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The emergence of digital technologies and its wide spread use in schools has changed the ways in which instructions are delivered and how individuals learn. The traditional method of 'chalk and talk' that was used a number of decades is no longer seen as the ideal delivery approach to employ. Technology is now used in conjunction with this method, or seen as an essential tool for teaching and learning. The integration of technology into the curriculum of a number learning institutions is at the top of the ladder and raises some pertinent questions. For instance, what is the effect of technology with regards to teaching and learning? Can technology improve learning? While these questions continue to spark debate among researchers in the field of education, I will attempt to focus this essay on how individuals learn according to various theorists, how technology is used to facilitate learning, and finally, the role that technology has played in improving learning. (Mention digital natives)
Theories of learning and technology
Learning is a simple term that has created much controversy, as individuals attempt to define and discuss how individuals learn. A number of theorists have carried out experiments to examine and determine how individuals learn, and how instructors can facilitate with their learning. One such leading theorist in the 1960s and 1970s was a Swiss epistemologist Jean Piaget, whose research concentrated on teaching and learning of young children (Sutherland, 1992, p.1).
In defining learning, there are number of prevailing questions that often come up. For instance, is it a process? Is it intrinsic, or extrinsic? When does it start? Definitions normally vary depending on the orientation of the theorist and the theory that he/she has used. Three (3) definitions cited by Knowles (1990, pp. 5, 6, 7) by different individuals will be presented consecutively. Burton (1963) stated that "learning is a change in the individual, due to the interaction of that individual, and his environment, which fills a need and makes him more capable of dealing adequately with his environment". Gagne (1965) noted that "learning is a change in human disposition or capability which can be retained, and which is not simply ascribable to the process of growth". Crow and Crow (1963) noted that "learning involves change. It is concerned with the acquisition of habits, knowledge, and attitudes. It enables the individual to make both personal and social adjustments. Since the concept of change is inherent in the concept of learning, any change in behaviour implies that learning is taking place or has taken place. Learning that occurs during the process of change can be referred to as the learning process".
From the above definitions, it is obvious that these individuals agreed that learning resulted in changes. For instance, when learning is taking place or has taken place, individuals acquire something. Like Crow and Crow (1963) indicated, whatever they have acquired will then lead them to make changes. While many may expect learning to always result in positive changes, negative changes sometimes arise. Take for instance an individual getting information from the internet to learn how to make bombs to destroy innocent lives. Although learning has taken place in this case, however this change was not a positive one as it could result in catastrophe. The proceeding sections will provide more insights into how individuals learn as the views of different theorists will be presented.
Those who have conducted research in learning have different perceptions with regards to how individuals learn. For instance Illeris (July-August 2004) purported that learning involved two processes that must be actively involved in order for learning to occur. These two processes include the 'external' which involves the interaction between the learner and his/her environment, and the 'internal' which deals with the individual's knowledge, skills, feelings etc. This line of argument will be disputed by both the behavioural and cognitive theorists as each theory takes one process into account. For example, behaviourists argued that learning is as a result of the changes that have occurred in the individual's environment (Lucas, Jul 2005). Cognitive theorists on the other hand see learning as an internal process with little influence on the environment (Kehoe, 1999). From their explanation, it is obvious that their views differed with regards to how individuals learn. For that reason, the views of the cognitive and behavioural theorists will be presented consecutively.
2.1 COGNITIVIST THEORY OF LEARNING AND TECHNOLOGY
Cognitive theorists believed that learning occurs because individuals are trying to make sense of the world around them (Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 229). Therefore, in attempt to learn, these individuals examine the situations before them and in addition bring their experiences, beliefs, ideas etc. These elements when put together, will then determine how learning takes place and what is going to be learnt. One leading cognitive theorist was Jean Piaget, who argued that all individuals go through four (4) systematic stages in the development of their cognitive skills (Inhelder and Piaget, 1958, cited by Sutherland, 1992, pp.8-19). These stages include the 'Sensorimotor (birth to two (2) years)', 'Preoperational Thinking (two (2) to seven (7) years)', 'Concrete (seven (7) to eleven (11) years)' and 'Formal Operational (eleven (11) years to adult)'. Since the 'Formal Operational' stage involves the individuals who form part of this study, then discussions on how these individuals learn will follow.
According to Piaget individuals at the stage are able to formulate their own ideas and are also capable of putting them into practice whether through a practical or theory (cited by Sutherland, 1992, pp. 19). Their level of thinking is no longer only related to their personal experiences but goes beyond this, as they are now problem solvers who are trying to make their own deductions about things. For instance, they are able to think in reverse and their thoughts are organized systematically (Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 54). These individuals learn by hypothesizing and carrying out experiments to test their hypotheses. However, do all individuals reach this stage? According to Piaget (1974) most adults may be able to use the 'Formal Operational' level of thinking in areas in which they have experience or those areas that are of interest to them (cited by Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 56). De Lisi and Staudt (1980, cited by Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 56) are in support of this view, based on their results from an experiment they carried out with college students. They noted that almost all of the students were able to use the 'Formal Operational' level of thinking when given problems that were similar to those they encountered within their major. However, when the problems were different, only half of the students were able to use the 'Formal Operational' thinking to arrive at a result.
From the results of De Lisi and Staudt's experiment, it can be noted that prior experience and interest do play an important role in the way in which individuals at this stage learn. Some cognitive theorists are in support of this and noted that previous experiences that individuals bring into the learning situation will determine what will be learnt, remembered and forgotten (Peeck, van den Bosch and Kreupeling, 1982; Resnick, 1981; Sheul, 1986, cited by Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 230).
The information processing theorists although they were in agreement with Piaget's levels of cognitive development, yet they were dissatisfied with the explanations that were given about how intellectual skills were developed. This group of cognitive theorists were concerned with how individuals viewed, retained and understood the information that they gathered from their environment (Woolfolk 1990, pp. 62). They believed that individuals were able to gather information from their environment because they used their sensory receptors for seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing and tasting. This information that was picked up by these receptors had to be organized and perceived (Lindsay and Norman, 1977, cited by Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 232) before it was sent to the short term memory.
Organization of information in short term memory was necessary as it helped with retention. Kehoe (1999) identified four types of organization. These included, 'component', 'sequential', 'relevance', and 'transition' organization. With component organization, the individual grouped the information according to a certain category or concept. Sequential organization is grouping the information based on an order. Relevance deals with importance of the information and transition organization is classifying the information according to related words or phrases. The information in short term memory that the individual has not forgotten is then transferred to long term memory, where it will be kept permanently (Riley and Lewis pp. 33 in Kehoe, 1999). Like a computer, long term memory has unlimited space to store the information. This information becomes meaningful to the individual and its retrieval rate depends on how the individual has organized it. Allan Pavio (1971, cited by Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 239) noted that individuals store the information in long term memory as 'visual images' or 'verbal units' or a combination of the two.
Instructors can apply the ideas of the information processing theory when delivering instructions. For example, they must ensure that they are able to hold the students attention while delivering instructions. An interesting introduction can initiate curiosity and help to get students attention. Another useful technique that can be used, is presenting the course material in a clear and organized manner. If the content is clear and organized it helps students understand the purpose of the lesson.
Another major theorist who studied cognitive development was Lev Vygotsky, whose research was on the social cognition. Unlike Piaget, he believed that an individual's intellectual skills were developed as a result of the social interaction between the instructor and the student, as well as the student and his/her peers. Mugny, De Paolis and Carugati (1984, cited by Sutherland, 1990, pp.42) also shared Vygotsky's view as they believed that an individual's intellectual skills flourished as a result of the contact made between the individual and his/her close associates. Vygotsky also believed that teachers were responsible for students' learning; therefore, they should ensure that their students were motivated, attentive and were willing to learn. He also stressed the need for teachers to encourage their students to aspire for the highest possible level of attainment (Sutherland, 1992, pp. 43).
These theorists have made it absolutely clear that social interaction facilitates learning. Therefore, does this mean that the interaction that they are referring to must occur on a face to face basis, or can the interaction occur otherwise? For example, with online or distance learning, individuals interact with their peers and instructors via 'videoconferencing', 'audioconferencing' and 'docuconferencing' (Filipczak, Oct 1995). Hence, would these theorists consider this type of interaction to be socially adequate for the learners? Well, Spitzer (1998) does not think so, as he/she noted that there are a number of distance educators who don't understand that technology and social interaction are equally important in a distant learning environment. Consequently, in an online environment communication is restricted to computer technology. This according to Spitzer (1998) "loses some humanity or it forms social isolation (cited by Huang, 2002).
2.2 BEHAVIOURIST THEORY OF LEARNING AND TECHNOLOGY
Unlike the cognitive theorists who focused on mental processes, the behavioural theorists focused on observable behaviours. A number of behavioural theorists such as B. F Skinner, Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike (Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 164 and 168) conducted research in behavioural learning. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian a Physiologist used the theory of 'Classical Conditioning' to carry out his experiment to test the digestive system of dogs (Woolfolk, 1999, pp. 163). He noted that after two stimuli had been paired off on several occasions, the neutral stimulus was able to bring forth a desired response when presented on its own.
How then does Pavlov's classical conditioning relate to learning in humans? Breaver (1974, cited by Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 165) noted that research has not indicated that individuals learn to be 'fearful' or 'anxious' because of classical conditioning. However, students can become fearful or anxious in certain situations. Take for instance, a student who had prepared for and exam and failed. This student may become very anxious or fearful every time he/she has to take an exam. On the other hand, a student who has been successful will be more relaxed and will respond to new experiences with confidence.
Therefore, Pavlov believed that students' behaviour to learning depended on the experiences which they have had in the past. For example, if a student was embarrassed by his/her lecturer in class because of the responses he/she gave to a question, then the next time he/she is asked a question by a lecturer he/she may refrain from answering or may be asked to be excused for fear that the same experience may be repeated. Consequently, this student has transferred a response to another similar situation. Pavlov refers to these transferable responses as 'generalization' (Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 165). Since the student was ridiculed in past, the conditioned responses are now present in this new situation. This is not an indication that the student is fearful of speaking publicly, but instead that he/she becomes anxious when required to answer questions in the presence of a lecturer.
Pavlov also noted that discrimination was another example of classical conditioning (Woolfolk, 1990, pp). For instance, if that same student was asked to respond to a question without the lecturer present, and he/she was able to discuss it confidently with his/her peers, this indicated that student has now responded differently to a similar situation. This could mean that these conditioned responses were brought about by this particular instructor or by all instructors. Consequently, instructors can use various techniques to assist students in learning positive responses in terrifying situations. For example, they can associate positive and pleasing actions with the learning tasks. For instance, students can be praised for contributions and provided with guidance if responses are incorrect. Ridiculing or rejecting students' responses will not encourage students to learn, but instead will only hinder their learning.
Edward Thorndike and B. F. Skinner were other behavioural theorists who used the theory of 'Operant Conditioning' to determine how learning took place. Operant conditioning is 'learning in which voluntary behaviour is strengthened or weakened by consequences or antecedents' (Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 168). Thorndike (1913, cited by Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 168-169), in his experiment with cats concluded that the 'Law of effect' was an important factor in learning. What this law signified was that any behaviour whether in human or animals, which resulted in satisfaction, would be repeated in other similar situations. For instance, if a student noticed that when he/she studied for an exam, he/she was successful, then this behaviour would be repeated as it led to good grades.
Mahoney and Thoresen (1974, cited by Woolfolk, 1990, pp. 169) indicated that behaviours lie between two environmental influences. These influences were referred to as 'antecedents' and 'consequences'. The antecedents were prior to the behaviour and the consequences were followed by the behaviour and determined whether certain behaviours would be repeated in the future. Hence, the consequences act as rein-forcers if they strengthen the behaviours, and could be either positive or negative. For instance, if a student is constantly being praised by his/her lecturer for the explanations given in class discussions, then this behaviour exhibited by the student will be strengthened as the lecturer has provided positive reinforcement.
From the views of these behavioural theorists, although their research were on different theories, it was apparent that they believed that individuals would respond favourably or unfavourably to situations based on their past experiences or observations. Having discussed the ideas of the cognitive and behavioural theorists, it is also important to discuss the views shared by those individuals whose research focused only on how adults learn. Reason for this being that since those individuals who attend higher educational institutions are referred to as adults, then it is vital to discuss the views shared by those theorists who have experimented with adult learning. Hence, the following sub-heading will focus on how adults learn.
Constructivist learning and technology
Pitfalls in the use of technology in the classroom
Lack of user knowledge
Lack of technical support
How technology can