Instructional Design: Technology as Helper, Not Hindrance

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It’s widely known in the educational community that there is no one type of learner. Whether you’re a kindergartner learning to count to 50 or a mid-career employee learning to use a new technology tool, chances are your learning style is much different from the person sitting next to you.

It’s also widely known that technology is a critical element in helping all students learn, regardless of learning style. However, a recent TEDx discussion points out that too many times technology is actually being misused in the learning environment.

"We are faced with a digital divide—those who know how to use technology to re-imagine learning, and those who simply use technology to digitize traditional learning practices," said Richard Culatta, acting director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education, in his discussion, "Reimagining Learning," at a recent TEDx Beacon Street conference.

"We take a chalkboard, and we digitize it. We take a textbook, and we digitize it. We take a linear, boring lecture, and we make a digital, boring lecture.

"My fear is that if we keep going on this trajectory, very soon we will have successfully replicated in digital format exactly all of the traditional teaching methods we use today. And I’m not sure that’s what we want," he said.

Rather, Culatta said technology should be helping solve the three major challenges facing instruction:

  • Learners are treated the same, despite unique needs and challenges. "The least equitable thing we can do in learning is treat all students the same. We know they need different things and have different interests," he said.
  • We hold the schedule constant and allow the learning to vary. In other words, we set deadlines to learn particular concepts and ideas and then move on regardless of whether the learning has actually taken place by the deadline. "That should seem crazy to you," Culatta said.
  • Performance data comes too late to be useful to the learner. Rather, a learner should be able to get acknowledgement instantly on whether he or she has mastered the concept.

Each of these challenges, he noted, can be solved by personalized learning. "Technology enables realtime feedback. ... Technology allows us to set the pace. Technology gives learners agency; students can make decisions about how they want to learn."

Indeed, technology is a tool, just like a textbook is a tool. But technology is not a textbook, and as such, it shouldn’t be used as one. Culatta’s argument is technology should be embraced by the educational process for what it can do to help all learners learn.

"We have to find ways to shatter the status quo," Culatta said.

Of course, that takes instructional designers who understand the power of technology and it’s impact on the learning process. In the corporate learning space, it also takes a learning environment that throws out the stand-and-deliver method of instruction and provides an environment of multimodal learning.

The U.S. Department of Education has implemented a national educational technology plan, "Learning Powered by Technology," that outlines ways in which technology can be used effectively to solve the challenges of educators.

Although it's geared for the k-12 and higher education space, it would make sense that the ideas outlined in the plan can be implemented in any learning environment and for any learner, regardless of age.

The technology plan—all 114 pages—is available on the U.S. Department of Education’s website or by clicking here.