If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this expression, I could have retired long ago. This hyperbole is especially true for learning technology, as the history of our field is littered with unfulfilled expectations of technology miracles (who can ever forget those awesome pizza-sized videodiscs?). Surely, this New Year will likely bring many more promises of new learning-technology wonderfulness. How many times will we be told that the next big thing will change everything? How many times will we be disappointed?
The fact is, technology may make learning more efficient, but it doesn’t necessarily make it more effective. You cannot fix bad training with technology alone, but using technology with bad training can make it worse. There are much more important factors, including at times—dare I speak heresy—great teachers.
I wanted to discuss this further, but I realized, after 69 columns (whew!), I finally don’t have the words. Fortunately, Derek Muller does. Watch how Derek balances the promise—and the fallacy—of relying solely on technology to improve learning.
The video is 7:22 long, but worth the time. Take a look and come back to me when you’re done. I’ll wait.
Now, after viewing the video, you might dismiss it as focusing too much on “education,” and not enough on “training” or “adult learning.” But this misses the point. What Muller is saying, and what researchers have found for decades, is that technology alone is not enough. All else being equal, studies as to whether one technology is better than another generally show no significant differences.
This is why it is often so difficult to show that any particular technology teaches better than another, or that technology-based training teaches better than a well-designed instructor-led experience. It is also why most eLearning business cases are made on the equally important benefits of efficiency, rather than effectiveness, e.g., cost per user, reach, scalability, timeliness. When we do use learning technology in well-designed and innovative ways that cannot be duplicated in the classroom, e.g., simulations, gaming, distance collaboration, and other instructionally immersive techniques, we can then begin to realize some effectiveness advantages of the technology. Unfortunately, we don’t see this often enough at all.
It is how we use technology to enhance learning, not the technology itself, which counts. What matters much more are learning design, learner preparation, engagement and support, learning facilitation, and yes, in classroom settings, how good the teacher is. This is all about instructional design, pedagogy, learning psychology, effective communications, and organizational culture. It is also about practice and feedback in applying learning to tasks—in work and in life.So the next time someone—a colleague or a vendor—comes to you with new technology and promises you the moon, remember that technology is not a learning strategy. It is an enabler. The question we should all be asking is, “What do we want to enable and how are we going to do it?”