by Peter Scott and Christine Vanoirbeek
Initially known as 'computer-assisted learning' and later e-learning, the study of improving learning processes by the use of technology has evolved into the research domain known as 'Technology-Enhanced Learning'. Its objective is to encourage the emergence of new learning models that are sustained by the context-aware use of technology and anchored in the practices of users.
Technology-Enhanced Learning (TEL) has a long and chequered history. Indeed, since we started to use technology such as paper and chalk we have been seeking to enhance the student's experience and to make learning easier or more effective (these being not necessarily the same thing, of course). The computer, and then the Internet, have changed many things in the modern world: our learners carry clever and expensive mobile computer devices (phones, laptops, PDAs); they can immerse themselves in complex social gaming worlds (typically to virtually shoot each other); the vast libraries of the world are now at their fingertips; and some of these resources can now be constructed by the learners themselves, rather than only passively consumed.
In the late 1960s, the newly invented computer was harnessed for the service of learners. In 1972 the Control Data Corporation released PLATO IV, a significant, and excellent, predecessor of all subsequent computer-assisted learning systems. With the advent of the microprocessor and the personal computer we saw micro-PLATO in 1980, offering the vision of 'programmed learning' to the new generation. Learners could pull up a course on their terminal, which would fill with carefully designed screens of material, and just as carefully designed interactions for them. For some critics, much of modern pedagogy and the technology in which it is embedded has failed to move beyond the models of forty years ago. Where the behaviourist models of systems like PLATO were exciting and visionary for their time, some modern systems do not seem to have moved far from those original models. 'Elearning', as Eisenstadt (2007) notes, "conjures up dreary images of 'sitting in front of a computer screen' while 'studying' some 'content', which (with a few exceptions) is a pretty awful way to learn." [Eisenstadt, M. (2007) Does Elearning Have To Be So Awful? (Time to Mashup or Shutup). Proceedings of the IEEE 7th International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies, Niigata, Japan, 18-20 July].
The challenge for 21st-century TEL then, is to demonstrate to the critic how far we have come since those early online courses, with pages of book learning turned into simple and effective drills for learners. In this ERCIM News special theme we have sought to collate some of the best ideas flowing out of European research institutes, and to show how our research is rising to this challenge and making some great pedagogical leaps.
The four themes which emerge in this issue are very much in line with the expectations of our learners, as noted above. With computing now being mobile and heading towards some level of ubiquity, research in TEL is responding with a range of mobile applications, and especially over hybrid networks and environments. An interesting specialist field in the mobility/ubiquity topic is that of a future world in which many objects use or are identified by computer chips. Radio Frequency Identification tags (RFID) offer the simplest concept of a tagged world. Once we can identify objects in the world (including ourselves), the power of 'context awareness' to provide useful extra learning data becomes very interesting, as do the dangers and challenges related to the security of and permissions for such data.
In some of the other work presented here, the topic of mobility joins with the second theme of 'gaming'. The potential power of immersive 3D gaming environments is reflected in a few contributions to this issue. The topic of games has a good history in TEL research since the work of visionaries like Thomas Malone in the mid-70s and early 80s put the spotlight on motivational factors in learning technology [Malone, T.W. (1981) What makes computer games fun? Byte, 6, 258-277 (Reprinted in Computers in Education, 1982, 4, 14-21]. The modern games-and-learning researcher has been working on multiplayer immersive environments for some while now, and the development of an internet business around the virtual 3D world of 'Second Life' (Linden Research Inc, 2007) has given this thread of research a significant boost. Both in immersing mobile devices in virtual worlds, or taking them out into the world to have motivating interactions with it, exciting potential leaps are being made beyond the simple pedagogy of our past.
The third tTheseheme reflects on the vast libraries of information that learners can now access. It seeks to provide structure for these learning repositories, and to help learners navigate and teachers create effective new materials. One of the most exciting and innovative movements reflected here is that of Open Educational Resources (OER). The OER researchers are seeking to make learning resources, previously locked into universities, open to the world and accessible in powerful and interactive architectures.
These architectural issues lead to the final theme in these papers, commonly described in so-called Web 2.0 language as empowering learners to take control of the process: to reflect, create and communicate. This includes tracking their learning experiences in ePortfolios, collaboratively working together in groups, and even 'argumentative collaboration' in specialist systems that can help them frame and visualize learning discussions.
The papers selected in this edition illustrate the benefits that multidisciplinary research can bring to the design and adoption of new 'learning products and services'. The first few describe how the appropriation of technology by stakeholders in learning environments can contribute to the evolution of libraries of information, which in turn aid the collective building and sharing of knowledge. The next few emphasize the impact of technology on the development of collaborative and social interactions in learning processes. Finally, a series of papers describes applications that demonstrate the relevance of technology-enhanced learning practices.
The 'technology-enhanced learning' research area, no longer in its infancy, is developing very rapidly in accordance with the tremendous technological progress being made. This evolution paves the way for the elaboration of unpredictable and innovative scenarios of use for technology that increases the integration of social and informational environments based on context-aware services integrating access to heterogeneous information sources.
The Open University, United Kingdom
Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Lausanne (EPFL) / SARIT, Switzerland