Education is changing and it would seem that we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in learning and teaching. The ways in which students learn with the aid of technology in 2014 were unthinkable merely a decade or so ago.
The explosion in educational technologies, devices, applications and other tools to assist student learning has seen a massive windfall for technology companies. This is despite the fact that many of these tools were not developed for educational purposes. Despite this, advances in technology have led to a seemingly endless procession of shiny new tools for learning, brain training etc.
It goes almost without saying that there are obvious advantages to using technology for enhancing learning. These new tools are fundamentally changing access to and ability for sharing knowledge and information. When used within a context of sound educational design, there is enormous potential in educational technologies.
What remains to be seen is whether or not all these new tools actually enhance learning as they are being hyped. When the hype dies down, the evidence often doesn’t support the initial flurry of excitement around the potential benefits of every new technology. This process, exemplified by the Gardner Hype Cycle, is witnessed commonly with educational technologies.
The reality therefore often doesn’t live up to the hype. A hype that has been driven by technology companies and other interested parties who do not necessarily have the expertise to make evidence-based judgments about the efficacy of new educational technologies as they become available.
The massive open online course (MOOC) frenzy is one example of this hype cycle. Everyone from ministers and their advisors, to business gurus to technology vendors weighed in on the MOOC ‘debate’. Sadly, the people who have legitimate expertise in this sub-discipline were rarely heard from in the melee.
What makes for an expert?
Ericcson famously estimated that legitimate expertise takes around 10,000 hours or ten years of deliberate practice. While this is a very rough rule of thumb it does raise questions about what an expert is when information is so readily available.
As I have discussed previously it is now possible to read a few articles and watch a few TED talks and feel as though you have a reasonable grasp on a subject area. Often however, this is simply not the case, particularly in complex fields like the social sciences.
Probably the best example of this is what I’ve come to call the ‘Attenborough effect’. Watching a slick documentary with high production values gives the impression that we are absorbing a lot of information and these documentaries can keep many of us engaged for hours. However, if I were to ask you a few days later what you remember from such a documentary, it is often the case that very little sinks in over the longer term.
Similarly, education is an area in which most people have experience as learners or as teachers or both. Like a slick BBC documentary, this creates a situation in which familiarity with the subject area creates the illusion that we can understand it readily.
The illusion of having a solid understanding of an area because of the fluency or ease with which the information is processes has been labeled the Dunning-Kruger effect. It is basically an overconfidence that we know about something when the subject is simply too complex for us to come to understand it easily.
We need to devote serious thought and time to becoming experts. This is why it takes years to develop genuine expertise in most subject areas.
Expertise and educational technology
A few years experience in using educational technology, teaching online or several hours reading about technology-enhanced learning online does not an expert make.
We are blessed in Australia to have some of the world’s leading experts in the learning sciences and in educational technology. These are teachers and researchers with decades of experience and knowledge in learning, teaching and technology.
Not only do they have experience, they have deliberate practice in reading, writing, collecting data and thinking about learning, teaching and technology. As an early career academic, I can only dream of having such expertise myself at this point in my career. Maybe when I have had enough deliberate practice I might be.
There has been an enormous increase in interest in online learning in higher education but the voices of our educational technology luminaries are often drowned out by hype.
Those of us who work with educational technology in Australasian higher education know who these people are and soak up their wisdom at every opportunity. They sometimes blog or tweet and show up at the occasional conference. It’s just a shame that, in mainstream debates about educational technologies, there seems to be more attention given to unsubstantiated hype than to the legitimate experts.