It’s funny how pop culture fears the progress of technology. We see various films, TV shows, and books that illustrate future dystopias where our technology somehow controls us and we become an enslaved race of humans forced into conformity by the very thing we created. The reality is that we have cracked the code; technology has made the impossible possible. There is absolutely no way for a modern day student to ignore the impact that technology has on the future as a learner.
In general, information technologies, online resources, and other media are changing and shaping the way we will all learn in the future and what will be considered worth learning. Hello Mr. Card Catalog, how’s retirement? If you were born after 1995, you probably don’t even get that joke, but the point is that online resources in the digital age have made it possible for a global awareness of up to date information that once could have only been dreamt. As an instructional designer and former teacher of secondary English, the way I learned to research and the way I research today are completely different. Instead of dealing with the sources available to create a thesis, I find it’s about weeding through the informationally rich digital environment (and increasingly rampant inaccurate content) to find the exact sources that best develop my already formulated thesis. This seemingly tiny alteration is actually epically powerful in that we are not letting our environment shape our informational path, but rather we are limitless in what we want to discover with practically no worries about whether we will be able to discover reputable sources to back up our ideas. A concrete example of an online resource that illustrates the endless possibilities of research would be the Michigan Electronic Library. With only a state ID card, anyone in the state has access to virtually any book, magazine article, newspaper article, or video imaginable, all archived to be easily searched depending on the scholarly interest of the searcher. Thus, what’s worth learning is limited only by my own creativity, ambition, and interests.
As in any” code cracking” scenario, this is just the starting point. As students and instructors begin embracing technologies, resources, and other media, more exciting ways to effectively promote learning will develop. What is quite clear, however, is that the learner/instructor is in control; I see little reason to worry that electronic databases, online course software, and new research techniques will result in the end of humanity. Nonetheless, the best way to ensure technology remains the answer and not just another fad is maintaining a focus on how information is presented and utilized.
I recently heard someone describe a novel he had just read. He said it was a romance involving a love triangle between a woman and two men. The woman loved one of the men, but the other seemed more of a reasonable match and loved her deeply, so things are likely to not work out well. Then he mentioned, “oh yeah, and one of the guys is a vampire and the other is a werewolf.” This detail, he purposely saved for last in order to prove a point; that point being the way we present information is clearly as important, if not more important, than the information itself. Be honest, one of the above descriptions probably made you curious about the book he read, while the other probably totally turned you off. The same can be said about instructional design. The curation of what’s out there is more valuable than what’s out there!
Never has it been more challenging to not see the forest for the trees in terms of information. The “fake news” epidemic comes to mind in this regard. Instructionally, more and more we’re seeing the “kitchen sink” approach being applied to education, especially in the online sphere. So what do we do? How do we combat the overload? An instructional model like TPACK is crucial to how I do my job, so that a balance between content and technology remains in place. Episode four of the first season of our web series, What’s Your Problem? where we discuss the difficulties of balancing the technical with the teaching takes this conversation a step further. If you’ve read this post this far, take a five minute break and watch the episode. If nothing else, there’s a Corey Haim/Corey Feldman reference, so you at least get that.
As a final thought, I know why technology helps people learn. Too often, technology is thrown around as a term that is supposed to magically help people learn. However, imagine putting an iPad in the hands of your great grandmother. Is she now a digital native? No. If anything, she has a surface to do her crossword puzzles on. In all spheres of education, our goal is to improve learners’ experiences in terms of mastering a subject. Just like dressing up the classic, old romantic love triangle with one that includes vampires and werewolves, increasing engagement seems to have always been the aim of education; it is simply the methodology that changes. I invite you to start a conversation here, with your peers, or at your institution about how you strike that balance. What techniques do you use as an instructional designer to make the critical choices for how best to deliver information to the online student?