Squares in a round world: has research about technology and learning passed its sell by date?

I really enjoyed my trip to see the David Shrigley Brain Activity exhibition at the Hayward. And was amused by the endearing hand drawn animation about new friends in which a square enters a round world and … well I won’t spoil it for you. But it made me wonder if researchers run the risk of being squares in a round world. This was prompted by the comment I mentioned in my last post that asked if technological pace was “making traditional research models and institutions look a little archaic?”So has research passed its sell by date in this fast-moving technological space and do we need to re-fashion ourselves out of our squareness, or help squareness to be better appreciated? What do us squares have to offer? Four sorts of research come readily to mind and I am sure there are more.

First, there is basic research about how people learn and about the nature of learning itself that can be applied to education in a digital world, both in terms of how to develop technologies and in terms of how to use technologies for learning, both informally and formally. This research does not go out of date but gets better and better, for example John Bransford and others work on the nature of transfer is mature and well grounded, it is rigorous and has developed over several decades. Perhaps one the reasons that research like this is timelessly useful is that it has a focus upon an ever-present issue: the nature of learning, rather than a changing space: the nature of a particular technology, category of technologies, or indeed particular practices. It is also the case that all those who are doing this research and all those who want to use this research share a common need: to understand more about how people learn. However, there is perhaps a need to better communicate this research in a way that makes it accessible and relevant to technologies as they change.

Second, there is research conducted by those who want to see how the learning and/or teaching process might be better supported through the use of technology. This research can also maintain its value, for example, if it has a focus upon the interactions that are important for teaching and learning and the manner in which different technologies do or don’t support that, rather than how to use a particular technology. Good example here are example Diana Laurillard’s classic work in her book Re-thinking University Teaching and the community of researchers who consider the nature of Instructional Design.

Thirdly, is the work done by those within research labs both in universities and companies that involves developing a technology and using it with learners and teachers, usually in small numbers, to see if it helps them to learn or teach so that learners learn more, or feel more motivated, or collaborate with others in a more supportive manner, or in answer to many other varieties of question. It is harder to see from the usual outputs from this category of research how it can be easily applied within practice, either informal or formal. One of the main reasons for this is that such research is about generating new technologies that are not yet in classroom and may not ever make it outside of the research lab. I have seen hundreds of such research projects very few of which see the light of real application. Sometimes they are only ever intended as a proof of concept to motivate some further research activity, but sometimes they are fit for purpose, but it is not the role of the research lab to take them into a development phase. There is a huge gap here between research and practice that means that many valuable research projects never get tested outside of small scale studies, but that is the subject worthy of more space than I have here.

Fourth, and finally for now, there is research that has a focus upon a particular technology, Video, Integrated Learning Systems, or Learning Platforms, for example. The currency of this research is more limited to the particular technology in question and therefore much more likely to go out of date. Although it has to be said that such research can also provide more generalisable findings: such as that about Integrated Learning Systems, which highlighted the impact of a learner’s context upon the efficacy or not of the technology, in this instance Integrated Learning System.

Research may be square, but most of it is not archaic. Squareness is good, but its beauty is currently only appreciated by a small community and that community needs to find better ways to get the word out to the wider world. At the same time that wider world has something valuable to contribute in the form of innovative practice and communities of people who use technologies in innovative ways and record their experiences in blogs, tweets and forums. Us research squares could do well to pay more attention to what this research in action has to contribute.

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