What Are the Theories Behind Educational Technology?

Updated on September 21, 2018
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I've been an educational professional for many years, holding certified qualifications in that field.

What is Meant by the Term Educational Technology?

Educational technology is all of the systems, materials, and technology that an institution and its staff use to facilitate learning after having understood the principles of how learning best takes place. As such, the learning materials or technology chosen are designed and used with prior understanding of the techniques that they will be employed for so as to ensure effective learning ensues. Institutions have support networks, systems and procedures in place to properly assist the learning process. All must be done in an ethical way.

Students learning with rather than trough technology
Students learning with rather than trough technology

What are the theories behind Educational Technology?

Let’s start with Hayden Smith and Thomas Nagel. They said that’s there isn’t much point in having materials if they’re not used effectively. That’s true. Just today I observed a primary 1 teacher using a video clip with music and a song. She didn’t let the students sing; when they did she told them to stop. She played the clip to fill time. She wasn’t properly prepared (what Hayden and Thomas seemed to call “running out of gas”). If she was, she’d know that singing along to music is a pretty positive learning experience for young students. Later, due to lack of planning, she just let them dance. The original video clip could have been utilized so much better – the teacher could have “followed up” in creative ways with a bit of planning.

Next up is Robert Gagne. This guy was training pilots during WWII and he did some studies about what he called “Conditions of Learning”.[1] He basically said that there are different levels of learning and they need to be taught in different ways. Also, that you’ve got to start at the bottom of the ladder and learn lower order skills before you can progress upward because the higher learning is based on what was learned in the lower reaches. He suggests that lower order refers to responding to stimuli – like telling a dog to sit – going up to skills like concept understanding and problem solving. I think his theory is over complicated, but may hold true (sometimes, but not always). I can tell my dog to sit and she will sit (depending on her mood). I can also seal an empty plastic water bottle with dog treats inside and she’ll solve this problem by biting, kicking, and turning the bottle until all the treats fall out – high order skills that I didn’t teach her to do; she learned from experience and experiment.

Thirdly is Edgar Dale’s cone of experience, which makes more sense to me than Robert Gagne’s ramblings. I remember that Dale was just providing a concept rather than research based models – his principles seem sound to me in that people will learn best from having the experience of actually doing something (or close to, contrived situations). This is true for me. If there’s something new I want to learn, I’ll go away and read about it, take the best of what a few people (who’ve actually done it) said, and then go away myself and try to put their tips into action – by attempting to do what they suggest (or as near as based on my own personal circumstances allow).

Lastly, David H. Jonassen basically said it was about identifying what the difficulties or intrinsic characteristics of knowledge acquisition are and then solving these problems by designing environments that will facilitate the solution (learning). In a nut shell, find out how people learn – know this and then you can design effective teaching.

Jonassen was a constructivist. He believed that learning was shaped by how we assign meaning from exploring possibilities and viewing things with different perspectives. This reasoning draws from psychological theory that traces our construction of knowledge to the interlacing of content, situation and meaning in our minds.

[1] Robert M. Gagné, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_M._Gagn%C3%A9

David Jonassen's Constructivist Learning Environment
David Jonassen's Constructivist Learning Environment

The ideals of contructivism impacted strongly on the development of what are known as student centred learning environments (SCLEs). The theory is that meaning is personal to the learner and, to foster this, teaching approaches should try to get close to authentic real life situations and lean toward goal oriented inquiry. Some examples of SCLE methods are illustrated in the diagram below:

Student Centred Learning Environmets (SCLEs)
Student Centred Learning Environmets (SCLEs)

What are the Uses of Educational Technology?

Firstly, at the level of the institution there is technology that’s used in effective operation. There are many processes an institution must perform in order to meet all standards and needs, from maintaining buildings to having proper accounting and human resources. Within this, scores and scorecard production may need to be centralized, and numerous procedures must also fit into the standards set out from government and/or local education authorities. Fulfilling processes at an institution through technology is called “technology in education”. Modern schools tend to have servers and networks to allow sharing and ease of access. I believe this is called “instructional technology” but the definitions I read are not well worded in my opinion.

Next, we use technology in the classroom to assist the learning process – this can be anything from posters to flash cards, to PowerPoint – the list is endless and only bordered by the limits of a teacher’s imagination. This is called “technology integration”.

Lastly, “educational media” gives teachers and students the ability to access channels or instruments of communication. Think about examples at your school or college. Perhaps Edmodo or Facebook pages are being used as way for teachers, students and sometimes parents to collaborate on learning or information sharing.

Summary diagram of educational technology terms
Summary diagram of educational technology terms

What are the Challenges and Pitfalls in the Use of Educational Technology?

David Jonassen said that students learn with rather than through technology. Therefore, when technology is used as an supporting tool in the classroom, there must first be a goal for both from the educator and for the learners. The teacher should have practiced and be knowledgeable about how to use the technology. How can a teacher impart the knowledge effectively if they are ineffective users of the media?

Some educators are stuck in their methods or too lazy to bring in technological developments into their teaching and learning process. It could be the fault of the institution in not providing adequate training for staff or it could be that the teachers themselves are fearful of change.

The desired learning goals are not or can not be effectively supported by new technologies or practices. Appropriate technology might not yet exist or not be appropriate for the learning area.

Teachers sometimes incorporate technology without first considering the possible positive and negative sides to employing it. Its use could impact on the process of teaching itself.

Affordances and Constraints

When a teacher chooses a certain technology to use in the classroom, for example let's say flashcards, it has things that it allows the teacher and students to do. In our example of flashcards, the students can see a visual representation. This is called an affordance. At the same time, the choice of technology also has limitations. In our example the pictures are static and in 2D. These are called constraints.

Questions & Answers

  • You've mentioned five contributors here in this article, what other contributors to educational technology theory are out there?

    Punya Mishra and Matthew J. Koehler’s 2006 TPACK (Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge Framework) outlines how what you teach (content) and the way that you try to get the knowledge across to students (method) must be the foundation for any effective educational technology combination.

    ADDIE (Analyze/Design/Develop/Implement/Evaluate): Primarily developed for the U.S. Army at Florida State University in the 1970s but used by schools and colleges as a framework for creating educational programs.

    Vernom S. Gerlach and Donald P. Ely Design Model which is a model based on systematic planning by accurately setting meaningful teaching objectives and using appropriate methods to attain the required learning results.


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