JISC, 25 February 2010). As is increasingly the case, however, the internet can disrupt established business models and processes and so the Open Access has become a source of some concern of the traditional academic publishers (STM, 16 April 2010). My essay above also includes mention of the growth of DSpace and EPrints as the engines of a growing number of institutional scholarly repositories.

Producing an ebook in an open format like ePub is not an overwhelmingly difficult technical task. An individual academic can always focus on producing their narrative whereas other colleagues can advise or provide help with layout and conversion to a suitable content format. Also, simple but powerful learning activities do not require Alice for the iPad production values. Any combination or proportion of text, pictures, sound, video and or symbols that are part of learning activities that students see as meaningful are all that is required. Of course the authors of such combinations may actually be the students themselves. I used the example of a relatively simple pedagogical design which was assignment driven and based on the upload of PDF files to a content repository/VLE. Such PDFs were shared with, and also commented on, by other students in the cohort. The assignment was graded according to the primary work and the quality of the comments offered to other colleagues. No design complexity there. While I take the point about student expectations that their learning world will be filled with ever more exciting learning artefacts with the production values equivalent to the latest BBC, mega publisher, or video games developer but I suspect that’s more a reflection of our own anxieties than actual student expectations. I think that generally the students are pretty good at compartmentalising their expectations in the different contexts that make up their lives. If they have, or develop, an understanding of what higher education is about they will realise that the efficient aquisition of knowledge and the development of reflection, analysis, problem solving, and synthesis abilities does not require an Alice on the iPad. However, if they were to create or improve on an Alice on the iPad that would be a great learning output and outcome. Our role is surely to help them develop such insights and abilities if they don’t already have them, and extend them if they do? None of the above means that we shouldn’t make use of high production value learning artefacts of course as long as their use makes sense in the context of the learning experience and the anticipated outputs and outcomes from it.
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Q. Will we still need a VLE in 2015?

A. A most interesting question. A useful starting point in trying to give a coherent and useful response is a quote from from the opening paragraphs of my online essay Open opportunities, open threats? (Auricle, 30 April 2009 – a shorter version of that essay was also published in the ALT-N newsletter in 2009). In that essay I stated:

I’ve also posited in much earlier Auricle articles that if, at one stroke, some mythical bolt of lightning was to destroy all VLEs (as we currently know them) that there are now sufficient alternative options for use by academics and students that a process of disseminated self-repair would rapidly occur.

But in the same essay I also go to say:

But the mythical bolt of lightning is unlikely to materialise and so it is probably more useful to view the current situation as more like an evolving ecosystem where formal institution provision co-exists with less formal platforms, tools and artefacts. Some of that less formal provision is explicit, and sometimes it forms part of what I’ve previously called the Hidden Learning Environment (HLE).

So the answer is probably yes simply because institutional investments in the concept are now so great that it would be extraordinarily difficult not to have some form of institutional learning environment presence. A more challenging subsidary question is the forms these future environments could – or should – take, where they will be hosted, and whether what they are primarily used for could be achieved more efficiently by other routes? That last part of the multi-part question, i.e. “what they are primarily used for could be achieved more efficiently by other routes?” is certainly worthy of considerable reflection. If an institution is incurring relatively expensive recurring licensing costs for something which is primarly being used as a shareable filestore by the majority of its users then that should perhaps give pause for said reflection. I am certainly not criticising such shareable filestores because meaningful pedagogical outcomes can still be achieved from such usage; I simply invite an honest reflection on whether a multi-faceted VLE is always the best route for making such provision if, in the end, that is what the majority of academics and students actually want and need.

In conclusion, if VLEs didn’t already exist then someone would quickly invent them. It’s cerainly possible to create one by aggregating the various tools, services and data feeds now available on the web. But, as my Open opportunities, open threats? essay suggests, that is not the same as creating a Learning Management System (alias a Managed Learning Environment); the managerial layer is not something that can be easily aggregated from elsewhere – at the moment. The advent of cloud computing, however, may eventually impact upon even this managerial aspect.
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Q. What about computer games in Higher Education by 2015?

A. There’s a relationship with the first question and my answer in this response, i.e. the complexity and expense of production. It depends what we mean by a computer game. If we mean the equivalent of the multi-million dollar productions of the video games industry then it is hard, currently, to see how we are ever going to be able to produce such effectively highly sophisticated high fidelity, high resolution virtual environments in a timely and economic manner – and that’s before we even consider questions about pedagogical designs appropriate to a higher education context. But never say never. Games do not necessarily need to be high fidelity and high resolution to be effective, but even here there are costs which could far transcend productions based on simpler organisations of text, graphics audio, and video. Take, for example, the effort and knowledge required to creating a custom environment within Second Life; it’s not something easily done by us normal mortals even if we were prepared to spend the time doing it. That’s why these developments tend to be special projects even within universities. But what is not often realised is that many video games production houses are using a relatively small number of games ‘engines’ which saves them untold development costs. The much maligned Wikipedia will give you a flavour the games engines available, some free to use. Consequently, it is possible to conceive of a time when it becomes considerably easier to produce custom games but I’m not sure that it will be by 2015. There again, as the advent and marriage of portable technologies and web services like MP3 players, the iPhone, Flip video cameras, iTunes, YouTube, etc have shown, production processes that were formerly restricted to a few can quickly become the province of the many, thus making possible what was previously impossible, too difficult, or expensive for the amateur or time poor.

Of course, employing existing games for educational, training, and even recruitment purposes is another question altogether. Military recruiters in particular are increasingly recognising the potency of such ‘games’ in engaging potential recruits and even as a forms of virtual simulation thereafter, e.g. America’s Army or the UK Army JCOVE. There is of course another genre of ‘game’ at the opposite end of the spectrum represented by the likes of Darfur is Dying.

All of the above are examples of ‘serious games’, i.e. games that provide some form of learning experience rather than just purely intended for leisure and entertainment. Sim City, or the US political strategy game Democracy would come into this category and they could be employed in a variety of contexts not necessarily conceived of by their creators. The serious games genre also offers us the concept of Epistemic Games, i.e. “games that help players learn the ways of thinking – the epistemologies of the digital age”. Now there is something really relevant to higher education.

A useful source of information and thinking about serious games is Clark Aldrich’s site On Simulations and Serious Games. Those interested in the contemporary thought on serious games may be interested in the 4th European Conference on Games Based Learning in Copenhagen (21-22 October 2010) but even if you can’t attend the conference following up on the work of the key contributors could still be very worthwhile. Rather sooner and closer to home is the Game to Learn – 4th eLearning Alliance Annual Conference which takes place at the University of Abertay, Dundee on the 30 April 2010. Again following up on the programme contributors and outputs from this event should be worthwhile; note also that the University of Abertay established the Centre for Excellence in Computer Games Education in 2009 supported by a grant from the Scottish Executive. Undertaking a “games” related search on the Higher Education Academy’s EvidenceNet is also quite profitable.

In concluding this extended response to the digital games question, I offer you one final resource. The London School of Economics public lecture series is available as podcasts. The LSE archive is extensive, however, and so in another recent posting of mine LSE Public Lecture Podcasts (Auricle, 2 April 2010) I highlighted those with a learning and technologies flavour. The 24 November 2009 public lecture was titled The Silverstone Panel on Digital Natives: A Lost Tribe? (90min, 40MB, MP3 download). This is a long but worthwhile listen but one section in particular is relevant to the digital games focus of this response. The Institute of Education’s Professor David Buckingham is the second member of the panel to speak. His offers us a stimulating polemic on the “digital native” concept starting at ~14 min in to the podcast and ending at 27min 42secs. At ~16 min 50 secs to 19 min 50 secs he challenges the assumptions made about, and the evidence for, the benefits of digital games to learning. He focuses in particular on the developmental rhetoric of “play as progress” and whether there is actually any evidence of transferability of play into other contexts or whether this is just another manifestation of techno-determinism. For the time-poor I have transcribed this part of his contribution to the LSE Silverstone Panel and added links to some of the references he made (added 30 April 2010):

“If you look at Marc Prensky’s latest book “Don’t bother me mom, I’m learning” … Marc Prensky is a games designer, basically, and what you get in this book is a vindication of computer games as a learning medium. What that entails is on the one hand undermining of the arguments of all the harmful effects of games while at the same time buying into arguments about the positive consequences of gaming. So games are seen to have … well all this stuff about violence and whatever is nonsense, on the other hand games are seen to have all sorts of positive educational benefits; they develop cognitive skill, kids learn all sorts of areas of content. From the point of view of games studies what you get a certain justification of games in terms of what Brian Sutton Smith in his work on play calls a “rhetoric of play as progress”. The play is justified in terms of its educational value. All the dangerously antisocial aspects of play… is all swept to one side. What we have is a certain kind of vindication of game play which is I think very partial … a developmental rhetoric about play. Also in this there’s an assumption that learning transfers, so what we learn from computer games somehow transfers to what goes on in real life. We learn hand-eye co-ordination, we learning problem solving; and somehow this makes us better problem solvers in real life; I think a very dubious argument. Also in this a sense of learning as somehow spontaneous and that goes along with the rhetoric in this argument; a dismissal of schooling; a dismissal of formal education; a valorising of informal learning. The distinction between informal and formal often very loosely and vaguely defined here. The dismissal of formal learning in schools and so this argument again that Sonia [Livingstone] cited, you know Digital Natives (PDF) want to learn in different ways they want interactive, game-like discovery-based multitasking forms of learning and not all that boring stuff they get in school. So I think it is important to say where this argument is coming from and I would say again that the research evidence would be that … is there are generational difference here, and is that difference produced by technology? I would say the evidence for that is very very limited. So if it’s all rubbish why are people making this argument? What function does this discourse, this rhetoric serve in terms of debating, particularly round areas of educational policy? I would say it is partly driven by a kind of sales pitch. It’s driven by commercial companies selling technology into schools and also government policy looking for a technological quick fix to what it perceives to the problems of education. And if you track this discourse like I have through things like the National Grid for Learning and the kind of stuff that comes from BECTA, the Harnessing Technology Strategy; most recently the Rose Review what you actually find is partly the Digital Native … it’s actually more ambivalent than that … What you have is this rhetoric of young people as spontaneously technologically competent on the one hand but on the other hand we mustn’t forget that they lack fundamental skills … this is very much a skills agenda, a set of competencies young people are seen to need. And that is then all tied up in a policy mush … The digital native goes in, personalisation, informal learning, learning styles, multiple intelligences, etc. A series of concepts that, once you start to look and probe them a little bit, are really very ill-defined and quite problematic. For companies this is a valuable means of generating profit. For government it offers the promise of a technological fix … if young people are disaffected with school then that’s something we can fix by putting a lot of computers and whiteboards into classrooms because these things are automatically assumed to motivate young people. And I think this is characteristic of a wider tendency to take a cultural or social problem and present it as a technical one and offer a technical or technological solution … I think for some people advocating technology in schools comes to be tied up with what I can only call a wishful thinking about how technology will bring about a fundamental transformation of power in the classroom, move us towards a more democratic form of education, undermine the power of the teacher and create a more student centred classroom. Again I would say the evidence for those kinds of assertions is very limited and certainly there is quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. If you look at the research that has been done about whiteboards for example. Having attempted to chuck it all out what value might it have? …”

I do, however, encourage you to listen to David Buckingham’s full contributions to the LSE public lecture because the above polemic is somewhat balanced by his other later, and other panel members’, contributions.

As the Silverstone Panel discussions mentioned above highlight, the whole concept of the so-called Digital Native is being increasingly questioned a point which was reinforced by Dr Chris Jones’ keynote at yesterday’s excellent ELESIG symposium Contrasts and Contradictions in Learner Experience Research (Said Business School, University of Oxford, 29 April 2010). Chris Jones, is Reader at the UK Open University’s Institute of Educational Technology and leader of the ESRC funded NegGen project at the OU. He higlighted how even Marc Prensky appears to be revising his 2001 concept away from the absolute generational divide encapsuated in the Digital Native towards something Marc Prensky now appears to be calling Homo Sapiens Digital who seeks a path leading to Digital Wisdom, e.g.

“Homo sapiens digital, then, differs from today’s human in two key aspects: He or she accepts digital enhancement as an integral fact of human existence, and he or she is digitally wise, both in the considered way he or she accesses the power of digital enhancements to complement innate abilities and in the way in which he or she uses enhancements to facilitate wiser decision making. Digital wisdom transcends the generational divide defined by the immigrant/native distinction.”

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