Using Technology to Enhance Learning and Understanding

Despite protestations from governments and politicians to allay criticisms of declining educational standards and effectiveness, often accompanied by announcements of new quality assurance programmes and repeated affirmations of rising living standards and lifetime benefits for all, institutionalised learning offers students few options but to acquiesce to the restrictions of an inflexible, subject delineated, content-focussed curriculum.

In place of teaching students how to learn, think, and construct knowledge, a culture of corporatisation and financial accountability now overshadows the teaching and learning process, and prioritises the recording of grades and the production of reports in order to justify the ‘benefits of education’. Instead of enabling all students to maximise their capacity to learn and realise their full learning potential, the structure’s administrative mission is to gather the ‘evidence’ it needs to perpetuate the myth of improving standards and to lay claim to the delivery of a quality education to all. Two seemingly immutable tenets of the education system stand out.

First, the division of knowledge into subjects and subjects into curricula advantages the institutional structure in that it can manage and allocate learning in a clearly defined and orderly manner. The problem is that by firmly embedding the notion of knowledge domains within the traditional ‘educational delivery’ methodology, there is a tendency to programme curricula into sequential pathways that constrain learners to a narrow range of options for understanding the material presented and more importantly, for traversing divergent discipline areas (and so pursue interdisciplinary learning).

The second tenet is the regimentation of time (‘timetabling’), which is an effective (industrialised) agent for coordinating and managing the activities of learners and teachers. Ultimately however, timetables restrict learning to arbitrary time segments and force learners to switch from subject to subject at set intervals, oftentimes when learning has not taken full effect.

The two key tenets outlined above are indicative of an entrenched mindset that is fixed on managing students and teachers, and regulating the complexities of transmitting knowledge. A hierarchically organised approach to the delivery of education has become so predominant that any exploration of what is achieved within the known constraints is automatically construed as a genuine discussion on education, which when loosely interchanged with pedagogy places no regard for explicating crucial distinctions. The central issue not raised is that neither tenet is remotely connected with effective learning and teaching.

The prevailing educational system is designed for the transmission of pre-defined content thereby making it difficult to organise learner-centred approaches such as individualised learning, small group learning, problem-based learning, or many other non-traditional pedagogical approaches. At a time when process skills are increasingly favoured over factual knowledge, skills involving team work, problem solving, evaluation, interpretation, application, and interaction have become more difficult to cultivate (Liber, 2004, p 135).

Increasingly, people prefer to define their own learning agendas and engage more directly and actively in the learning process. No longer is it accepted that governments, politicians, and institutions set the agenda: individuals and groups want a say in what and how they learn. In essence, greater flexibility in accessing learning solutions and how and when learning takes place has become an important factor in the minds of learners. Aside from the issue of learning process skills versus factual knowledge, there is also the perennial issue of personal experience versus conceptual understanding, a topic of concern observed as far back as Schopenhauer’s time (Magee, 1997, p 6.):

The chief drawback of formal education is that it reverses the proper order of experiences and concepts. Concepts have content and significance in so far as they derive from experience and can be cashed back into it. And the trouble with formal education is that it pre-empts experience in this regard by giving us our first knowledge of many of the most important aspects of life not through experience, from which we then abstract and generalise, but through concepts based on other people’s abstractions and generalisations to which nothing in our own experience corresponds or can be opposed. So for all of us, reality is bound to be to some extent impeded by the observations and perceptions and of others; and so, therefore, is truly original thinking and insight.

Before technology became an influencing factor, Gardner and Hatch (1989, pp 4 – 9) argued that “we need to be able to formulate new questions, and not just rely on tasks or problems posed by others. We need the ability to learn in new ways, to evaluate our own progress, to be able to transfer knowledge from one context to another”. For Gardner and Hatch,, the most important skill of all is metacognition: an understanding of guiding principles, of what really matters, and the ability to filter out the escalating flood of meaningless trivia that for the most part, matter least (Thackara, 2005, p 136).

Almost forty years ago, Illich (1971, p 9) suggested that the best solution for many of our education dilemmas is to have less of it. He proposed the “de-schooling of society” as a way of overcoming the problems of “schooling students to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new”. He challenged society to embrace the notion of “institutional inversion” by seeking out ways to redesign institutions so that they once again serve the needs of all people in respectful ways (Liber, 2004, p 128). Illich further argued that we need to develop institutions and technologies that allow people to engage with each other creatively and autonomously, and for values to emerge from these interactions. He proclaimed in 1971 (p 9):

…the institutionalization of values leads inevitably to physical pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernised misery… most of the research now going on about the future tends to advocate further increases in the institutionalization of values.

Thus, care must be taken to avoid what Thackara (2005, p 135) refers to as a ‘pipe and bucket’ approach to the delivery of web-based learning. As Thackara observes:

Pipe-and-bucket thinking pervades policy that has to do with learning and education. The British government is even building a “National Grid of Learning” that will connect all schools to the internet. It is a great political metaphor – knowledge for all, just like water or electricity. But it’s an outdated model of learning. Learning is a complex, social, and multidimensional process that does not lend itself to being sent down a pipe – for example, from a website. Knowledge, understanding wisdom – or “content”, if you must, are qualities one develops through time. They are not a thing one is sent.

Although many educational institutions around the world have introduced online learning as a convenient option for accessing teaching content, the design of most web environments is structured around the traditional delivery model and despite the eloquent rhetoric of vendors and institutions alike, very few learning management systems promote pedagogical diversity. Learners are not equipped with the tools to organise their work, group learning is not always readily available, team-focussed problem-based learning activities are not easily supported, and full integration with the wider Internet is not always possible.

When compared to the Internet, people are ‘meeting’ each other in chat rooms, running Weblogs, engaging in ‘virtual’ networked communities, responding to each others’ questions on ‘support’ websites (bulletin boards, blogs, and wikis), and sharing resources using peer-to-peer systems. Rarely are these features made available in the leading delivery platforms preferred by organised education. The Internet continually offers new tools to support these activities, but most contemporary learning management platforms do not fully exploit them. A mismatch has become evident between what people are doing on the Internet and the provisions of online learning platforms ((Liber, 2004, pp 137 -8).

Instead of assuming students will ‘en masse’ follow, understand, and learn the same course in identical ways, technology can facilitate active collaboration while permitting the learner to pursue their preferred approach to learning. The same technologies can assist teachers to work together to develop and share resources and teaching strategies; and instead of competing for student numbers, technology can enable institutions to collaborate to better serve the needs of all students. Thus, quality of learning can be assured through systemic design where knowledge building is the primary focus, not the transmission of content (Liber, 2004, p 136).

Using the new technologies, the opportunity exists to ‘de-institutionalise’ education (in effect), and rather than separate the values and goals of education from the needs and aspirations of the student, control can be handed back so that the individual is empowered to learn, understand, and grow in response to their unique needs, interests, and circumstances.

Projecting slightly into the future, it is conceivable that web-based learning and the search engines that drive the web will be given the capacity to assist humans to form new associations between concepts, to synthesise information to create new knowledge, and to solve problems on demand. In effect, it is feasible web-based learning solutions will evolve into ‘intelligent thinking’ systems that learn and respond to human input. Rather than being a convenient tool for accessing information, the opportunity exists to deliver learning solutions on the Net that aim to enhance conceptual thinking and understanding.


Gardner, Howard and Hatch, T, (1989). Multiple Intelligences Go to School: Educational Implications of the Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Educational Researcher, Vol. 18, No. 8. pp 4 – 9.

Illich, I. (1971). Deschooling Society. Calder and Boyars: London, UK.

Liber, Oleg. (2004). Cybernetics. e-Learning and the Educations System. International Journal of Learning Technology, Vol. 1, No. 1.

Magee, Bryan. (1997). The Philosophy of Schopenhauer. Clarendon Press: Oxford, UK. p 6.

Thackara, J. (2005). In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA: MIT Press.