e-Learning and implications for New Zealand schools: A literature review

Publication Details

This e-Learning literature review examined texts across a range of countries, but within a relatively short time frame of the preceding five years. A range of criteria were used to select or eliminate studies for closer review (see Methodology and Methods section). Some key terms are defined for the purpose of this review: outcomes, e-Learning, tools, affordances, Web 2.0.

Author(s): Noeline Wright, Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research, School of Education, The University of Waikato. Report prepared for the Ministry of Education.

Date Published: July 2010

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Section 5: Pedagogy and e-Learning

  • e-Learning and collaborative/co-constructive pedagogies go together.
  • The dynamics of classrooms change when e-Learning is part of the regular learning environment.
  • Using collaborative, interactive pedagogies that also foster co-operation, appear to lead to effective learning and better teacher/student relationships over time.
  • Technology in classrooms becomes an effective tool when teachers deliberately use them in relation to appropriate and targeted pedagogical practices.
  • Preventing access in schools to mobile technologies or firewalling some sites does not teach effective and critical uses of these technologies that students have ready access to outside of school.
  • Virtual worlds and gaming have potential in compulsory education. They are already used widely in medicine and aviation and other tertiary learning environments, and are increasingly being used in business as part of research and development, as well as employee induction.

In any focus on classrooms, what teachers do has an impact on how well-disposed students are to learning. For instance, "Teachers' classroom motivating practice includes both their design of the classroom learning environment, and their direct, interpersonal relationships with individual students" (Hardré & Sullivan, 2009, p. 2). The physical spaces of the classroom and what happens in them are influenced by the arrangements within them: it is teachers who organise these spaces, resources, and opportunities for learning. This is important to consider when the "emphasis today is on active construction of knowledge by the learner" (Chism, 2006, p. 2.4). This implies educationally productive levels of interactivity – both among peers and with teachers, and links closely to the kinds of pedagogies Bishop and Berryman (2006) suggest support Maori students' learning, and which are foregrounded in Ka Hikitia (Ministry of Education, 2008).

The United States meta-analysis on online learning (Means et al., 2009), identified three ways in which learning experiences occur with e-Learning tools/affordances:

  • Expository instruction—where digital devices transmit knowledge, much as f2f lectures do.
  • Active learning—where learners build knowledge through the inquiry-based manipulation of digital artifacts such as online drills, simulations, games, or microworlds.
  • Interactive learning—where learners build knowledge through inquiry-based collaborative interaction with other learners and where teachers can become co-learners and act as facilitators (p. 3).

A teacher's orientation to pedagogy is thus critical to learning; effective e-Learning opportunities do not happen without a teacher's deliberate pedagogical actions. These opportunities create spaces for interaction, collaboration and thinking to occur in educative ways, using e-Learning tools and affordances in authentic ways. Nussbaum et al. (2009) assert that while collaboration or the active construction of knowledge between learners can enhance outcomes, this is not necessarily spontaneous; it must be learned. In other words,

"teaching learners how to collaborate, and in particular how to work together to negotiate meaning, is a necessary part of the process of learning collaboratively which can enhance outcomes further." (Nussbaum et al., 2009, p. 147)

This relates to structuring learning so that students can apply the familiar (prior knowledge) to the unknown, in order to create new understanding. Chism (2006) makes the point that students are most likely to learn well when their senses are stimulated, when the exchange of information is encouraged, and there are opportunities for rehearsal, feedback, application, and transfer. Alexander (2001), although referring to tertiary teaching, asserts that a teacher's conception of learning has a "major influence" (p. 241) on course planning, pedagogical actions, and what and how students learn. Alexander also notes that students' experiences are a "direct result of the particular combination of factors which make up the e-Learning system" (p. 242).

In examining literature on e-Learning and outcomes in refereed journals, there were clear demarcations in the research foci. A large number of texts were situated e-Learning in tertiary contexts, and for the most part, these were discarded because they fell outside the schooling sector focus. Three broad categories were used to sort the rest: about, with, or through ICT/e-Learning. Those that were about, tended to describe what happened and how, with specific technology tools. These usually focused on learning about ICT tools and their application in specific contexts and circumstances. Computer studies inquiries most often fell into this category, as did articles detailing findings in using specific hardware or software applications. One article in particular examined why so few girls entered tertiary studies in ICT areas, and so looked to secondary schools for answers. It concluded that there was a downward trend in students participating in these school subjects, proposing that emphasising understanding the programs themselves, rather integrating them into dynamic and authentic uses, could be putting students, and particular, female students, off (Reid, 2009). The gender trends in e-Learning are not discussed in any detail in this review.

This suggestion links both to teachers' pedagogical purposes and what appears to be a strong desire in 21st century students to learn collaboratively and socially, mirroring their experiences of what social networking affords them. In these kinds of learning environments, students rather than teachers are at the centre of the learning experience. In order for students to learn in such student-centred contexts, the teachers' role is to facilitate the opportunities, using appropriate pedagogical processes and e-Learning affordances. These affordances should be fit for purpose: they support specific subject skills, concepts and content needs, and allow students the means by which they can develop their knowledge through trial and error (see discussion of gaming principles later).

A key place to start is Mishra and Koehler's (2006) exploration of technology in relation to content knowledge and pedagogical knowledge. They assert that technology has always been related to education, but the key aspect is always the intersection among these elements; pedagogical actions are key to successful technology use in classrooms. Their diagram succinctly encapsulates this intersection, and identifies the teacher's place as being at the epicentre of it.

Another example of 'about' is Ballantyne's  (2004) thesis found that teachers needed to alter their pedagogical practices to better adjust to students using technological tools regularly in classes, through purposefully reformulating the use of the technology for learning.

On the other hand, Stevenson (2008) observed that a group of senior students in physical education who also used Web 2.0 tools developed the kinds of personal competencies endorsed by the Key Competencies in the NZC. She noted that teachers' pedagogies adapted from relatively "authoritarian approaches" to more collaborative ones during the learning process with these tools. In other words, teachers began to work more with students in facilitative ways. In this scenario, students developed greater independence from their teachers and related better to each other while still completing the required coursework. A significant factor in this process however, was the presence of online mentors. This guided support reinforces two things: the relevance of student-centred approaches that encourage students becoming independent learners, and the importance of facilitative pedagogical practices that work with the technology to advantage the learning. There is also a third implication: that these more personalised methods and interactions made it easier for students to engage conceptually with new learning. This more personal process links to the findings of Somehk et al. (2007).

Figure 2: TPCK Mishra and Koehler (2006)

Image of Figure 2: TPCK Mishra and Koehler (2006).

Other studies featuring 'about' orientations focused on technological tools rather than on how they led to effective learning outcomes. Such studies include Sprague and Pixley's (2008) description of podcasts. This paper explained what podcasts are, how to make them, and some of their educational uses. The article referred to some teacher-created podcasts designed as either a "just-in-time support" (p. 231) for students' homework activities, or as a repository of information for revision. What is of interest here however, is the authors' assertion that the "real power of podcasts, as with any technology, is when it is placed in the hands of the students… it allows students to work on a project that is meaningful and motivating" (p. 231). The 'meaningful and motivating' aspect should link to pedagogical and learning outcomes that tools like podcasting can make more accessible. Assertions which do not fathom the concepts being practised or understood through the making of the podcasts, potentially position ICT tools as educational silver bullets, rather than opportunities for teachers to provide student-centred learning opportunities. However, these tools are of most benefit when they help students learn other things because they operate as a student's means of transport, not a destination. ICT tools provide access to information and can lead to a focus on higher level cognitive processes more quickly because they can make it easier to complete more mechanical processes that no longer require fine motor skills to complete, such as writing, drafting, or numerical calculations. The ways in which Pt England School has used podcasting as a means by which students develop their metacognitive, literacy and numeracy skills is a case in point. Another is the Lewin, Somekh, and Steadman, (2008) IWB study, where students could easily use drag and drop functions to explore their learning.

Convery (2009) unmasks the broad lack of evidence for claims about the learning effects of specific technologies and Mitchell, Bailey and Monroe (2007) acutely observe that, "Initial student excitement, if any, at an innovative technological approach may quickly fade when technology is the expected "normal use" from their [the students'] perspective" (p. 78). These ideas suggest that the excitement of the newness of incorporating ICT tools may create a level of student engagement not necessarily obvious before. But as these practices and tools become normalised, the Hawthorne Effect may wear off, and engagement levels or improvement levels may restabilise. This points to the importance of teachers considering long-term effects of incorporating ICT in classrooms, and finding ways of using such tools for authentic purposes. Similarly, if the new tools simply replace an old one (such as presentation software instead of overhead transparencies) with little else changing, then student engagement and interest will quickly revert to previous levels because nothing has essentially changed for the learners. They may suffer from the equivalent of 'death by PowerPoint'.

Alex Katerev's site explores the notion of 'death by PowerPoint', and while his view is focused on business contexts, the audience effect is valid for educational contexts. If teachers are not alert to the potential opportunities to interact differently with their students through using ICT, very little will alter for students' learning outcomes; students can become bored by teachers talking too much with the aid of slideshows because they remain passive recipients of information. This passive receptivity role is an enduring issue, especially in some secondary classrooms. A key issue for some teachers, therefore, is the extent to which they are prepared to alter their pedagogical practices to better suit many students' preferences for interactive, collaborative problem-solving ways of learning, especially when these teachers' preferred pedagogy may teacher-centric, and oriented to content and classroom control.

Moos and Azevedo (2009), in their recent literature review on computer-based learning environments and self-efficacy, noted that students who use metacognitive strategies and processes (that is, activating their prior knowledge, and deliberately managing their developing understanding of new concepts and processes) when using e-Learning tools, tended to more effective in developing deeper understanding than peers who failed to use such strategies/process as effectively (see also Wan et al., 2008). This level of active participation is linked to their motivation for learning. How well can students navigate, search, select and transfer information for learning purposes, and what do they need to know to make this a natural process? The competence of learners to do this – to navigate new concepts and contexts - is partly down to what teachers do. Wan et al. (2008) examined the psychological processes that link prior experience to learning outcomes via students' "virtual competence" (p. 513). They asserted that there were two important aspects to consider: the first is pedagogical design, which is important to fostering a positive ICT experience. The second aspect is the level of students' existing prior knowledge and virtual competence. Bridging or filling in the gaps is where teachers have a crucial part to play.

Motivation, as Moos and Azevedo point out, is understood to relate to constructs such as persistence, effort, and some behavioural activities, and these link to self-efficacy. Students with high self-efficacy will "persist in the face of difficulty" because they have the metacognitive skills to call on when needed (Moos & Azevedo, 2009, p. 578). This eventually affects academic performance. As indicated earlier, teachers can make a difference to students' self-efficacy by helping them develop metacognitive skills through deliberate acts of pedagogy centred on critical literacies (addressed later), and using e-Learning technologies to provide the motivation. Motivation is also linked to students' metacognition; students who use common features of computer-based tools, such as cross linking (for example, through using hyperlinks), compared with the kinds of linear reading processes more commonly associated with print texts, appear to demonstrate higher learning gains (Moos & Azevedo, 2009). If this is so, then there is a link between student-centred pedagogies, metacognitive and literacy approaches to learning, and e-Learning affordances.

Few of the works describing learning with ICT tools addressed the impact on students or considered outcomes of any description. In many of these articles/documents, it was like reading about getting caught in the headlights- the bright and shiny object was a thing of wonder, but there was little exploration of the effects beyond the novelty of the occasion, which could instead be attributed to the Hawthorne Effect. This Effect refers essentially to what occurs in a given context when any explicit scrutiny or measurement takes place: positive (or negative) effects can occur through the introduction of something new to an environment, but there is no certainty of any lasting change beyond the intervention, measurement, or observation period. The very act of observing, questioning or evaluating something can alter it; scrutiny can heighten the awareness of those being observed or measured.

One example of this in action is documented by Mitchell et al. (2007), for instance, described what it was like for a mature, able teacher to adjust to three things: new pedagogical processes, a standards-based curriculum, and using ICT tools in geometry lessons. This teacher, guided by external university mentors, taught lines, angles and circles to 3 classes, using one of them as a 'control' group. This last group was taught using the methods the teacher was used to, while the other two were exposed to both different pedagogical practices and ICT tools and products. The teacher also had the support of a technologically savvy student teacher, plus the external experts. The teacher was nervous that altering his pedagogy and introducing ICT would limit the amount of geometry taught (the idea of e-Learning being on top of content, rather than integrated with it). In other words, he thought that geometry would 'lose out'. In fact, this was not the case, because a quantitative score showed that students from all three groups did well on the final teacher-made test. One wonders if the Hawthorne Effect was implicated here; both the students and teacher knew they were under scrutiny. The teacher, by re-thinking his role in the classroom and his pedagogical practices, may have been more aware of students' learning needs than ever before, and more attuned to their needs, regardless of which class he taught. This may mean that his 'control' class, ostensibly taught in his usual way, could have been affected by the teacher's heightened sensitivity to his pedagogy. The conditions for learning were also changed by the presence of other people in the classrooms. Thus, attributing outcomes specifically to the use of specific e-Learning technologies is a difficult claim to make. The following example further illuminates the Hawthorne Effect caution.

Studies in and about classrooms which use mobile technologies such as cell phones or other handheld devices, show that they can capture learning situations and objects as records for immediate or later review. This relates to mainly f2f (face-to-face) educational contexts in which learning opportunities are enhanced when teachers work closely with students using ICT tools (Burkett, 2008; Douglas & Kerr, 2010; Twiss, 2008). Convery (2009), in examining the educational environment surrounding a specific reported use of handheld devices in an art gallery visit of senior students from a UK school, concluded that:

"the context of the students' handheld use – the impressive environment, the supportive art gallery personnel, and the teacher's preparatory and follow-up activities – were … significant determinants on the success of the overall experience with the new technology. [The] initial conclusions were that using the PDAs without the gallery support staff or the teacher's follow-up activities would have led to a much more limited learning experience." (p. 26)

This observation points to the critical importance of the pedagogical behaviour of the teacher, even taking into account the Hawthorne Effect.

When examining articles that report learning through ICT, the impact on learning or specific outcomes still isn't especially clear. This is partially because attributing academic success to a specific e-Learning tool or method ignores the situated and complex nature of the learning environment, as has been alluded to earlier. It may be that a teacher's pedagogical strategy led to an academic improvement rather than the use of specific ICT tools. Moos & Azevedo (2009) also cautioned about specific links between e-Learning tools and outcomes.

Students and e-Learning tools

Research by Lewin, Mavers and Somekh (2003) revealed a gap between home and school uses of technological tools for some students. Through interviewing students in case study schools, they discovered that there was an "extraordinary breadth of computer-based activities commonplace in many homes" (p. 45). These involved students in "extensive" use of the Internet and other media, to, among other things, access specialist knowledge relevant to their own interests, and create and use a wide range of software and hardware to make a range of products of their own devising. Lewin, Mavers and Somekh surmised that:

"schools were generally failing to draw upon these transformative experiences of knowledge building in the home. Rather than technologies having any impact on transforming knowledge in the majority of schools, the traditional structures of curriculum and pedagogy were colonizing technologies and directing students' energies in school to doing 'more of the same more efficiently'." (2003, p. 45)

The comment about how schools were not capitalising on students' proficiency with these tools at that time, would, we expect, have changed over time as teachers' knowledge skills and capacities changed vis a vis ICT affordances. As Prensky (2006) rhetorically asked about digital immigrants and digital natives:

"so is it that the Digital Natives can't pay attention, or that they choose not to? Often from the Natives' point of view their Digital Immigrant instructors make their education not worth paying attention to, compared to everything else they experience - "Every time I go to school I have to power down," complains one student - and then [instructors] blame them for not paying attention! And, more and more, the Digital Natives won't take it."

This idea of 'powering down' is reflected in some of the disaffections some students currently express about schooling. The idea of 'fun' in learning is not new, but what students actually mean by 'fun' is not widely understood. To many people hearing that word, it is assumed to mean that students want to be entertained, but to students themselves, it is about being able to engage in meaningful ways about what they're learning, with their peers. This is borne out by interviews with students conducted during fieldwork for the Secondary Schools Literacy Initiatives Pilot Project (2003-2005). During the evaluation of this project, students from schools throughout the country were interviewed and asked about their learning (Wright, May, Whitehead, Smyth, &  Smyth, 2005). They consistently reported a desire to be able to work with peers, problem-solve and talk together about what they needed to learn. If e-Learning tools can assist with this kind of engagement then it is sensible to use them. After all, if we can accept that 'outcomes' can be interpreted widely, then engagement and involvement in learning would certainly qualify as both outcomes and 'fun', and show how using co-constructive pedagogies appear to bias for best. Again, these ideas link to the NZC's focus on connection and active involvement as 21st century citizens.

New Zealand teachers have already demonstrated what can happen when readily available technological tools (ie mobile phones) are used educationally (Douglas & Kerr, 2010). However, it is quite common for schools in New Zealand to ban cell phones and eschew many 21st century technological tools: some secondary schools for instance, have rudimentary, out-of-date or teacher-only access to such tools, including common ones like microwaves in food technology classrooms. Often this is in response to difficulties some schools have in financing replacements or updates, or dealing with issues of security or safe use. Where control of technology use is situated primarily with teachers, collaborative, co-constructive and student-centred pedagogies are unlikely to be enacted. In turn, this may restrict opportunities for students to practise Key Competencies.

Smyth and Hattam (2004), in their study of over 200 early school leavers in Australia, describe one boy's experience. He left school early to fully develop a business related to computer programming he had established while at school. Because these skills were not noticed or enhanced at school, this boy made a conscious decision to pursue his more relevant interests. Gilbert (2005) prefaces her exploration of the knowledge society by describing how some school students developed online identities, expert in fields not catered for by their schools. These examples point to ways in which some students find niches in online or other technological environments that both circumvent what schools currently have to offer, and provide stimuli for learning beyond the classroom. While these may not be common at present, they indicate something of the potential. As technologies become increasing sites for collaboration, community and identity, such examples may increase substantially. Thus, teachers' beliefs and knowledge about the affordances of digital technologies identifies a relationship between the depth of students' engagement in school learning experiences, and their retention at school, because of a mismatch between students' non-school lives and school.

A doctoral thesis carried out in Thailand (Rumpagaporn, 2007) in a variety of schools argued that students, particularly in secondary schools, improved their academic performances through peer-to-peer interactions afforded by ICT tools. By comparing their work and linking themselves to their peers through these shared online interactions, students were able to improve their learning, implying that these students engaged in deeper thinking because they could be more deliberate and reflective in their online conversations. The study also found that the participating secondary school students preferred to work in groups while using these tools, and ended up with better relationships with their teachers. These small group alliances echo the small group effects and processes highlighted in Somekh et al.'s (2007) work. These secondary students in Rumpagaporn's study were also more competitive in their learning than the primary school students. Again, collaborative, interactive and student-centred pedagogies are identified as important in e-Learning classrooms.

The idea of students 'powering down' when they come to school (see earlier discussion related to Prensky) is also reflected in a recent conversation with the British academic Bridget Somekh (May 12, 2009), who revealed that while on sabbatical in New Zealand at the University of Canterbury, she visited a school which not only banned students' cell phones, but their laptops as well. This was the school's reaction to both the pressure of cyber bullying, and parents' expectations about the school's responsibility in dealing with theft or damage. Both of these issues took on greater significance than the potential of these devices as educational tools, and link to the struggles schools have in managing two different priorities related to e-Learning technologies. Forbes (Dianne Forbes, personal communication, June 19, 2009) pointed out that this issue can be likened to schools' responses to the dangers of water:

"Restrictions and bans may keep children safe for a limited time, but do not enable or empower, and are rendered completely irrelevant once the 3pm buzzer goes. At the Netsafe conference I attended in Queenstown last year, the point was made time and time again, that we teach children to swim as well as putting fences around swimming pools; we teach them what to do if caught in a rip, and we supervise them as they learn. But we don't stop them from getting into the water. Banning swimming is unrealistic and short sighted, as is banning use of technology."

Gaming/virtual worlds and education

Bonk (2009) argues that gaming technologies are already part of learning, particularly in the tertiary sector, but also outlines uses in school subjects, such as writing (this links to character and setting development, as it does when creating avatars and island they inhabit in virtual worlds), history, geography, art geology, hard technologies (for example, automotive), social studies, environmental studies, journalism, and even languages.

In the tertiary sector, these technologies are commonly used in training pilots in flight simulators, and in medicine to develop surgeons' skills: "medical and aviation simulators…can build the hand-eye co-ordination needed to increase effectiveness in surgery or in an air emergency. Skills for minimally invasive surgery, such as laparoscopic surgery, can be honed through playing video games" (p. 276). He also points out that, "…virtual worlds, games, and simulations exist from real-life situations to augmented and virtual reality" (p. 276) and so the scope for their application to the compulsory years of schooling exists now.

Virtual worlds like Second Life are already part of many employees of organisations like IBM. As Bonk (2009) outlines, this company, by 2007, had "expanded its presence in Second Life to some fifty virtual facilities used for research, company meetings, and recruitment and induction of new employees" (p. 279). IBM uses Second Life to simulate project management and customer interactions, which help employees develop skills they might otherwise not have. At the same time, it saves the company money. Universities like Harvard, Stanford and MIT in the United States have also forayed into this virtual world to add to instructional methods and modes, and incorporate Web 2.0 affordances that provided students with learning options that effectively deepened learning experiences (Bonk, 2009).

In a different investigation of the use of gaming technology for specific educational purposes, Jackson (2009) observed that it has the potential to provide students with options for learning challenges that mimic the zone of proximal development Vygotsky (1978) advocated. In gaming, students "learn to set and manage short-term and long-term goals" (Jackson, 2009, p. 292), and also learn by doing, problem-solve and construct their own understandings as they go. Jackson argues that through such processes, "videogames rely on constructivism, the idea that learners build their own knowledge structures" (p. 292). At the same time, gamers are risk-takers; they can make multiple attempts to improve, building knowledge and competence as they go. Feedback is often instantaneous. It may be humorous or deadly, but encourages the learner to persist. Feedback from teachers is not always received the same way, but as personal judgement. Mistakes in gaming, partly because it is removed from the real world, are seen as learning opportunities, allowing gamers to engage deeply (Gee, 2003; Prenksy, 2001b) in what Csikszentmihalyi (1990) calls 'flow'. This also highlights Bonk's (2009) discussion about the potential for virtual worlds to deepen a learning experience. Squire (2008) suggests that

"Surveys of gamers show that they have an increased appetite for risk, a greater comfort with failure, a stronger desire for social affiliations, a preference for challenges, a capacity for independent problem solving, and a desire to be involved in meaningful work when compared with nongamers." (p. 658)

If this is so, then what implications does this have for educators? Jackson, in reviewing her pre-service teacher education classes and trialling game-based learning with her students, concluded that

"If someone guides you every step of the way when you are in unfamiliar territory, you will not remember your path. The information enters short-term memory but then leaves before being transferred to long-term memory. On the other hand, when you have to figure it out yourself, similar to videogames, you engage in the deeper processing that commits the information to long-term, or at least longer-term, memory." (Jackson, 2009, p. 295)

And while she was focusing on adult learners entering education as a profession, her framework is equally applicable because the pedagogy is foregrounded. The premise outlined in the quote can be understood if we think that 'mistakes' can become 'learning opportunities' or there's the opportunity to have multiple attempts at something in order to improve. This may be likened to learning a ball skill. Catching may take some time to perfect, but students are never given only one opportunity to catch a ball. It needs to be caught several times, from lots of angles before a new skill is added to the mix. Jackson listed specific outcomes from both interviews, course evaluations and unsolicited student remarks. Essentially, she concluded that the game-based teaching "outscored direct instruction" (p. 300). It also combined problem-solving, learning about technology, and learning by doing coupled with evaluation.

Wikis and 'through' ICT

An interesting study about learning through ICT was reported by Heafner and Friedman (2008). They discussed secondary school students engaging in Wiki creation in a social studies class, and the consequent effects eight months later when they conducted interviews with the same students. Students were evaluated in terms of their levels of engagement in the wiki, the demonstrated cognitive benefits of this engagement, and overall learning in both the short and long term. The authors reported that the Wikis facilitated a "pedagogical shift from traditional teacher-centred instructional approaches to student-oriented, constructivist learning". They also claimed that the Wikis contributed to student self-efficacy and motivation, which links to the findings in the Moos and Azevedo (2009) review. In the later interviews, Heafner and Friedman found that students who had created Wikis showed greater content retention and understanding than their peers who had learned the same content through traditional teacher-centred instruction. The authors concluded that the long-term cognitive value of the Wikis helped students to develop a deeper understanding of content through being able to both visualise the chronology of events in the topic and cause and effect relationships. By being able to add to and revise the information in the Wiki, these students actively created their knowledge in a shared and relatively public way. Such findings highlight contradictions between the individual and user-centred orientation of digital technologies and Web 2.0 affordances, and the increased capacity to belong to collectives through social networking, Wikis and blogs. It also links to the trial and error processes prevalent in gaming as mentioned earlier.

Learning 'through' computers in a primary setting

In a Finnish primary school, where the teacher provided 9 computers for student use (Teachers TV, 2006), the teacher discussed the difference this access made to her pedagogy over time. She reported that she no longer saw herself as the expert and controller of knowledge, but was, instead, the organiser of opportunities for students to engage in guided discovery. Students, she said, moved around the classroom more, and helped each other to learn and share what they discovered. This democratisation of the classroom appears to be a feature of 21st century e-Learning tools, demonstrating that "The considered use of ICT can transform the teacher role, creating new learning environments" (Ministerial Council on Education, Employment, Training and Youth Affairs (Australia and New Zealand), 2005, p. 3)  (Note: this organisation is most commonly referred to as MCEETYA).

On the other hand, the Canadian Council on Learning's recent report (Abrami et al., 2008) argued that e-Learning might create an "imbalance between the development of computer skills and the fostering of essential academic and thinking skills" (p. 62). This view suggests that e-Learning might exacerbate isolation and technological dependence. It also implies that e-Learning may compromise content by being additional to, rather than integral with, subject learning; a fear the geometry teacher had (Mitchell et al., 2007). However, this argument runs counter to prevailing findings and assumptions about e-Learning – that it fosters collaboration, interaction, networks and community as well as making it easy for people to create, modify and change what appears on the Internet (mashing and modding). Wikipedia, YouTube, Podcasts and blogs have made it possible for anyone to connect to and collaborate with, a worldwide audience. As has been noted earlier, an authentic audience is a powerful motivation for school students.

It's not only students who gain motivation for using e-Learning tools. Teachers embracing e-Learning technologies report positive changes to their pedagogy (Alexander, 2008; Alexander, 2001; Ballantyne, 2004; L. M. Mitchell, 2007). They report becoming more focused on student-centred, active and interactive learning and connected more closely to students' prior knowledge and experiences. At the same time, they provided opportunities for students to create, communicate, construct and transform knowledge through regularly using e-Learning affordances. Through these means, it is likely that critical thinking approaches to learning are common rather than exceptional pedagogical practices (MCEETYA, 2005).

Finally, as Mishra (2009) clearly pointed out, "if you're not going to change pedagogy, then technology use makes no significant difference". Basically, he asserted that increasing technology per se did not lead to student learning, but its effectiveness was entirely dependent on the teaching approaches used in conjunction with it. After all, he says, "teaching is about the transformation of content for learning to think in a disciplined manner" and it is about 'transforming disciplinary knowledge to meet the needs of students". That's where the critical role of the teacher comes in, because in order to help students to 'see' in a disciplinary manner, careful, deliberate, spiral and recursive practices must take place if students are to access this new thinking. And this leads to a consideration of the role of critical thinking, metacognition, and multiliteracies.


  1. (Death by Powerpoint)