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Three Common Illusions About Technology and Learning

Posted By Trent Batson Ph. D., AAEEBL, Monday, January 13, 2014

Three Common Illusions About Technology and Learning

Educators have fallen for three illusions that are standing in the way of the educational enterprise changing in productive ways.

The Three Illusions

The first illusion is that no change in teaching approaches is needed when technology is added into the mix. The technology alone will change learning behavior. "Word processing will lead to more student revision of their writing.” "PowerPoint will increase learning by making it visible.” "Adding an eportfolio to a standard course will lead to greater student engagement.” This illusion has played out in many ways, depending on the discipline.

Even though most of us, or all of us, nod at the phrase, "it’s not the technology,” we continue to somehow hope it will be the technology that makes the difference.

A second illusion is that, because technology hype so often proves overblown and mistaken, technology itself can be ignored and we can continue doing things as we always have. Since the hype itself is often based on an illusion, we fall into the trap of being deluded by an illusion.

A third illusion is that education will evolve to a new kind of singularity: we will replace "talk and test” with some other monolithic model of education. Because we have been following one narrow set of practices for a century, it is logical to believe we will simply move to a new narrow set of practices. The MOOC madness last year was only the latest example of this illusion: MOOCs, we feared, would replace everything. This third illusion is especially dangerous because it prevents us from clearly seeing the reality all around us: we are not moving to one completely new model of teaching and learning but to many new models of teaching and learning. And this process is already underway: colleges and universities are constantly adding new options, new pathways, new experiences for learning. Technology and the Internet have opened almost infinite opportunities for learning and for building knowledge. Our challenge is not to find the one new dominant model but to deal with the many new models.

Technology Widens the Horizons of Learning

Technology is not always at the center of the new models but technology does allow them to become more valuable: technology connectivity adds value to learning outside the classroom because students can demonstrate their learning outside the classroom, for example. Technology does not define new models of learning but it does widen the limits of those models, it does enrich those models, it does open those models to assessment, it does allow these new models to be collaborative, and it does allow learners to add to their resume because students have tangible evidence of their learning. Technology also allows students using these new models of learning to produce evidence of learning that can then be credentialed.

Multiple and Varying Learning Experiences, One Mode of Documentation

Higher education is moving toward an almost unimaginable multiplicity of learning experiences that may not be not pre-unified or pre-standardized by a curriculum for all, but unified instead by how the results of these learning experiences is demonstrated. If all students in a course make a similar kind of showcase eportfolio, then this act of producing the eportfolio is the unifying effort. The students may have had many more kinds of learning experiences than students had before in the same course, but they can still document how well they have arrived at learning goals through their portfolio. Students can "make visible” their own learning experiences via many kinds of technology, in visual format, graphics, audio, text, and other media formats, and all combined in various ways.

Learning, like science, is moving to the need to use "big data” to find significance and meaning. Big data is perhaps the most significant aspect of knowledge development and transmission today. An individual learner will not collect big data about their learning in the same way that scientists gather big data, of course, but the concept, the process, is similar: limitations are not imposed on how the learning occurs, or how the data is collected, but left open. It is in the interpretation of the data that science finds what to investigate; it is in the interpretation of the data that learners find what to demonstrate through their portfolios for course evaluation, a job interview, an application for graduate school, for a promotion, or any other life opportunity.

Let Students Construct the Content of the Course

This distinction, organizing after the fact instead of before the fact, is a difficult concept for those of us who have been planning courses for years or decades. It is hard to allow students to work on a task or a problem and proceed in multiple ways, follow different paths toward a solution, without intervening. It is hard not to over-define the task so that the outcome is pre-determined.

It is also hard to have trust that students might find solutions we teachers had not thought of before. And, it is hard in many cases to trust that our students will care enough to work toward an imaginative solution or that they will engage sufficiently with the project to find even a satisfactory solution. But this is a real life test. Employers have complained that graduates often cannot work on unstructured problems; they have not been given the chance to work in that way.

But Maintain Disciplinary Standards

Still, however, we can maintain disciplinary standards of knowledge representation as our students choose evidence of their work, individual or group, and make a case for their solution to the problem or task or assignment. Instead of pre-defining the outcome, we educators can judge the varying outcomes to see how well our students understood disciplinary concepts.

Going from lockstep to variability can be uncomfortable; we are not telling our students the three points we want them to remember; instead they may come up with five points that are not quite what we wanted but which may equally well express the same important disciplinary concept.

This more constructivist approach to learning may seem messy compared to talk-and-test. But more learning may occur. The other illusion we educators have labored under is that, when we talk, students are learning. Both we educators and our students fervently wished for this illusion to be true because it is so easy to talk and it is so easy to pretend to learn.

A Scenario

Below is a list of actions a department or program or college could undertake to move to portfolio learning, one way to work productively in this confusing new age of multiple ways of learning:

1. Move away from course-centric to learning centric: the course starts and stops, learning does not.

2. Create learning goals for whatever courses learners do take that can help them arrive at a degree-level learning outcome.

3. Put the learner’s eportfolio at the center of the course: it is the teacher’s responsibility to aid the development of the ongoing learning portfolio of all students in the course (they come into the course with an eportfolio and they leave with an enhanced eportfolio).

4. Work with a larger scope of learning experiences (high-impact educational practices), relevant co-curricular and non-curricular experiences as well, that can be included in the portfolio.

5. Make the portfolio the basis for evaluation of the student’s learning during the course.

6. Include colleagues in the discipline in the evaluation of the student portfolio

7. Base faculty evaluation on the quality of the portfolios produced in the faculty member’s courses over time.

8. Make the measure of learning outcomes be how well graduates do in their careers over the first 5 years after graduation.

A business model based on the development of a student's portfolio – not credit hours -- would complete the transformation of an institution from a teaching academy to a learning academy. This new business model would change the institution’s goal from knowledge acquisition to knowledge creation, from memory to learning, and from rote to real.

The Scenario is Already Happening

It is no longer uncommon to see aspects of the above suggestions incorporated on a number of campuses today, as variations on this list, or as a fully developed program.

From this list, however, it should be clear that the "magic” is not in the technology – although the technology makes it all possible – but in the re-imagining of education, in reminding ourselves what is important today, and in facing the reality of how learning best occurs. The magic is not in the technology, but in how we use it.


Go to to learn about our first Midwest Regional Conference at the University of Michigan May 18 and 19.

People sometimes tell me they are not sure they should join AAEEBL "because we are not doing eportfolios.” AAEEBL has been identified with eportfolios because eportfolios help educators and learners take advantage of the many new ways of learning and of documenting learning. AAEEBL has also been identified with eportfolio technologies because there is a defined eportfolio industry. But AAEEBL is really about educational transformation, about new forms of learning, and about all the implications of changes in education and learning.

The AAEEBL community is made up of people interested in new ways for educators to work, new ways for learners to learn, new ways of learning to be assessed and new ways for learning to be credentialed. This is a community rich in ideas about the challenges to educators today. Though eportfolios are a common thread in this community, the community is really about educational change and not just about one technology.

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Tags:  Technology Learning eportfolios 

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