Thinking about learning technology: is the product metaphor obsolete?

Reda SadkiThinking aloud

In my work, I am constantly discovering and evaluating new web sites and online services related to learning in some way. Increasingly, I’m wondering if there can be an underlying method for assessing them that is different from the prevailing consumerist, product metaphor.

What I mean is that we tend to look at a learning technology as if it were a product that we will consume if we adopt it in our learning/teaching practice. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Ultimately, we do have to make pragmatic, practical decisions: do I use Schoology or Edmodo or Scholar for my project? It seems to me like we are quite “naturally” thinking as *consumers* of learning technology, as we do in our daily lives making choices about whether we use Facebook or Twitter (or neither), keep our e-mail on Hotmail or GMail, etc.

One limitation I see with this product approach is that thinking about learning is quickly reduced to listing and comparing technical features. The traditional IT approach in choosing a technology involves building 1) use cases and 2) requirements and then trying to find the software package, platform, or service that most closely matches these. I have seen the most disastrous outcomes from this classical kind of analysis.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t think about feature sets, requirements or use cases. I just question that they come up first in discussion. I think this happens because “detecting” the underlying learning theory that underpins a learning system is much more difficult. And it’s not only about understanding what the project proponents grounded themselves in, but also looking at the gap between the intended theoretical underpinning and the live product. A good example is Moodle: I love the concepts, the history, the open access and the open source. But I fail to recognize the constructivism claimed by its authors when I see how mechanistic, do-this-get-that it quickly becomes. Doing peer review is outside its boundaries. Multiple-choice quizzes are inside. Scary — and not very constructivist, sorry. From reading Moodle case studies, I can see that good teachers are able to squeeze constructivism out of Moodle — but a good teacher can probably do that with just about any system, and I fail to see how Moodle is making it easier.

From my own experience in search of the holy grail of learning systems, I’ve drawn the frightening conclusion that we live in a world in which we can expect an exponentially growing number of online systems for learning, propelled by various ideas which have less and less to do with learning, more and more with corporate takeover and control of education, and less and less likely to meet our specific needs, much less be grounded in the specific remix of learning theories that we see as relevant to our learning community.

One implication: we need to give up on the idea of a centralized platform that can meet all our needs — and be grounded in coherent learning theory that leads to sensible teaching and learning practice.

Fortunately — and not just because I tend to be an optimist — I also believe that as the online world becomes increasingly fragmented, we are also developing the tools to pick and choose useful tools from the chaos, to which we can then creatively add identity (this is where visual design is important, as with the badges, etc.) to make a stable learning system. Most important, we need make these choices informed by a specific set of theories which we use as tools to make decisions on how we set up a course, how we determine its content, who “we” are (is it teachers, students, or both?), etc.

Philipp Schmidt from recently showed me The Mechanical MOOC, a good prototype for this kind of thinking and its application. It is a mashup or remix that relies on multiple platforms and tools, with technological scaffolding to glue the tools together, branding to give it identity. We know about *scaffolding* learning. We may want to think about *scaffolding* technology. (NYT article about this latest P2PU project)