Assembling the heterogeneous elements for digital learning

Technology will *not* change the way we teach – an example why we're an amnesiac field

I’m currently working on chapter 2 of my thesis, which is an explication of some of what is known about “e-learning” through the lens of the Ps Framework.

Last night I posted a draft of the section of the chapter that introduces the Ps Framework. Today, I’ve been working on getting a first draft of the “Past Experience” section of the chapter onto the blog.

I’ve already mined some of this work for a previous post about how the lessons of the past can inform the present. That post even used the “doomed to repeat” quote.

Today, I’ve come across a new quote, specifically about the learning technology field that was going to serve as a basis for this post. Then, as fate would have it, (pause for breath) I came across this post from George Siemens, which mentions article in “The Wired Campus”, which in turn references this essay from the current issue of Academic Commons.

The topic is e-portfolios. Something of which I am a self-confessed skeptic.

In this post I’m going to try to justify a link between the comments in the article from “The Wired Campus” and an important lesson that we haven’t learned from history. In particular, I’d like to create another couple of data points to support this claim from Oliver (2003)

Learning technology often seems an amnesiac field

What’s claimed for e-portfolios

The article from “The Wired Campus” starts of with the claim

If we truly want to advance from a focus on teaching to a focus on student learning, then a strategy involving something like electronic student portfolios, or ePortfolios, is essential.

The article ends with

At the moment, ePortfolios represent perhaps the most promising strategy for responding to calls for accountability and at the same time nurturing a culture of experimentation with new forms of learning.

In between it suggests four fundamental features of ePortfolios:

  1. Integrate student learning in an expanded range of media, literacies and viable intellectual work.
  2. Enable students to link together diverse parts of their learning including the formal and informal curriculum.
  3. Engage students with their learning.
  4. Offer colleges a meaningful mechanism for accessing and organising the evidence of student learning.

Wow! The solution has been found

What’s been forgotten?

Zemsky and Massey (2004) claim

One of the more hopeful assumptions guiding the push for e-learning was the belief that the use of electronic technologies would force a change in how university students are taught.

Along similar lines, Littlejohn and Peacock (2003) say

There was, in many, a false assumption that exposure to computers and CAL packages was sufficient to drive the development of new forms of teaching with technology

Conole (2003) weighs in from a different track, but still somewhat related (at least in my PhD ravaged mind – my emphasis added)

Politics is a very strong theme that runs across all learning technology research. This in part relates to the over hyping which occurs, leading to an over expectation of what is possible. It is also partly due to different local agendas and associated in-fighting as well as the major impact that technologies can have.

One example of this over-hyping is Suppes (1966) – a Stanford professor writing in Scientific American in the 60s about computer-assisted learning.

the processing and the uses of information are undergoing an unprecedented technological revolution……One can predict that in a few more years millions of school-children will have access to what Philip of Macedon’s son Alexander enjoyed as a royal prerogative: the personal services of a tutor as well-informed and responsive as Aristotle.

Well, it’s 43 years later, have you got your personal Aristotle?

Do you get any sense that this has a connection with what’s happening with e-portfolios (or in some contexts open source learning management systems) at the moment?

How do you change teaching?

I don’t think technology is going to change teaching. If anything the history of e-learning (and other innovations) offer strong evidence that new technology will get used as “horseless carriages”. Doing the old stuff, with the new tools.

If you want to change teaching, and subsequently student learning, I currently ascribe to some of the work of Trigwell (2001) (and others) as represented by the following figure. i.e. if you want to change teaching, you have to change the strategies used by teachers.

Zemsky and Massey (2004) again

Elearning will become pervasive only when faculty change how they teach—not before.

I believe the same applies for e-portfolios.

Trigwell's model of teaching

At best, a new technology will offer a small change in the outer onion skin in the above figure. The teaching and learning context. A new technology, like eportfolios, with some affordances that actively support better teaching strategies will certainly make it possible for teaching to change. I just don’t think the addition of a new technology will make it likely (or certain) that teaching will change.

There are too many other complicating factors within the teaching and learning context (I’m assuming a university context) that are likely to overwhelm the addition of the new technology. Not too mention the complexity of the interactions between the changes in teaching and learning context and all the other onion skins. For example, the change in teaching will, to some extent, rely on students seeing the value in the change and adapting to it. This is not always a given.

Why do we continue to focus on the technology?

(Where I’m definining technology as more than just the eportfolio system. But also all the learning designs and other resources that exist to help staff to use the system.)

Back to Littlejohn and Peacock (2003)

This is because technological issues have in the main been easier to solve than the more complex, social, cultural and organisational issues involved in mainstreaming technology in learning and teaching.

It’s easy to introduce an e-portfolio system and offer training sessions in how to use it. This is all an example of “level 2” knowledge about how to improve learning and teaching (see this post introducing reflective alignment) .

One of the related reasons (at least for me) is the “technologists alliance” (Geoghegan, 2004) that is talked about in my original comments on eportfolios.


Any form of technology will not improve learning and teaching. Actually, I think the authors of the Wired Campus article and most of the people who will read this, will know this. So am I simply creating a strawman argument? Am I simply stating the obvious?

The reason I bother in pointing out the obvious, is that I continue to see this happening in universities. It’s happening in my current university right now. While the folk that are deeply into learning technology understand that technology will not change learning and teaching. Many of the folk that take on the task of improving learning and teaching use this rhetoric to justify their task. In many cases, some of these folk do believe it.

For example, I’d love to do a survey of all the universities in the world and find out how many started the process of adopting an e-portfolio after someone in the institution’s senior leadership read the Wired Campus article or the Academic Commons paper on eportfolios and thought that sounded like a really good. Regardless of the current state or requirements of the local institution. And, almost certainly without a detailed knowledge of the factors at play in the Trigwell figure above.


Conole, G. (2003). Understanding enthusiasm and implementation: E-learning research questions and methodological issues. Learning Technology in Transition: From Individual Enthusiasm to Institutional Implementation. J. K. Seale. Lisse, Netherlands, Swets & Zeitlinger: 129-146.

Geoghegan, W. (1994). Whatever happened to instructional technology? 22nd Annual Conferences of the International Business Schools Computing Association, Baltimore, MD, IBM.

Littlejohn, A. and S. Peacock (2003). From pioneers to partners: The changing voices of staff developers. Learning Technology in Transition: From Individual Enthusiasm to Institutional Implementation. J. K. Seale. Lisse, Netherlands, Swets & Zeitlinger: 77-89.

Suppes, P. (1966). The Uses of Computers in Education. Scientific American: 207-220.

Trigwell, K. (2001). “Judging university teaching.” The International Journal for Academic Development 6(1): 65-73.

Zemsky, R. and W. F. Massey. (2004). “Thwarted innovation: What happened to e-learning and why.” Retrieved 1st July, 2004, from

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