Monday, August 20, 2012

The soft side of learning

hard vs soft by y-a-n, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License  by  y-a-n

One of the common misconceptions about using technology in schools and universities is that it will motivate students more than using the traditional textbooks, whiteboards, papers and pencils. Giving everyone access to laptops, tablets, mobiles and a host of creative tools will lead to more highly motivated students and better test results. These factors can help to increase motivation and may lead to better results but only if other, more important factors are present. It's all about the hardware and the software of education.

I have just read a fine blog post by Bill Ferriter, Are kids really motivated by technology? despite many attempts to get students to use blogs, wikis and interactive video forums like VoiceThread they have never really caught the students' imaginations in the way he expected. They were simply not particularly impressed by the tools on offer. There's nothing wrong with the tools per se, but Bill realised that the actual choice of tool or technology was subordinate to other more abstract motivators.

"What students are really motivated by are opportunities to be social — to interact around challenging concepts in powerful conversations with their peers. They are motivated by issues connected to fairness and justice. They are motivated by the important people in their lives, by the opportunity to wrestle with the big ideas rolling around in their minds, and by the often-troubling changes they see happening in the world around them. 
Technology’s role in today’s classroom, then, isn’t to motivate. It’s to give students opportunities to efficiently and effectively participate in motivating activities built around the individuals and ideas that matter to them."

Students aren't really interested in the hardware of education. It really doesn't matter how much fantastic content you offer or how many cool tools you use. Content and technology are not motivators. The real motivators are the software of education: energy, enthusiasm, engaging discussion, commitment, feedback, support, group dynamics and clear objectives. If these soft factors are present then learning takes place whether it is online, in a classroom or a mixture. Software trumps hardware every time and that is the key point to understand before making more pointless comparisons between classroom and online learning. The arena and the content (classroom, LMS, social media, books etc) are of course important but not as much as we think. Great learning can occur in poor environments if the softer elements are in focus.

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