Knowledge WITH technology: A case for intelligent learning


I came across this post today where Donna Fry mentions thinking about twitter as a library. This reminded me of some related thinking I had been doing back in 2005 when I was considering the role of technology with the analogy of the ‘library’. I thought it might be fun to dig it up and post it here, imagining that during the 10 years that have passed it would seem really outdated, but you be the judge on that one. Kind of funny when ideas from colleagues converge like this, so thanks to Donna! 

Knowledge WITH Technology: A Case for Intelligent Learning –
By Brenda Sherry

First submitted to Dr. E. Woodruff – 2005 – OISE

Defining technology

 A student stands in the doorway of a large library on campus, volumes filled with information and knowledge, some written recently and many far more antiquated. It is with awe that she realizes that the openness of the world of education is reflected in the way that a wide variety of thoughts, opinions and research are recorded. Looking forward to the opportunity to delve into the midst of many of those books and materials, the student is also aware that this is a formidable task; it will be critical to find some guidance, direction and wisdom to interpret all that she needs or wants to learn.

Today, students of all ages might experience this same exhilaration in front of a computer, but certainly the academic, administrative and political bodies of schools have been engaged in a lengthy discussion of the value of technology in education.   Curiously, that discussion seems to be focused primarily on the computer as technology and does not always involve the wide range of technological tools used in classrooms today. In the scenario depicted above, most academics would not dispute the value of their campus library, visiting frequently during their careers (either online or in person), and even aspiring to be published authors themselves.   It is a widely accepted fact that books are an important tool for learning, but one could argue that the fact that they are merely present in schools does not ensure their effectiveness. This paper will attempt to clarify that some computer technologies in schools can move students beyond the shallow transfer of information and skills and toward a development of a more intelligent kind of learning that promotes deeper understanding.

The move toward constructivism and intelligent learning

Learning is an internal, unobservable process that results in changes of belief, attitude or skill (Scardamalia 2003), and this elusive quality promotes a variety of approaches that attempt to create, explain and document student ‘learning’. During the 1960’s, the work of Jean Piaget began to move theories of education away from a Skinnerian approach that focused on observable behaviours. In this behaviourist approach reinforcement was provided as necessary to create learning, without much concern with the processes of the mind.     Piaget’s theory acknowledges the influence of maturation and he believed that learning was developmental, with the mind influencing what is learned. The learner constructs knowledge based upon his/her view of the world and therefore individual experiences will affect how new information is assimilated into the individual’s schematic organization. The teacher shapes the learning experiences for the student through a process of guided discovery by creating those effective individual experiences in the environment. This was a move away from the direct instructional approach of behaviourism and toward a more active, exploratory model. More recently, another approach to education and instruction, called the socio-historical approach or social constructivism, acknowledges cultural influences on individual learning; learning is a social process that involves others, primarily through language. Internalized language and knowledge creates learning, and teachers can promote the development of knowledge through apprenticeship and discourse.

Constructivism and social constructivism have been the foundation for a related approach, called constructionism, that while less widely implemented, often involves the use of computer technology. Seymour Papert, as a student of Piaget’s and a mathematician himself, began to study how children could use computers to enhance their knowledge of mathematics and developed constructionism as both a theory of learning and a strategy for education with constructivist roots in the belief that knowledge is actively constructed in the mind of the learner, not simply transmitted from the teacher to the student (Papert 1993). Students are not merely ‘banking’ information to be recalled when necessary (Friere 1970), nor are teachers required to ‘fill up’ their students with isolated facts (Bereiter 2002).   Learners actively construct and reconstruct knowledge out of their personal experiences in the world and constructionism takes this a step further; while working through authentic projects students are involved in building personally meaningful artifacts that demonstrate their knowledge.   Affect has a prevalent role in the quality of student learning according to constructionists. Learners are more likely to be intellectually engaged if activities are personally meaningful and this usually involves building or creating something that can be shared with others. Central to the theory is also the emphasis on the diversity of learners; learners make connections with knowledge in many different ways and therefore are given a variety of choices in how to demonstrate their learning (Kafai and Resnick 1996). Constructionism encourages multiple learning styles and varied representations of knowledge.

With such a variety of approaches to educational practice and considerable controversy about the effectiveness of these approaches, perhaps it is also beneficial to focus on the kinds of learning that we would like to see happening with students.   While the debate is on-going about how learning can be measured, I believe that many educators would agree with the following definition of the kind of graduate we hope that schools will be promoting: independent, mindful thinkers, skilled in life long learning, capable of intelligently handling complex problems alone and in teams and guided by some social values hat transcend egotistic benefits (Salomon 2000). After reading about many types of learning theories and theories of instructional design, I would argue that the kind of intelligent learning that we are seeking for our students involves active, engaged participation that is socially situated in the authentic context of real problems that involve personally constructed knowledge.

Learning with technology, not from it

Our student in the campus library must decide how and why to approach all the information with which she is presented.   She finds that despite the information that is available, it will not automatically bring her success in her education. Her professors prefer she create ideas, collaborate with her classmates, and make her thoughts explicit in presentations and papers. She begins to realize that reading, digesting and reiterating the theories of others is not knowledge, and that she can actively participate with others in the creation of new knowledge right now, while at the same time accumulating a foundational body of knowledge.

In comparing the computer to other educational technologies, it’s uniqueness is best observed when it is put to use in powerful ways. The computer is not merely an information machine, although users may count web-surfing, calendaring and email among their primary uses. Seymour Papert explains that all new technologies follow the same path of development in that the first uses are “to do in a new way what was already being done” (Resnick 1994). Using computers merely as information storing and retrieving machines maintains the behaviourist viewpoint that someone else should decide what knowledge is important and needs to be poured into the heads of students (Bereiter 2002).   The computer is thought by some to be simply a fancy new way to do this with more pizzaz, colour, graphics, sound, and fancy fonts. Being lulled by powerpoint presentations may be one example wherein traditional lecture methods are updated in appearance but may essentially remain the same pedagogically. Critics often move to the conclusion that if we can’t measure what the students have learned from technology, then why do we have it? It becomes a question of corporate cost/benefit rather than an understanding that learning is an unobservable cognitive process that is not easily measured. Gavriel Salomon eloquently outlines this point as a disappointment in technology; “the consistent and historical tendency of the education system to preserve itself and its practices by the assimilation of new technologies into existing instructional practices” (Salomon 2000). Scardamalia also supports this disappointing view of technology in that “many uses of the web are simply old methods repackaged to look new” ( 2002 ) . Papert calls it the “just a tool fallacy”; that education has failed “to distinguish between tools that improve their user’s ability to do pre-existing jobs, and another kind of ‘tool’ that are more than just tools because of their role in the creation of a job nobody thought to do, or nobody could have done before”. He refers here to innovation through Resnick’s creation of Star Logo, a robust computing language that addresses the educational need of exploring complex systems while providing the tool to do it (Resnick 1994). Educators who use technology effectively realize that the critical discussion is how students learn with technology, rather than what they learn from technology.

Information machines or knowledge machines?

Our student is becoming weary and losing motivation. Using her course syllabus she has begun to read ahead before classes get started, only to find that is difficult to remember what she is reading. She tries to make notes, but in the absence of a larger question to explore, nothing seems to connect. There is so much information there in the library which she can locate effectively; she knows her way around the cataloguing system, knows how to check books out, understands the use of indexes, tables of contents and reference materials. She knows how to use the information …..but to what end?

Salomon’s second disappointment is the technocentric focus that is widespread in schools. He states that we must “be careful not to just focus on the acquisition of skills pertaining to merely the use of technology rather than the pedagogical focus” (2000). While new technologies may make a learning revolution possible they certainly don’t guarantee it, just as having a school library doesn’t ensure that all students using it will develop the same quality of understanding. Resnick reminds us that if we want people to become better thinkers and learners we need to move beyond thinking about computers as limited only to their information storing and accessing capabilities. People create ideas, and the computer is a medium through which people can express and create through a variety of design activities. Resnick states that to become ‘digitally fluent’ it is not enough to know how to use technological tools, but we must be able to create something of importance with them. (Resnick 2002).

Of course, it is also important to remember that there should be a strong pedagogical focus to activities using technological tools in all learning activities. Scardamalia and Bereiter acknowledge that the constructivist principles of active engagement and participation are essential to learning but that some constructivist approaches can be found lacking in their ability to help students create knowledge. They caution against shallow constructivism in classrooms wherein tasks and activities, that may on first glance appear very active and engaging to students, do very little to support the advancement of knowledge. They define knowledge building as

     “the production and continual improvement of ideas of value to a community, through means that increase the likelihood that what the community accomplishes will be greater than the sum of individual contributions and part of broader cultural efforts – therefore not just limited to education.” (2003)

In our current ‘knowledge age’ it is essential, according to Scardamalia, to encourage people to work creatively with knowledge and move beyond access to information. The goals of a knowledge society as identified by Bereiter (2002): lifelong learning, flexibility, creativity, higher-order thinking skills, collaboration, distributed expertise, learning organizations, innovations, and technological literacy, may sound similar in part to other constructivist approaches but there are important extensions that make it unique.   There is collective responsibility (i.e. that the responsibility for the success of the group effort is distributed across all the members rather than being concentrated in the leader and that the responsibility for creative knowledge building resides with the entire group). This may also sound at first like other collaborative activities that happen in classrooms, such as project-based learning (pal), or cooperative learning. Indeed, while pal could have a knowledge building component, what appears to be different is the purpose: the students being directly involved together in “advancing the frontiers of knowledge as they perceive them”, and consequently creating unique conceptual artifacts.   For classroom teachers this means the frontiers of knowledge for a particular student community, not in the sense of feeding them more information to regurgitate to the group, but in involving them in actually exploring and developing knowledge together in as sophisticated and important a way as a scientist may do.   This important work is done through generating excellent questions, hypothesizing, gathering and analyzing information, testing theories, explaining and debating ideas and selecting relevant possibilities amidst the messy and often ambiguous reality of authentic problems. The teachers’ role here is quite clear; rather than creating hidden tasks and activities that may or may not help the learners connect information to the knowledge building at hand, the activities are chosen to advance the knowledge building of the group and the purpose of the activities is not hidden from the participants. Scardamalia and Bereiter do not argue that knowledge building is the only type of instructional approach that might be used in effective schools (2002 ). There is a place for direct instruction, as well as other pursuits such as putting on a play, or creating a model or multimedia projects. These examples, however, are not the knowledge building activities that are more likely to produce a conceptual rather than physical artifact and that use the computer as an exceptional tool for the collaboration and reflection that enhances intelligent learning.

How can technology enhance knowledge building?

Since merely the fact that you can do something with technology does not necessarily mean that it should be done, educators are left with the challenging task of sorting out those purposes that enhance individual and collective knowledge and those that do not.

Confusing the process are the environmental restrictions put upon students and teachers concerning technical issues with hardware and software (including access, operational ease and technical support), the time constraints of rotary subjects, separating students by age rather than interests, lengthy curriculum expectations to ‘cover’ and provincial assessment initiatives.   Having now participated in my first knowledge building community through a computer software called Knowledge ForumR , I can say that the use of this particular computer technology makes the purpose of building deeper understanding through collaborative knowledge building, clearer and more meaningful. CSILE (Computer Supported Intentional Collaborative Environment) began as a cognitive approach to writing that has evolved into Knowledge ForumR, focusing particularly on the promotion of deep understanding through intentional collaborative discourse. Its roots in constructivist theory are clear; successful participants are engaged, participating, questioning what they don’t know, helping others and exploring their own thinking by connecting with the thoughts, ideas and wonderings of others. The addition of scaffolds help to make the writer’s thinking clearer and deeper. As thoughts become explicit through notes and dialogue the group works together to delve deeper and build knowledge as a community of learners. It involves in-depth study of topics in a setting where the technology becomes transparent and virtually disappears, allowing the primary learning activity rise to the surface.

There are other examples of excellent technological tools that can enhance the activity of learning: the use of PDA’s or handheld computers can engage students in collaborative activities that enhance knowledge building, tele-mentoring programs can match students with expert-like novices for lengthy discussions about authentic issues and problems, programming software like Star Logo and Squeak can build a community of learners engaged in complex activities that require more than mastery of information, and web-based interaction such as blogs can unite web learners for a variety of constructive purposes. Having a chance to look specifically for the knowledge enhancing applications of technology rather than informational ones illuminates clearly the two requirements that Salomon indicates as necessary for information to become knowledge: 1) tutelage, (the human touch), either in person or online, and 2) a community of learners (Salomon 2000). These two components were certainly a powerful component of my experience as a student using Knowledge ForumR.   Intelligent Computer Tutoring programs, most computer mediated communication programs such as forums or threaded discussions, and drill and practice software do very little in the way of providing collaborative tools such as those required for knowledge building (Rochelle and Pea 1999).   As information tools they may have value, but clearly to promote deeper understanding it is the constructivist, collaborative nature of knowledge building that should be the focus of much of what we view as deeply meaningful educational pursuits in this knowledge age. While technology is an important tool, we must remember that it doesn’t magically transform information into knowledge for users any more than the library can transfer information to knowledge for readers, without the active construction of knowledge.

Research support

As if the selection, implementation and effective use of technology wasn’t a huge undertaking in its own right, there is also the added demand for accountability. There are many stake-holders in technology education, many of whom have not entered a classroom since their own days in school or the early days of their teaching careers, but who are demanding a quick and simple answer to the question of which hardware and software will magically demonstrate student learning, usually in the form of neat and tidy test scores.

Most teachers could provide a really effective measure of an engaged and productive classroom: walk in and talk to kids. Salomon’s final disappointment about technology is that we are misguided in our research. We continually ask the wrong questions, comparing one type of technology to another, rather than examining the virtues of specific technologies in terms of their effectiveness as learning tools.   The questions shouldn’t be, for example, does the use of desktop computers produce better learning than handhelds? Or, is it better to have a teacher or a library? Rather, we should be asking, under which conditions does a library become a successful tool for learning and under which conditions is a computer a successful tool? Not surprising to many educators, research indicates that traditional classrooms are better at producing mastery of recalled information and constructivist classrooms produce better improved skill of question formulating, hypothesis generating, and ability to tackle a new problem (Salomon 2000). This does not mean that the investment in technology isn’t worth the money because tests designed to measure recall might drop, it means that we have to devise new ways of being accountable for the other kinds of valuable learning that happens with technology.   We cannot be sure where we presently reside along the continuum of education with technology, nor the kinds of roles that teachers will adopt as technology evolves, but we can be sure that a powerful potential exists for technology to enhance and extend our collaborative knowledge building through learning communities if we insist upon effective, critical use of technology tools with a clear pedagogical purpose and vision in mind.


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