Do androids learn from printed reams?

Grrrrr. Didn’t want to write anything before I’d finished the blog I had already started. But still.

Engagement. Specifically using technology to engage students with their learning. “Engage students with their learning” – that’s a phrase we hear a lot, and we could spend all day picking it apart. I just want to say a few things about it.

I find it trivially obvious that a student who is paying close and avid attention to the thing they are learning is more likely to learn it than one who is throwing chairs across the room. There are clearly degrees of attention, and all children are not the same. The boy at the back staring out of the window into the sky may be engaged in some form of gedankenexperiment but it is more likely that he is just staring into space. But we shouldn’t always assume.

Having said that, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that where a student who is engaged with what they are supposed to be learning it is a generally good thing and they are more likely to learn.

Now, this is where it gets interesting and it’s where a lot of things go wrong.

Let us consider two technologies, the printed page and the tablet computer. These two technologies have very different learning affordances. One of them, the tablet, is inherently more interesting. Why? Because it has more affordances. It can do more. We get bored with it less quickly than we do with a printed page. It retains our interest. Even a tablet with no power holds the (average) human attention longer than a blank piece of paper.

Let us define as being ‘engaged’ as one who is less likely to to have an interest in things other than the thing in front of them. I would say that it is highly likely that a child who, during a lesson, is given a tablet computer containing the materials that they are supposed to be learning is more likely to be ‘engaged’ in the lesson than a child who is given a sheet of paper with a closely typed text version of the content they need to learn.

And here is the $64,000 question. Are they more engaged with what they are supposed to be learning, or they just more engaged with the tablet? The simple act of asking the students if they are more engaged is likely to get a yes, but then we need to deconstruct what that actually means. This research tends not to be done, as the tablet is often used to provide access to materials in different formats to that which can be provided traditionally. It is also true that the research is often funded by, shall we say, parties who are less than completely unconflicted as to the outcome.

This research is quite simple to construct and should be done. We need to understand how the use of the device affects learning. I want to know if it is positive, negative, or simply neutral. We also need to understand if the device can act as a ‘gateway’ technology. i.e. we accept that the initial engagement is with the device but then transfers to the content.

To be fair, we have never done this type of research on any content delivery system. So; is type printed text better for learning than hand-written (I ask this as my A-Level physics teacher taught exclusively with hand-written banda prints)? Are printed pages with images on better for learning than printed pages without, or are students simply more engaged with the page because of the pictures but not actually any more engaged with what they are intended to learn? Are books with compelling imagery gateway devices for the written content?

The answer to all these questions is probably (possibly/maybe) that as long as you correctly match the type and style of resource to the content being learnt then you will get better engagement. For example, if a child is trying to learn the location of cities within a country, an image would be helpful. If you are trying to learn a process, then perhaps a moving artefact of some kind would be helpful.

In short, let us discuss which content is preferable for any given learning, then we can move on and work out what is the most efficient and effective delivery system that will enable that content to be put in front of the learner. That is the right way round to approach this issue.