Kill the Gatekeeper: Why Learning Technology Adoption Boils Down to Decentralizing Ownership.

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Learning and Technology: Living up to the Promise

Published on July 24, 2019, written by Léa Yahiel.

Link to original article can be found here.

Do technology and scientific research have the power to concretely improve how we learn today? Without a question, but only if certain conditions have been met.

Dr. Gary Natriello argues that while the integration of technology and learning sciences in education can be advantageous, their benefits are only realized when educators are in charge and are using them in an inclusive way. 

Dr. Natriello is the Ruth L. Gottesman Professor in Educational Research at Teachers College, Columbia University. He founded and heads EdLab, a design, development and research unit on learning and teaching.

A bridgeable gap

Academia and learning sciences are often disconnected from those who know about learning through their professional experience. Dr. Natriello describes this as a “gap between researchers and practitioners.” To address this situation,

“We have to make it easier for practitioners to pick up content and new knowledge and to build that into their professional work”

It is mainly a communication issue, which, in the same way as the gap between business leaders and L&D professionals hinders a company’s impact, the disconnect between researchers and educators prevents practitioners from reaching their full potential.

Educational software is a great example of this gap: it fails both to incorporate new understandings about learning and to grasp concrete realities of classrooms.

Natriello points out that since some developers are only building software for individual students, they “haven’t really yet come to grips with what happens with a group of thirty students or twenty-five students.” In short, they fail to acknowledge the group dynamic which is essential in a learning environment, and which can be highly beneficial to learning. As for corporate software, Natriello explains that it perpetually lags behind, often completely disconnected with what learning sciences have to offer. 

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For Natriello, however, incorporating learning sciences in the way practitioners work can be very promising. We need to lift the “barriers” obstructing this evolution by “retooling the teachers and practitioners and encouraging them to rethink and change” to improve teaching and learning. For instance, assessments and feedback are a key element to revisein order to leave behind “older styles of teaching and learning.”

Without this effort, the findings of learning sciences will stay in scholarly articles and will not come to life in practice — this opportunity to empower practitioners with the knowledge of learning specialists is too promising to be missed. 

Decentralizing technology in learning

New knowledge is not the only thing that needs to be brought to the relevant level: Gary Natriello explains that for technology to have a beneficial impact on learning and teaching, its ownership should be brought to the level of the practitioners.

The first step to make technology beneficial to learning is to have educators in charge.

Otherwise, Natriello argues that technology is only used as a way to “reinforce older practices or perhaps to make older practices more efficient,” but not in a way that builds on technology’s potential to revolutionize the way we learn. 

Teachers in a lot of situations aren’t really in charge, they are at the end of a line of a long set of decisions that people have made for them, they’re only handed the technologies,” explains Natriello. In other words, besides not having access to scholarly knowledge for instance on how technology is best put to use, practitioners do not have input on which technology they are handed and thus face a double lack of ownership over their own educational practice

Natriello uses the example of smart boards in schools, which are meant to be used “very interactively with students” but which are often used as old-fashioned projectors supporting “old, lecture-style modes of teaching.” Such new tools are only reinforcing the same outdated educational practice instead of triggering some reflection on how learning might be conducted differently with the help of technology.

On the other hand, “when teachers are in charge of planning how learning is going to take place, what the technology does is give them a whole new set of tools that they can use to do things in more efficient ways” explains Gary Natriello. Decentralizing the knowledge of learning sciences as well as the ownership of technology thus seems to be the key to revolutionize learning.

No revolution without inclusion

Even if these conditions are fulfilled, technology’s promises will not deliver if we don’t make sure that it is being used in an inclusive way. Even if technology’s ownership is decentralized and if it includes learning sciences, inclusion is still crucial, especially for disadvantaged students and learners.

Distance learning is especially concerning for Natriello. “Increasingly people who are less well-off are more likely to be students in distance learning settings rather than in face-to-face structures and there is a danger that distance learning could become the education of the poor.”

We have to pay attention to a trend that interactive ways of learning are becoming a privilege of the rich, while low quality distance learning becomes that of the poor. Otherwise, according to Natriello, we will end up with “a two-tier system.” Everyone should benefit from what learning sciences and technology have to offer.

Towards that goal, learning sciences and technology have to be decentralized to the level of the practitioner but also to that of the regular learner in order to be accessible and inclusive and live up to their promise.