Stefan Nowicki, Director of the Centre for Distance Learning at University of Wroclaw
In the face of last years’ rapid development of different forms of distance education (e-learning, blended-learning, remote teaching, emergency remote teaching, online supported learning, individual learning, micro-learning, to name only few of them), even more accelerated because of COVID-19 pandemic, it seems reasonable to ask the question regarding the role of educational technology in this process. Although we all agree that there are numerous options for facilitating learning with technology, and that the high-quality education requires thinking rather about its instructional than technological part, we are simultaneously more impressed by the possibilities offered by the latter, what often results in making poor decisions when it comes to choosing between different options.
Interestingly, whilst the technology should facilitate learning process, and thus be accommodated to its previously, and carefully designed instructional counterpart, it frequently turns to be the starting point, by which the whole instructional part is determined. This often leads to meagre learning effects, lowering teaching quality and learners’ motivation consecutively, negatively affecting the quality of the learning experience as a whole. This is especially true for different forms of distance learning, as the chosen technology can deeply affect the learning process, making it really hard, if students don’t have access to high-speed connection or high-end machine, or even widen the outcome and performance gap between individuals if our students come from different social, economic or cultural backgrounds. Ironically, at the end of this path, it’s either instructional part that is blamed for the failure of learning outcomes, or just the new technical solution is chosen, again without consulting educational needs or requirements of teachers and students as factual end users of technology. In the worst case, apart from wasting time and money for subsequent hard- and software solutions, both the education quality and the reliability of the institution itself becomes dubious. Education quality can be improved with time and money, however, winning back the reliability is just priceless.
Moreover, as the implementation of new technologies are mostly faster and easier than the improving of the overall teaching quality, in rare cases, when the quality of education is the keyword of institution, but only technical solutions are implemented or developed, whilst ineffective instructional methods are still in use, the process could be named “learnwashing”.
“Education quality can be improved with time and money, however, winning back the reliability is just priceless.”
Although this pitfall should be avoided by all educational leaders, it is not as easy as it would seem to avoid the trap of learnwashing, and choose the right educational technology, that fits our needs instead of expectations to really facilitate teaching and learning processes. It is quite common to expect some magnificent all-in-one digital learning environments, when in fact additional simple functionality or application is all what is needed. Furthermore, a careful consideration of already implemented solutions can make us realise, that we have what is needed, just don’t use all its features. But what would be the best way to escape this dead end, and make technology work for institutions’ needs, facilitating the learning process, and thus improving the overall quality of education?
The first, and most crucial step is to make a map of educational processes (both teaching and learning) in which our institution is involved. Such a map should be composed by the team of decision makers and teaching faculty—first of them can contribute with an institutional perspective, while the latter with most up-to-date field experiences. This can show us if our educational offer is complete, and where exactly can the new technology fit into it. Moreover, in many cases we can realize that there exists a problem of non-technological nature, that should be solved to improve the quality of teaching and learning. And this is a vital moment – implementing new technology before instructional problems are resolved affects the whole process negatively. For example – if there is a motivational issue, and teaching faculty don’t use active learning techniques, the same classes in online environment will be even more disengaging. Thus, the best way of implementing new educational technology is to make it a part of curriculum. After all, apart from its auxiliary role, the using of technology mostly requires, and supports the development of additional skills, that are not limited to using of specific software.
In many cases, the competencies of acting and working in different environments are much more important for successful learning process. The latter is often indicated by respondents in educational surveys – students and teachers have all the necessary skills to work with different applications, but they don’t feel tech-savvy or comfortable enough to work with them effectively. Therefore, after identifying and solving all problems found, we can go to step two, answering three basic questions – what kind of technology do we need, how should it be included into the learning process, and why? The last question consists in fact of two – why do we need technology, and why do we like to use it this way? When all these questions are answered, and the results confronted with the process map previously made, we are going to plan fully coherent educational process, in which both technological and instructional parts are complementary.
In closer perspective, this will be facilitating confidence and learning experiences among staff and students’, positively affecting teaching, and learning quality. In longer perspective, well-designed educational process will also result in reducing the performance gap between students from different cultural and social backgrounds, improving overall education quality and the reliability of our institution.