Nine Technologies for Education

By: 
Dr. May Lowery, Dr. Samuel Helms
Westwood College

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Abstract

This article reviews nine technologies that have the potential to positively impact education and the student experience.  These technologies are grouped into four categories: (a) communication (microblogging, social networking, podcasting), (b) classroom (interactive whiteboards, clickers), (c) virtual (virtual reality, virtual worlds), and (d) access (mobile learning, eBooks).  Some research regarding the technologies is presented and the implications for adopting the technologies are briefly discussed.  Suggestions for adoption of any technology conclude the article and include suggestions to conduct student and faculty surveys as well as weigh the benefits of the technology with the costs (including the cost of continued support and training).

With the explosion of new technologies over the past decade, higher education institutions are making difficult decisions about what to adopt and how to make strategic choices for student learning.  This article is a brief overview of the top nine technologies that potentially have the greatest impact on learning.  The technologies are presented in the categories of communication (microblogging, social networking, podcasting), classroom (interactive whiteboards, clickers), virtual (virtual reality, virtual worlds), and access (mobile learning, e-books).

Communication Technologies

Microblogging, social networking, and podcasting have a powerful potential to energize educational communication.  Microblogging is the posting of short personal messages, and is dominated by the service Twitter (http://www.twitter.com).  Twitter accounts for courses could encourage students or small groups to post comments and questions quickly during class, allowing faculty to assess learning and organize discussions.  

Many people are familiar with the idea of social networking tools, such as Facebook and MySpace, that allow users to post information on profiles and messages in an online environment (Pempek et al, 2009).  Social networking can also be used to build learning communities among students and faculty.  Creating an interconnected community of learners around educational topics promotes spontaneous discussion, debates, and exchange of ideas.  Some colleges are successfully using free tools like Elgg (http://www.elgg.org) to link students in the same program or to set up online threaded discussions to continue the conversation outside of class.  

Podcasting involves posting audio files to a source, enabling the user to capture lectures, broadcasts, or music.  Podcasting has been touted as improving learning since podcasts are easily accessible, mobile, and familiar to most students (McKinney et al, 2009).  Podcasts are also easy for faculty and students to create with free audio recording software such as Audacity.

Classroom Technologies

Interactive whiteboards and student response systems (clickers) are relatively new technologies used in a traditional classroom.  Interactive whiteboards project a computer-generated image onto a touch-sensitive board.  Users can interact with the projected objects by touching the board with their fingers, pens, or other objects.  The technology usually synchronizes with presentation software (such as PowerPoint) to enliven the traditional whiteboard.  Interactive whiteboards allow the faculty to operate a computer while standing in front of the board instead of sitting behind a desk.  

Clickers are wireless devices that allow students to view questions and send replies directly through a computer.  Research on clickers indicates an increase in student interest, interactivity, and class attendance (Dangel & Wang, 2008).  Faculty typically project questions on a screen and dynamically receive responses from the students, whose responses are tallied on the screen to publicly indicate learning or opinion trends.  Powerful questions can be posed to review facts, elicit opinions that spark discussion, or to prompt higher order analysis of a problem (Dangel & Wang, 2008).  

Virtual Technologies

This category includes virtual reality (VR) and virtual worlds.  Virtual reality is “an artificial reality that projects the user into a 3D space generated by the computer” (“Definition of virtual reality,” 2009).  A virtual world is a persistent VR environment that invites users to enter, interact, and change the world through their actions.  

VR in education has been well researched (Bailenson et al., 2008; Hanson, & Shelton, 2008; Limniou et al, 2008).  Advantages to using VR include increased immersion and concentration, and additional time engaged in the learning environment.  

Virtual worlds such as Second Life, ActiveWorlds, and massively multiplayer online role-playing games such as World of Warcraft receive most of the attention from educational institutions.  Virtual worlds have been assessed for their educational advantages, experiential capacities, and impact on student learning (Twining, 2009).  

Access Technologies

Mobile learning and eBooks impact students’ access to learning materials.  Mobile learning is the access of online learning content using mobile devices such as PDAs and cell phones.  It is gaining popularity with educators since students can access online learning objects from a variety of devices, without being tied to a computer.  In theory, this will encourage participation by students in online content and increase just-in-time training.  In the near future, the ability to access learning material on a mobile device will be expected by students (Wagner, 2005).  Currently, online content must be specially coded for access by mobile devices although some new devices do not require this special coding.

eBooks are books delivered in a digital versus a paper format, using a variety of new technologies from PDF to eInk (http://www.eink.com).  Currently none of the electronic book readers, such as the Amazon Kindle series, Sony eReader, or the Barnes and Noble Nook, have conquered the mainstream of society.  Princeton piloted using the Kindle to replace textbooks but students did not like the switch (Hsu, 2009b).  Students complained that when using the Kindle “highlighting, using sticky notes and scribbling margin notes have essentially become useless” (Hsu, 2009b, p. 1).  Because of this, digital books on electronic readers may not be quite ready for widespread usage in education.

How to Choose?

Many new technologies have the potential to impact education.  Some well-researched guidelines for considering the adoption of new technologies are offered by Rogers (2003): new technologies should be compatible with users (both students and faculty); have a clear relative advantage (is the cost worth the impact?); are observable in the mainstream of society or education.

Compatibility with Users

There are many assumptions made about college students and what technologies they use.  Books such as Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation (Howe & Strauss, 2000) have greatly influenced assumptions by educators.  It would be wise for institutions to conduct an assessment of their students’ uses of technology to better match the need with the desire.  Perhaps students at the school have no desire for mobile learning, or find that podcasts depend too heavily on the capacity for auditory learning; resources could then be diverted to other technologies.

A similar study of the faculty’s desire for technology would also be prudent: what technologies will faculty use, and what technologies do they believe will improve learning?  A potential challenge is that faculty may not know what exists and therefore not know the benefits.  Other issues are trepidation over the steep learning curve for new technologies or the risk of lower student satisfaction while trying new technologies.  Early adopters would likely indicate that they could use more; late adopters may believe what they have is sufficient (Rogers, 2003).

A Clear Relative Advantage

Once the technology is chosen, the next step is the creation of a business case for purchasing and integration, focusing on the benefits relative to the costs.  It is vitally important that adoption of a new technology include a plan for implementation, training, and support.  It is not a good investment to purchase technology that is not used by the faculty and/or students.

Observable in the Mainstream

A prudent guideline is that colleges operating within budget constraints should wait to adopt a technology until it has been first accepted by the mainstream of society or by education.  There is a world of opportunity for student learning in the application of new technologies.  With careful research and implementation, new technologies can also enhance the overall student and faculty experience.  Each adopted technology needs to be carefully implemented and supported to ensure compatibility with students and faculty, a clear advantage, and acceptance by the mainstream.  The only valuable technology is the technology that is used.

Author Bio

Dr. May Lowry
Westwood College

Dr. May Lowry is the Dean of Teaching for Westwood College. With 20 years of experience in higher education, her background includes oversight of training and development for faculty in a variety of settings and discipline areas. She believes that the principles of good teaching remain while the affordances of new technologies are changing the face of education. Dr. Mary Lowry can be reached at mlowry@westwood.edu   

Dr. Samuel Helms
Westwood College

Dr. Samuel Helms is an Instructional Designer at Westwood College where he has worked for over two years. His research interests include games, simulations, and technologies for enhancing education. He received his Ph.D. in Educational Technology from the University of Northern Colorado in 2010. Samuel Helms can be reached at shelms@westwood.edu

References

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