Another dot in the blogosphere?

Has learning really changed with technology?

Posted on: October 12, 2015

I have been thinking about this question of late. Has technology really changed the way we learn?

You will get different answers depending on who you ask. The answers stem not only from different experiences and content perspectives, but also from various levels of scrutiny.

At the moment, I offer at least four levels to tackle this question and I provide some preliminary and relatively superficial answers. The levels are:

  • Neural
  • Psychological
  • Social
  • Socio-technical

At the neural level, we learn when brain cells make new connections at the dendrite level. I doubt that position has changed because we cannot really see it happening in real time yet, but it is the established thinking on how we learn at the cellular level.

I am not aware of any studies on how technology affects learning at this level. There are people who are worried (and even paranoid) about how wireless frequencies might affect the human body, but there does not seem to be anything conclusive.

In the area of cognitive psychology and physiology, we have theories like cognitive development, schema, and neuroplasticity. Most educators should be familiar with Piaget’s cognitive development theory for children. Schema (Anderson; Ausubel) deals with how we map and categorize to create meaning for ourselves. These theories are staple to any introductory educational psychology course.

The field of neuroplasticity stems largely from studies of how people function after brain damage. Even studies on learning disabilities have shed light on how we learn. These fields are still shedding light on human learning, but I am not aware of any that focus on the longer term impact of technology.

Ever since the rise of social constructivism, researchers and practitioners seemed to have paid more attention to how we learn socially. This makes sense because this is a level we can most relate to: We talk, we listen, we interact. This has spawned strategies like cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and team-based learning. All these strategies can be enabled and mediated by technology.

Last week, Polivka nicely encapsulated Social Learning Theory. It hints at how media technologies might augment social interaction, but at its core it seems to remain we talk, we listen, and we interact in order to learn.

The most interesting field of study might be how we learn socio-technically. This emerging field recognizes that we become part of the technology and vice versa. Some people fear and judge this. Even the great Sir Ken Robinson wondered how kids could be socializing when they were looking at their phones. I noted this at the Bett conference in the UK in January this year.

Perhaps we are changing the way we learn if we embrace ourselves as socio-technical creatures. Whereas we used to rely on one or just a few sources, now we can rely on the collective intelligence of many.

Where once learning was only text-based or through the medium of air, we can now benefit from digital videos that are more entertaining, informative, time-lapsed, or sped up.

We need not be afraid to Google the dumbest or most profound questions. We can potentially connect with content experts and find global causes.

I am still not sure if learning itself has changed in a socio-technical animal. But the learning opportunities have and those might shape who we learn from, and why, where, when, and how we learn.

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