Enhancing Learning with Technology: Research Themes

Review by David Longman, 4th Feb 2018


Enhancing Learning with Technology: Research Themes
Editors: Erik Duval,‎ Mike Sharples,‎ Rosamund Sutherland
Publisher: Springer http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02600-8
Date: May 2017
Reviewed: 18th Feb 2018


One of the more challenging publishing genres is surely the book of collected research-focussed chapters aiming to provide a well explained overview of the current state of research in a specialised field. This book, ‘Technology Enhanced Learning: Research Themes’ rises to that challenge.

Derived from work by members of the STELLAR project, a European funded, strategically focussed ‘network of excellence’, the book is well edited, the chapters are clearly written, the explicit and detailed approach to providing references to research is thorough, and the particular structural idea in the book is to build each chapter theme around four selected key sources. This is a good idea and works quite well. The key sources are clearly referenced in the chapters and are listed separately at the end of the book. These provide a very useful core list for any reader wanting to take their investigations further.

A wide range of relevant and key themes, including an overview of theories of learning, learning as a design science, approaches to technology-supported assessment, collaborative and social learning, mobile devices, designs for learning spaces, intelligent tutoring systems, and social issues. The chapters provide an overview not only of what research has been done (over more than twenty years), but what the key issues and debates might be for that theme. A few chapters tend to rely on an ‘annotated readings’ approach to covering the research background to a particular topic but that may be inevitable given the sheer quantity of material.

This is not an introductory approach to the background research but a a specialised collection of material and perhaps suited to current researchers, higher education students or developers who study or work in technology enhanced learning and have some familiarity with the domain. An ideal audience for this book might be ‘learning technologists’, those whose work in schools, colleges or universities requires them to systematise digital resources for others to use, managing and orchestrating the available tools and systems available to students and staff (typically a VLE of some form or the production of bespoke materials and activities). This book therefore can provide ample routes into new ideas as well as offering useful ways to frame or justify current practices.

From the outset the book reveals a certain ambivalence about the idea of ‘theory’ and at a few points we we are reminded that we are not dealing with a theory of TEL so much as a set of conceptual frameworks. Chapter 2, in its overview of the background to TEL, includes the word ‘theory’ in its title but soon informs the reader that the claim to theory is too strong, “imprecise and unhelpful”, because TEL is so sensitive to contextual factors and it is difficult to generalise about underlying principles. Instead, “framework decisions” are a more apt description of what we do, guided by the situation in which TEL is applied. A similar argument is put forward in Chapter 3 where Constructionism is described as not a theory so much as a “manifesto”.

Early in the book we are also reminded that TEL is really an accumulation of artefacts, informed by learning research, but essentially a view of learning as knowledge building and schools as knowledge institutions. Thus TEL begins to sound more like a species of engineering, even perhaps a branch of the ‘maker’ movement! There may be a risk that too much focus on artefacts, even if they might be informed by learning theory, can become ad hoc, inconsistent and ill-suited to their contexts of use. The only escape from this is the idea of design science as a pragmatic approach to fixing things after they have been trialled or implemented in a test-evaluate-revise cycle.

Learning design is covered in some detail in Chapter 4, a fairly technical chapter useful for those seeking to place TEL artefacts on a principled foundation, although lacking in examples or models of practice based on these principles. The chapter concludes with a comment about the importance of practising teachers engaging in TEL design and while this is a significant point about how such TEL should be created there is no discussion here or elsewhere in the book of how such capability might be developed.

Similarly, Chapter 5 on computer-supported collaborative work (CSCL) delivers good detail on principles but few exemplars that might illustrate the practice behind their implementation. CSCL is promoted as a transformative element of TEL although it is not entirely clear where or how such transformation is expected; the value of collaborative working is asserted rather than demonstrated. No doubt there is much to be gleaned from the supporting research literature but careful critical reading is required. For example, on page 55 the authors cite an OECD report about Pisa findings that they claim is supportive of the role of collaborative tools in education. However, a cursory glance at that report indicates that there may be considerable political and cultural differences between national education systems on this key point. Do the principles of CSCL, or more broadly the design science orientation of the book, apply across cultures? Is design science universal? These are significant questions.

This is a solid library of research that illustrates a long and productive effort to design and develop useful TEL, a foundation on which to progress the efforts of researchers and developers to produce better artefacts (I leave the ambiguity of the word ‘better’ to the reader to resolve). However, this book may also represent a pivotal moment in how we think about and move forward with TEL.

For this is a fast-moving field encompassing not merely TEL in the narrow sense that relates to learning, and by implication education, but in the broader sense that our society has become deeply pedagogical in almost every aspect of daily life. The commercialisation of persuasion has become a key economic force where similar techniques are used to exploit the malleability of human attention. In this respect therefore this book seems curiously untouched by the profound issues that education technology has generated, especially when viewed in this broader landscape.

Thus the chapters on CSCL, Mass Collaboration with Social Software, or Mobile Learning have little or nothing to say regarding the issues that sweep through the public sphere on a daily basis. Similarly, the chapter on Adaptive Intelligent Learning Environments (AILE) has little to say about the critical issues arising from the idea that such software might be able to ‘model’ a learner’s intellectual or even affective disposition. The suggestion that AILE somehow “shifts more and more from formal learning contexts towards supporting self-regulated and informal learning” seems to beg an entire chapter by itself. In a similar vein the chapter about ‘digital divides’ also fails to raise a critical note, even as it points out that TEL may reinforce digital divides as much as it might help to breach them.

This is not to diminish the value of this book. It provides an excellent overview of the current state of research at the time it was published. It is useful and informative and could form the foundation for ‘mission development’ inside universities, colleges and schools. However, it is now more important than ever that the supporting research is approached carefully, critically, and selectively to ensure that development effort, and further evaluation and research, is appropriate to local circumstances and cultures. To this end this book really needed at least a concluding chapter that highlighted some of these less articulated research themes but themes which, if they are visible to anyone, ought to be visible to academic researchers.

Throughout the book, in every chapter, there is the bright undercurrent of optimism; TEL is regarded, almost without question, as a force for improvement and the release of human potential. It is a belief in progress. This may or may not be the case. From here on TEL research must take account of itself and provide more robust evidence, data and arguments that technology enhanced learning could really be achieved by these kinds of cognitive engineering methods and while also reducing socio-political risks.