Thursday, 11 October 2012

Two Contrasting Views of Educational Technology

I’d like to share a couple of videos with you that I have used recently in the courses I teach. I find these videos particularly interesting because they show such contrasting approaches to learning and in particular - for want of a better word - elearning.

This first one is from the early 1950’s and is about something called a ‘teaching machine’ which was created by behavioural psychologist B F Skinner.

As you see Skinner’s teaching machines, though not exactly iPads do look remarkably like  what we would recognise as computers. What’s also remarkable is the claims that he makes for them and the reasons why he believes they are effective are remarkably similar to those made by many producers of learning and especially language learning software today.

However, despite the extremely logical reasoning that Skinner expounds I’m sure if you were invited to sit down and use one of these machines for a period of time it wouldn’t hold your interest for very long and like me you probably watch those hard working children with a sense of pity.

Of course it’s easy to look at videos like this with the advantage of hindsight and with a shinny iPad sitting close by and wonder at how they could ever have believed these machines would be effective, but if we look closely at quite a lot of elearning being produced these days, it isn’t long before we realise how similar in many ways it is to the kind of learning materials used on Skinner’s teaching machines. Gapfills, Multiple Choice Questions, True false Questions, etc. but with some multimedia rolled in still seem to be the mainstay of much computer based instruction and even mobile apps, so I’m not surprised to find that many of the teachers who come onto the courses I teach want to know how to use and produce these kinds of materials and to be honest I can see that they do have their place, but I think we should be aiming to do so much more than that with the materials we produce.

Here’s the contrasting video that I like to use.

This clearly shows a completely different approach to the use of technology and for me a much more powerful one. It shifts the role of the computer from being a storage place for predefined information and transforms it into a conduit by which knowledge is shared and constructed through the interaction between people. I think this aspect of computer based learning is the one that most critics of educational technology most often fail to see, unfortunately it’s also this aspect and role of the computer that is most often feared and blocked by educational institutions around the globe, and ironically enough, by governments wishing to suppress the rights of their citizens.

These videos and the methods of education demonstrated within them also highlight some other important points.

In the first video knowledge is clearly seen as residing in the materials of the institution. The students have no part in the creation of the content nor do they have the chance to question the validity and accuracy of the content and the role of the students is simply to learn and remember the content.

They sit in rows obediently working hard with no communication between them and no discussion sharing or collaboration of what they learning.

The second of the videos is almost the opposite of this. The classroom and even the school has become almost unnecessary. The student creates and negotiates knowledge through interaction with multiple sources of information and using multiple channels of communication. The student acts independently and works autonomously much of the time.

In a time when critical thinking, creativity and the ability to evaluate and manage information have become so important, it’s clear to see which kind of student we should be creating within our schools and the way we design and apply out learning tasks and materials will be a key factor in this.

It’s true that the student in the second video isn’t a language student, and developing linguistic ability is about more than finding and applying knowledge, it also has to do with skills and the practice and development of those skills, but what better way to do this than from the kinds of authentic network building and knowledge building tasks that can help our students become life long learners of far more than language?

The final thing that strikes me about these two videos is how they reflect the kinds of societies that the system of education seeks to create. For me the first is a society of obedient unquestioning worker drones being spoon fed information that will enable them to fulfil their predefined roles. The second is a society in which individuals are encouraged to think, act and explore, to question and to create. I know which I would prefer to live in.

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Nik Peachey


elizabeth_anne said...

Although I very much agree with you Nik, we must always beware of throwing the baby out with the bathwater! In the days when you had to boot up the PC by inserting your DOS floppy disk! (1980s?) I was constantly amazed at how the students would really stick at doing the gap-fill exercises on those machines!
And I must say I'm very happy that people do put gramar exos online, because I can point my students to them when correcting their wikis:-)
Learing a foreign language is so complicated that every little helps:-)
Thanks as always

Nik Peachey said...

Hi Elizabeth Anne

Yes I do agree that these kinds of exercises that Skinner is advocating do have some value and it is great to be able to find things like that online for students to do, and I do still work with teachers to produce these, but in this day and age I don't think it's the kind of thing they should be doing in class. Great for the odd homework activity, but I think in class time we should be helping them to develop higher order skills than these.



Torn Halves said...

A quick expression of a sense of weirdness watching the video of connected learning. That shows Americans trying to make sense of the American psyche. The great thing (supposedly) is how students connect with each other and share sources of knowledge and work together to shuffle the most relevant snippets they can gather. The weirdness is that in all that web of knowledge the American psyche never appears anywhere, and it never appears as if the cognitive task is a matter of a personal engagement with the object (in this case the American psyche). Weird.

Nik Peachey said...

Hi Torn

I think you've kind of missed the point. The topic - in this case the American psyche - could really be anything. What it's showing is a method of computer mediated learning the connects people to create knowledge.



Unknown said...


Loved this post - and the idea (can I "steal" it)? This is a GR8 way to really get people to "see" what is really behind the TECH.

Take care,


Patrick said...

Thank you for a though provoking and informative post.

Computers are great at rote-learning. They can check to see if input matches output. It is completely other reality to ask them to react in a meaningful way and provide insightful feedback. This seems to be the case largely do to computer programming.

Rote learning has its place in education, and for those types of activities computers are a welcomed alternative to teacher fronted instruction (if only for the time they save in giving feedback and allowing people to work at their own pace, as Skinner mentioned).

I appreciate and agree as well with your interests in also seeing computers and networks as something more than this. In the first vid, each person is locked into their own machine and there is zero interest in interaction between humans. What strikes me about the second video is that here the computer is a tool for accessing other people and their ideas, and then engaging with them in a meaningful discourse. That intrigues me very much, both from the theoretical point of view and its implications in classroom teaching and course design.

Finding a useful, comprehensive and cohesive platform/program/method for doing this with ELT is still a work in progress from what I can tell.

I see you have an interest in Second Life, which I do was well. It does offer the chance to take the idea of computers as connective vehicles to another level indeed (though the platform itself and its interface make this a challenge). I think environments like it was great places to start in this search for what will work well with ELT.

Again thank you for this post and your vids. This is my first time visiting your blog, I look forward to more inspiration and thought food in the future.

All the best,