The relationship of TECHNOLOGY to LEARNING


How have schools and educational authorities chosen to use technology? Has this been effective? What assumptions were made about the role of technology? Is throwing technology at a problem the COMPLETE solution?

These are all questions around the use of technology that have been posed by educators,politicians, parents, and above all students, during the current COVID-19 pandemic. The impact has been especially acute for pre-university students studying mathematics and the natural sciences. In a survey undertaken by The Royal Society in November 2020, on the impact of COVID-19 on the teaching and learning of mathematics for 3-19 year olds, a key finding is:

More than half of students are three months or more behind in mathematics as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic”.

Why has this happened ?

During the pandemic, face-to-face learning has been replaced too often with, albeit well-intended, but nevertheless inefficient online learning delivered on digital platforms that were not designed to cater for large numbers of simultaneous participants. In many of these live ‘class-simulated’ sessions, the mode of student engagement has been diminished from shared, interactive and proactive participation to that of mere passive observer unable to write on the digital whiteboard. (This has been especially acute in the teaching of post-16 mathematics and the natural sciences).

Another factor, is the role of parents: “ … lack of parents’ digital competence limits their possibility to support and guide especially younger children”. So reads a report finding from a qualitative study undertaken in Summer 2020 by the Joint Research Centre (the European Commission's science and knowledge service which employs scientists to carry out research in order to provide independent scientific advice and support to EU policy).

On a day-to-day basis, students have had to organize (and reorganize) their day-to-day activities at home, whilst being taught via a hybrid of “blended” self-learning and classroom simulated environments. And all this within a backdrop of uncertainty and social upheaval.

Learning first, Technology second

Technology can be defined as ‘the application of knowledge to meet objectives or to solve problems’. But so often, just throwing ‘technology’ at a problem is not the COMPLETE solution. To see why this is, just ask the question: “What is technology and how can it be interpreted ? In the context of ‘learning methodologies adopted in the ‘distanced-environments’ imposed by the COVID-19 restrictions, we should also ask how successful have the respective impacts of the adopted technological interactions been on young learners? (Not least when many schools have been found wanting in terms of their under-developed learning management systems architectures, and teachers have been found wanting in terms of their technological skills-sets).

Technology can be regarded as an OBJECT (such as an interactive whiteboard), or KNOWLEDGE(the applied science behind the touch-screen capability of the interactive whiteboard), or an ACTIVITY (using the interactive whiteboard to support brainstorming or a creative process). Whereas the PURPOSE of technology is:

  • is always functional or instrumental: it is always used for some end other than itself; and
  • involves the application of knowledge to meet human needs or purposes.
So a technology without an application isn’t technology at all !

Thus if we regard the process of LEARNING as a stable, yet persisting change in knowledge, skills or behaviour, then LEARNING TECHNOLOGY is a technology that is intentionally used to support learning, that is to facilitate knowledge acquisition behaviours.

If used appropriately, technology can be used to create new knowledge behaviours in learners, augment self-reflection, and positively reinforce a learning feedback cycle of introspective self-reflection. Thus learning technology only becomes “intelligent” when there is a continual interplay between the technology and user behaviour, reaction, and experimentation.

The adoption of technology to aid learning is but a first step. Technology that is just used as a conduit for content sharing without a mechanism or stimulus for enhancing student action, experience or arousing creative curiosity, is unlikely to result in positive, reinforcing, self-reflective behaviour on the part of the student.

Well-designed technological activities provide tangible mechanisms for targeted feedback, and robust measures of learning impact – for both student and teacher.

We cannot, and should not, factor-out human idiosyncrasies in any human-technology interaction. Nor should we deprivilege our human fallibility in some homage to technology by attempting to enforce praxeomorphic (ascribing the characteristics of technology to human beings) practice on our much suffering 'remote learners’.


Article written by:
Ian Tame
Senior Tutor