Studies in Educational Technology

A colleague of mine recently asked for reading recommendations in the area of Educational Technology, and I started thinking about the trail I followed (a la, Vannevar Bush) to arrive at my current notions of the field.

I taught college composition from 1998-2003. Some of my colleagues were teaching Dreamweaver or FrontPage in their composition classes. By teaching, I don’t mean that they were teaching how to communicate on the Web as much as how to use the programs, in other words, they were spending class time showing what each button of the respective programs did. In essence, their courses were software instruction classes instead of writing classes and, in my opinion, the students’ writing suffered.

I came to composition instruction fresh from industry, where technology was a tool to get a job done. I wondered how, as instructors, we could use technology to fit our needs, rather than the other way around. This, I found, was not a popular approach in my department. Once I entered grad school, I signed up for the main listserv in the field of computers and composition and made a disappointing discovery — they, too, were focusing on how to fit their lessons around the technology. In fact, in 2005, I attended one of their conferences at Stanford and spent three or four days completely frustrated by the focus on technology, rather than writing. Who cares about Drupal or Flash if the students can’t write?


At that point, Larry Cuban’s Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom (2001), addressed my concerns. While Cuban is skeptical about educational technology, he also reports on successful use of ed tech, and that’s what interested me. In particular, he described Esperanza Rodrigues’ preschool classroom at Benjamin co-op, in the Bay area. In teaching students about shapes, Rodrigues blended strong practice using both offline and online techniques, seamlessly moving between using and not using technology to enhance the learning experience. By strong practice, she had a clear lesson plan and learning goal, she engages the students in the learning process, reinforces the lesson and pushes them beyond their comfort level to a new understanding. In my opinion, Rodrigues demonstrates best practice in using technology in education — she uses it as a tool to enhance a strong lesson plan, it is not the main feature and she has not formed her lesson to fit the technology.


A few months later, I read Richard Mayer’s (2001) Multimedia Learning for the first time. I was happy to discover he was at UCSB and started attending his classes. Multimedia Learning establishes clear, rigorous methods for measuring whether learning occurs in multimedia environments and whether the technology enhances or detracts from the learning environment. Mayer offers research-based recommendations for designing learner-centered multimedia environments. [Note: Rich Mayer is my advisor. My research, thinking, and teaching have very much benefited from his mentorship.]


Around that time, James Paul Gee (2003) published What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, which approaches the question of technology and learning differently from Mayer’s text, but nonetheless makes very strong contributions. I was most interested in Gee’s claims about why video games are so compelling. The main take-away messages for me in terms of effective ways to incorporate technology into learning environments were the concepts of active learning (see DH Jonassen for more info), pushing students beyond their zone of proximal development (see Vygotsky for more info), and allowing for risk taking by making the consequences for failure low.

I became increasingly interested in student classroom engagement and wanted to compare engagement in classes that taught the same lesson, but one used the learning concepts I was studying and one did not. My colleague Doug Bradley and I developed a learning simulation in which we incorporated Gee’s and Mayer’s ideas. Not surprisingly, in classes where computers were available, but not used, students had high levels of disengagement, using the computers for off-task activities such as ESPN, shopping, and entertainment (we conducted this study before Facebook was popular). In the classes where we used the simulation, off-task activities were minimal, indicating that students were highly engaged (abstract available on ERIC).

While I’ve read many interesting and useful books and articles on Educational Technology, Mayer and Gee are my main influences. Another text of interest is Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point (2000), Chapter 3: The Stickiness Factor, where he discusses why kids love Sesame Street and  Blue’s Clues. Michele Dickey’s (2005) Engaging by design: How engagement strategies in popular computer and video games can inform instructional design, published in Educational Technology Research and Development presents research-based findings about engaging students using techniques from video games. Of course, there’s many others.

In her recent interview on Frontline, Sherry Turkle said “The point is we’re really at the very beginning of learning how to use this technology in the ways that are the most nourishing and sustaining. We’re going to slowly find our balance, but I think it’s going to take time…” She said that technology is neither good nor bad, but it is powerful. When considering the history of reform in education, we’ve jumped from one promising method to another. I agree with Turkle that the key is balance. We should prioritize learning and engage teaching methods that will best enhance the learning experience.

3 thoughts on “Studies in Educational Technology

  1. These are excellent! I’m going to head down the library right now. Especially interested in the Gee title. Thanks!

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