Four Questions to Ask About E-Learning


These are the four vital questions I think need to be asked when introducing any new learning tool:

  1. What does it add to critical thinking?
  2. What does it add to collaboration?
  3. Does it increase options for metacognition?
  4. How does it help with feedback?

Professor David Jonassen of the University of Missouri developed a concept called Mindtools.   A tool becomes a Mindtool when it can ADD something to the mind which could not have happened without the tool.  For instance a pencil can be a Mindtool because it can help us to recall our thoughts and write them down and rearrange them in different ways and then share them with other people.  We can go away and do something else and the record of our thoughts will still be there to come back to.  So the pencil adds something to thinking. 

Some of Jonassen’s descritions of Mindtools (in What are Mindtools? 2000) are:

  • “They have been adapted or developed to function as intellectual partners with the learner in order to engage and facilitate critical thinking and higher order learning,”
  • They can, “Amplify the learner’s thinking by transcending the limitations of the mind.” 
  •  “Learning with Mindtools requires learners to think harder about the subject-matter domain being studied than they would have to think without the Mindtool.”

This is the educational theory (based on the work of Vygotsky) which says that learners construct knowledge based on prior experiences as a result of engaging in meaningful activities and real problem-solving.    Also that people learn through social interaction and collaborative building of understanding. 

If an ICT is going to ADD to learning it must answer the four questions

  1.     What does it add to critical thinking?

A knowledge-construction process can roughly be described as a process where new information and previous understandings (which may be in conflict with the new information) lead to new understandings – a process which almost inevitably involves higher level thinking.  Learning and critical thinking is recursive – that means it goes backwards and forwards and round and round.  Questions are refined and redefined in light of new information.  When information is shared in a multi-textured way in a public forum there are enhanced possibilities for differences in understandings to be uncovered, providing numerous possible foundations for synthesis processes to occur.  Synthesis processes are higher –order thinking skills – they involve combining two or more separate ideas into one new idea or understanding which is superior to the first.  It is an uncomfortable process because somewhere along the line, previous thinking is being challenged.  Higher-order thinking skills can be taught and the SOLO model is one way of helping with this. 

If an ICT is able to be used to gather, organise and process information it may add to critical thinking.

2.     What does it add to collaboration?

All of our understandings are socially constructed.  For instance, we have a group consensus on what a teacup is and what we can use it for. Understandings are not gained in isolation.  One of the highest effect sizes found by John Hattie in Visible Learning is for reciprocal teaching (0.74 effect) – children collaborating in teaching each other.  If a piece of technology helps people to collaborate it may be able to add to learning. 

 3.    Does it increase options for metacognition?

Metacognition includes the awareness of multiple intelligences, various modes of learning styles and cognitive strategies.  Learners who have an understanding of their learning processes have the choice of employing alternative learning strategies.  These are the strategies naturally used by successful learners but they can be taught to all learners.  If an ICT allows more flexibility in learning then it may add to metacognition.  

4.      How does it help with feedback?

Feedback is the GPS locator of learning.  It is also high on Hattie’s good effects for learning (0.73).  For feedback to be meaningful it has to refer to something (the overall learning map).  When learners take more control of their learning they understand their learning pathways, they know what they are trying to achieve and they are able to seek and use feedback from many sources to help them achieve their learning goals.  If an ICT allows for more feedback than otherwise, then it adds to learning.

Why is collaboration so important?

Thanks to ready access to reliable Internet learners are able to choose their learning.  No matter what we want to find out we can find it online and there will be a You Tube video showing how to do it.  This does not necessarily mean a high standard of learning.  Learners need to learn how to use these tools effectively for real thinking - teachers need to lead the way with this.  

Learners can also be teachers more easily.  In the past there were criteria for publishing, not just anyone could publish their work.  Now everyone can.  Everyone is an author.  Our children expect to be able to upload videos, share their learning online with relatives far away and connect with their friends via social media.  

This is MANY to MANY learning and replaces the familiar traditional model of ONE to MANY learning where the teacher had control of knowledge and power.  Although many teachers still act as if this is the default model, their learners do not.  Hence learner disengagement, or superficial engagement in the one to many model.

The change from ONE to MANY technology happened when the printing press allowed an author to share their work with many people.  There was much fear about the consequences of this rapid dissemination of information.  It was closely followed by the Reformation, Renaissance and the birth of modern science.

The change to MANY to MANY technology has already happened.  
We don't know the effects of this change yet - 
we do know that educators will be partially responsible for the effects.


 1440     The Guttenberg Printing Press was completed leading to an unprecedented knowledge from from ONE to MANY    
 1500 Printing presses established across Europe
 1517 Luther's publications led to the REFORMATION
 1540+ Start of the scientific revolution, birth of modern science, rejection of 2000 year old "scientific" understandings.
 1450-1600 Renaissance
 Late 1900's Internet became established as a means of communication - unprecedented knowledge flow from MANY to MANY.  All of our students have only known this world.
 Early 2000's Rapid development of technology and networking capacity.

The change to MANY to MANY technology has already happened.  We have a responsibility....

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