|Strengthening Technical Communication with Educational Theory Page 4|
3. Transitioning Education
Education has stagnated with regards to technology. Most teaching is still done face to face in classrooms, and students are evaluated using traditional testing methods. Technology is often used in distance education, but it is underutilized in nearly every other area of education. There is a large disparity between minimal technology use and technology-based use. Can we close the gap? How do people learn? How can technology be incorporated into standard education? These are only three of the questions that will be answered in the following sections.
3.1 Traditional Learning Methods
Conscious learning emerges from the performance of an activity, so that students get more from the material since they are actively participating. Activity theory focuses on the dynamic relationship between consciousness and activity. Traditional learning theories assume that knowledge is a commodity that can be transferred or absorbed; however, it must be learned by whatever method works best for the student (Jonassen et al. 62). The absorption theory focuses only on the student’s mind, and never on the student's body, even though they are interrelated and dependent upon each other. Knowing can be achieved by activity, since the body and mind provide feedback to each other (Jonassen et al. 64).
The most valuable activity in a learning environment is the opportunity for students to work and interact together to build and become part of a larger community of scholars and practitioners (Jonassen et al. 7). Traditional concepts of instructional design assume that knowledge can be transferred and acquired by the learners. It is called the sponge method of learning. Educators impart knowledge to the learners, who absorb it like a sponge. During the assessment phase, the knowledge learners should have acquired from the educator is wrung out of them. The quality of learning is a function of how well the learners reproduce the knowledge imparted to them (Jonassen et al. 11). The sponge method is not the most effective method of learning, yet it is frequently used. In the sponge method, knowledge is often passed on using lectures and reading assignments. These methods are ineffective and limit learning in face-to-face teaching environments (Jonassen et al. 7).
An effective method of internalizing information is through repetition. Actions that are done repeatedly like checking email or a checking a class’s web page gradually become operationalized, which turn into automatic or partially automatic operations. Activities take place in and over time, within a particular physical and social setting, and are performed in characteristic manners, styles, or patterns (Constantine 4). Designers should take into account these considerations in designing the foundation of an activity to support the knowledge scaffold.
3.2 Blended Learning
Blended learning refers to a combination of different learning styles. In this paper, it refers to a combination of traditional learning and computer-based learning. Jonassen, et al. suggests that technology should be included in curriculum design, and that implies that educational theories must be rethought to be effective. Some professors are so set in their ways they will not use new technology, just as some professors use the same material and notes year after year. Others are intimidated by new technology, and some just have no interest. By using technology like SmartBoards, Sympodiums, and technology that students already use on a daily basis, teachers can greatly increase the value and have an impact on the students with the material they are sharing. The tools available to instructors and professors are shown in Figure 2.
Instead of expecting professors and educators to change, why not have them slowly add technology into their usual methods? The use of multiple educational approaches, like online collaborative learning, self-paced learning, and in class lectures, has been proven to increase the efficacy of education. Deep and meaningful education can be created by blending these learning techniques. Blended learning has yet to be used to its full potential to transform learning environments (Westberry 1).
Dr. David Westpfahl, a physics professor at New Mexico Tech, has a unique and relevant perspective on the use of technology in classrooms. He began using the Distance Education computers and programs five years ago when New Mexico Tech acquired the equipment, figuring that someone in his department should be familiar with it. From his experience teaching and using a Sympodium, a Smartboard, and video conferencing, he has made some natural observations that support the argument that blended learning is the future. Dr. Westpfahl is of the opinion that students today have a “digital perspective of the world,” and that “if [educators] make new technology available to [students], they will find new uses for it.” He said that technology is about access--access for the teacher and for the students. Anywhere there is a computer and internet access, someone can perform an experiment or access that environment. He also expressed concern that not enough professors are using the available equipment to enrich their classes (Westpfahl). What he suggests is exactly the same as Westberry--the appropriation of resources across two activity systems, the face-to-face and the virtual learning space (Westberry 1).
Technology can be used to supplement teaching and learning in a number of ways. The benefits of technology will vary depending on the subject being taught as well as the approach used. Technology can be used as anything from a supplement for class-based teaching to a class that occurs solely through networked technologies (Frederickson et al. 646). What are some of the benefits of using technology in education? Frederickson et al. listed them as:
There is also a larger range of learning strategies available, such as group discussion outside of the classroom environment, and collaboration is more easily facilitated with technology than in person (646). In fact, technical communicators, as well as many other professionals, collaborate in their respective workplaces. Learning new techniques and tools gives learners a new foundation that they can build upon. Students take tools they have learned to use in school to work. Students can take anything from ideas, strategies, and theories to help then in their projects (Westberry 2). If more tools are introduced to students during their education, not just lectures, students will be able to take these tools to places where their co-workers or classmates may not be aware of such tools. As activity theory shows, learning is not about achieving pre-designated goals that can be separated into distinct bits of knowledge and ability, it is about making shared understandings of those bits within the system and where those pieces fit (Wheelahan). It is about enriching the content the students learn through the lens of their own experiences and helping them articulate transformations in their thought and practice by providing context (Westberry 3).
Any new material learned is indexed by the experience surrounding the learning, which assigns meaning to the new material. Information learned in the process of solving real-world problems is much richer and better understood because of knowledge scaffolding. Because traditional lectures build upon a learner’s foundation of knowledge, few connections are made between experience and new learning (Jonassen et al. 9). Technology can be used to create communities of learners and practitioners and can facilitate the interactions and activities necessary for solving real-world problems (Jonassen et al. 9).
One of the most beneficial parts of classroom education is the opportunity for students to work together. Technology in education should help facilitate and extend these interactions (Jonassen et al. 7). In the case of New Mexico Tech’s technical communication classes, professors give homework and assign lessons that are hands-on work that helps the students to work on real-world problems, often in groups. One of the educational theories that has a strong foothold in activity theory, constructivism, suggests this method. Meaning constructed by the student builds on the foundation of experience preceding the learning.
If a technical communicator or designer does not take into consideration the previous education of a person, crucial parts of the knowledge foundation could be missing, resulting in confusion and ineffective learning. Material learned in the process of solving real-world problems is much richer and more thoroughly understood because of this indexing (Jonassen, et al. 8). Active learning is not listening to and mirroring reality, but rather participating in and interacting with the surrounding environment. This real world setting is the context in which the learning occurs (Jonassen et al. 12). Few professionals in the real world get paid to memorize information and take examinations.
There are many different methods of teaching via technology. One method, video learning, is presented in many different ways, from YouTube to screencasts to TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conferences. However, not every method of video learning employs activity theory. TED conferences, available in person or on the web, are still lectures. They are a great opportunity to share information with a wide audience, but as previously discussed, lectures are one of the most ineffective teaching methods (Jonassen et al. 7). Screencasting, which is created using capture software with a simple voiceover, is often easier to understand, which means the student learns faster and can use the knowledge sooner than they would have if the instructions were only written. This is a recent tool that can be used by technical communicators when creating instructional videos. A big attraction for video learning is the opportunity to act immediately, which is one of Carroll and van der Mejj’s heuristics for minimalism.
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