Learning technology, without human connection, simply does not work

Link to original article can be found here.

What could make the use of technology in education worth it? I reached out to an industry expert to find out! 

Dr. Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, Executive Director of the National Writing Project, founding member of the Connected Learning Alliance, and author of several books on this topic, explains that human interactions and engagement through action are central in learning. And education technology has to take these elements into account and adapt, or risk becoming obsolete. 

We need new uses of technology

Eidman-Aadahl explains that “we are at a Gutenberg moment,” a “global, historical transition moment” initiated by the rise of technology and the internet. However, as much as “it took a long time for everybody to figure out how to use mass circulation of books,” it will take a long time to make the most of this moment.

For learners, it represents both an incredible and a very difficult opportunity to seize and this ever-changing ecosystem can be difficult to keep up with. And it is one of the many reasons why it’s time for professionals to reflect on what direction we want learning to take. 

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For Eidman-Aadahl, one of the first issues is that “we don’t have great incentives for people to create tools directly for learners.” Structurally, the education market does not push companies towards learners but rather towards institutions and administrations who have more market power and from which they can benefit more. It explains why most of the time, education is only “delivered to people” instead of being created directly for learners and of “helping them take control of it themselves.”

In that sense, if technology gives us the “capacity to bring more learning objects to more people, it may not bring education to more people if the capacity we’re using is to broadcast and treat them as consumers.” It is positive that these objects are able to reach more people but “it’s not the kind of interactive, connected learning that we know the web can deliver now” if we build on it in the right way. This great historical moment thus runs the risk of letting learners down. 

We need Human Connection

It’s very easy to miss the human dimension of learning when we’re just thinking about what technology can do.” This human dimension, yet, is key to a positive learning environment. In the idea of connected learning the human part is absolutely crucial: in her work with the Connected Learning Alliance, Eidman-Aadahl witnessed herself how “learners were absolutely super-powered by the human connections.”

She describes two types of human connections that are key to learning:

  1. The first is peer-to-peer. “The ability to leverage the peer group, people’s social connection with each other, through which they can process and examine information, push each other and motivate each other in different ways is very powerful.”
  2. The second is between learner and mentor. A mentor does not have to be a teacher, it is someone who knows something the learner wants to learn. For instance says Eidman-Aadahl, “if I want to learn how to lay down beats, a mentor might be a community musician who knows how to lay down beats.” It’s as simple as that.

The issue then is that we only rarely use technology to connect learners with mentors: there is a “connection problem” that technology has yet to address. 

Technology can thus revolutionize the way we learn, but not if it misses this fundamental human and social component without which efficient learning can actually not happen. Human connection might even be the most natural way for us to learn.

“Technology, without human connection, simply does not work”

The issue of engagement

Human interaction can be even more empowering if matched with something else: action.

Eidman-Aadahl, who worked on a book on the benefits of social action in learning, explains the methodology behind the project: to engage as learners young people who had dropped out of school, social workers and teachers decided to treat them as agents. They had to find a cause or problem that they wanted to act on in order to be active in finding ways to carry out their projects.

Through concrete actions “they learned very good academic skills” for example by doing research and then writing to the city council about a problem they identified in their community. “It shifted the sense that the person was an agent and that their work mattered.” To be active is thus a key component to learn more efficiently

Can such active learning be integrated in education technology? How could technology engage learners otherwise?

For Eidman-Aadahl, being active when learning on a computer can be really difficult given the state of education technology she described. It is however not impossible if technology is used astutely. During the Flint water crisis, for instance, many schools developed water-testing initiatives conducted by students who learned with computers how to analyze, share, and compare the data they had collected on their schools’ water. Then they had to find ways to act on it, still on a computer. 

Eventually, “sitting in front of a computer is also about what you’re doing on the computer. It is “sort of not the computer’s fault” if we fail to make them beneficial to learning. It is on us to make technology embrace human connection and active learning, making the most of this Gutenberg moment to enhance learning environments everywhere.

It’s clear that human connection is vital to learning technology, which is why the 360Learning Learning Engagement Platform was built around incorporating human interactions. You can give a try for free today!