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«Talking back to theory: the missed opportunities in learning technology research Sue Bennetta and Martin Oliverb* a Faculty of Education, University ...»

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Research in Learning Technology

Vol. 19, No. 3, November 2011, 179–189

Talking back to theory: the missed opportunities in learning

technology research

Sue Bennetta and Martin Oliverb*


Faculty of Education, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, Australia; bLondon

Knowledge Lab, Institute of Education, London, UK

(Received 31 January 2011; final version received 14 September 2011)

Research into learning technology has developed a reputation for being driven

by rhetoric about the revolutionary nature of new developments, for paying scant attention to theories that might be used to frame and inform research, and for producing shallow analyses that do little to inform the practice of education.

Although there is theoretically-informed research in learning technology, this is in the minority, and has been actively marginalised by calls for applied design work. This limits opportunities to advance knowledge in the field. Using three examples, alternative ways to engage with theory are identified. The paper con- cludes by calling for greater engagement with theory, and the development of a scholarship of learning technology, in order to enrich practice within the field and demonstrate its relevance to other fields of work.

Keywords: theory; design; learning technology Introduction This paper poses the question: why should we be concerned with theory? To answer this, a review is provided of the ways in which theory has – and has not – been engaged with in learning technology research. This is followed by three cases, in which different ways of engaging with theory are offered. The paper concludes by identifying ways in which work in this field frequently fails to engage with the- ory, and how this situation could change, creating a more dynamic relationship between theory and practice.

Background: theory and pragmatics in learning technology research Theory has had a relatively small role to play in learning technology research to date. Mostly, research has focused on matters of practical implementation and design, largely driven by ‘common-sense’ assumptions about what technology can achieve, or – for many decades – by hype and excitement rather than evidence or theory (Mayes 1995). For example, reviews (for example, Conole, Smith, and White 2007) have shown that visible, tangible investment – typically purchase of hardware or software – has been the priority for funding over a 45-year period, not educational principles. Only later, if at all, has work followed that addresses the *Corresponding author. Email: m.oliver@ioe.ac.uk ISSN 2156-7069 print/ISSN 2156-7077 online Ó 2011 Association for Learning Technology http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21567069.2011.624997 http://www.tandfonline.com 180 S. Bennett and M. Oliver patchy and inconsistent patterns of use that typically follow such investment. Such reviews make it clear that fashion and markets (Selwyn 2007), rather than principles or theory, remain the major driving forces behind much research, development and

implementation work in this area:

Research has a tendency to follow policy directives and technological developments, rather than informing them [...] sadly there has been too much evidence of knee-jerk policy, which does not take account of evidence arising from research. (Conole, Smith, and White 2007, 53) This gap is not only visible in relation to policy. According to Friesen (2009), research in this field generally treats theory and empirical work as separate, rather than as integral parts of the same endeavour. Friesen offers a useful conceptual framework for this discussion, identifying three different traditions of research.

Drawing on Habermas, he distinguishes between instrumental (concerned with technical interests associated with work or production), practical (concerned with interpretation or meaning) and emancipatory traditions. He goes on to argue that only the instrumental is well represented in this field, and that the conspicuous absence

of theory is an important indication of this:

To use the words of educational technologist Rob Koper [...] this research tends not to be ‘theory-oriented,’ but rather ‘technology-oriented’ in character. E-learning research, Koper (2007) explains, is not focused on “predicting or understanding events [in] the world as it exists” (p. 356); it instead seeks to “change the world as it exists” (p. 356; emphasis added). E-learning or technology-oriented research, in other words, attempts “to develop new technological knowledge, methods, and artifacts” for practical ends or purposes (p. 356). It is this applied, practical, and technological research that Koper (2007) says is ideally suited to e-learning.

(Friesen 2009, 7) Another indication of this pragmatic orientation can be found in Conole and Oliver’s (2007) introduction to the field. They identify four groups of issues within learning technology research: pedagogic, technical, organisational and sociocultural. Arguably, using Friesen’s categories, the first three of these could be classified as instrumental, and even the fourth could be viewed as a means to instrumental ends. Theory or even critique remains conspicuously absent.

This current situation reflects a long-term preoccupation with practical problems. Hawkridge’s historical account of the development of educational technology as a field (2002) illustrates this. The review draws together previous reviews, meta-studies and content analyses, grouped by continental tradition and stretching back to work in the late 1960s. He describes how a North American tradition grew from instructional design, which was founded on objectivism and linked to industrial and military uses of systems analysis. As this grew through the 1960s and 1970s, it established connections to broader educational work focused on the curriculum and on the science of teaching. The result of these links was the development of programmed instruction: a pragmatically oriented technique for enhancing learning outcomes using behaviourist principles. A consistent emphasis throughout this period was on the scientific improvement of the practice of teaching, largely through automation. (A fuller account of this is offered by Saettler 1990.) Research in other English-speaking countries was strongly influenced by the North American tradition, drawing heavily on US texts. Systems-based Research in Learning Technology 181 approaches were also well represented in the United Kingdom; for example, in the work of Pask (for example, 1976). Although the role of theory has broadened since this early period, Hawkridge argues that the primary focus of learning technology research into this century has been pragmatic, concentrating on applications of new technologies and the pursuit of behavioural evidence of improved learning outcomes.

In spite of the growing popularity of qualitative studies of constructivist inspired learning environments since the early 2000s, which could have offered other models of research, this emphasis on practical applications persists and indeed has been

periodically reinforced by commentary such as that of Reeves:

To realize the fullest potential for online learning, our methods of research and development must be fundamentally changed, but additional changes are needed.

First, we must shift from a position that views learning theory as something that stands apart from and above instructional practice to one that recognizes that learning theory is collaboratively shaped by educational researchers and practitioners in context. Educational technology is a design field, and thus, our paramount goal of research should be solving teaching, learning, and performance problems, and deriving design principles that can inform future decisions. Our goal should not be to develop esoteric theoretical knowledge that we expect practitioners to apply.

This has not worked since the dawn of educational technology, and it won’t work in the future. (2005, 304) This continued focus on practical ‘use-inspired’ design research is promoted as ‘socially responsible’ (Reeves, Herrington, and Oliver 2005), to be valued above and pursued in preference to other forms of research. This view, advocating the type of learning technology research that should be done, limits possibilities for advancing the field. While design research works well for investigating the effectiveness of a particular design in practice, and so helps to inform instructional design theory, it has little relevance to non-design problems. Even the emergence of design research as a methodology – one with a “focus on advancing theory grounded in naturalistic contexts” (Barab and Squire 2004, 5) – has done little to change this, since its focus continues to be on “developing a profile or theory that characterizes the design in practice” (2004, 4), rather than on wider concerns. Reigeluth and Frick’s (1999) distinction between instructional design theory and descriptive theories of learning is helpful here, drawing attention to the scope (and hence the limitations) of a design research focus. Seeing learning technology research as primarily – or even exclusively – occupied with developing and testing designs misrepresents the breadth of work actually being undertaken (Czerniewicz 2010).

To illustrate these wider concerns, Thorpe’s review (2002) is helpful, since it is focused directly on theory and pedagogy. She describes how, over the previous decade, pedagogic thinking shifted from a focus on materials and instruction to social competence, collaboration and situated performance, mirrored by a shift in the theories used to justify the work from behaviourism to social constructivism. This account can be understood as raising some modest challenges to Friesen’s critique, suggesting that practical and emancipatory research have in fact called instrumental ‘progress’ into question – albeit only for a few restricted areas of work – by suggesting that some changes may not always be seen as improvements. So, for example, Thorpe describes how accounts (many of which are related to positions such as constructivism) that celebrate increased student independence and autonomy can be critiqued as excuses for leaving students isolated and unsupported. This is not the 182 S. Bennett and M. Oliver kind of challenge that can be answered with more empirical data; instead it needs, we suggest, a position to be taken about what is desirable and why. In other words, it needs theorising.

This account illustrates how research in the field can focus on questions other than design. As Czerniewicz’s review (2010) demonstrates, while instructional design is sometimes positioned as the ‘core’ of work in learning technology, the field is really too diverse and fragmented for such a claim to be credible. She points instead to evidence that theory is brought in through links to numerous other fields, and development “takes the form of new languages which offer fresh perspectives and a new set of connections, rather than integration with existing theories and approaches” (Czerniewicz 2010, 524). Treating theory as if it was simply and solely a foundation for applied design fails to represent the richness of work that can, and sometimes is, undertaken within this field. It leaves theory unchallenged – and often unquestioned – so that empirical work supports or illustrates theory, but is not seen to develop or even provide a basis for rejecting it (Cook 2002). Such work is possible, however, as the cases in the next section will demonstrate.

Case studies of engagement with theory As argued above, much work in the field of learning technology either neglects theory or else operates in a derivative way, simply applying it. However, there are examples of kinds of work that show different forms of engagement with theory.

Three examples are given here, showing how empirical work can develop theory;

how theories and evidence can undermine claims and redefine design problems; and how theory can change the way that a phenomenon is understood.

Case one: mutually informing theory and practice Richard Mayer’s body of work on multimedia learning exemplifies a particular branch of learning technology research based on the kinds of psychological theories and approaches that have been popular since the early years of research into computer-based or computer-assisted learning. Over his career Mayer has produced an extensive body of work that has drawn on traditional scientifically based experimental methods to advance understanding about how interactive multimedia influences learning. Many well-recognised principles of multimedia design stem from Mayer’s findings.

Mayer’s research illustrates how empirical work can define, rather than apply, theory. It builds on the desire “to understand how people integrate verbal and visual information” (Mayer 1997, 4) as the basis for improving multimedia design; something that requires a twin focus on theory and practice. Mayer, describing his theoretical approach (1997), explains how this work built on previously established theories of cognitive processes, which he applied to the new environment of multimedia. The literature contains a series of more than 40 studies that are informed by previous results and incrementally develop refinements and extensions to that theoretical approach (for example, Mayer and Chandler 2001; Mayer and Johnson 2008;

Mayer and Moreno 2003). While, at one level, this work fits within the traditional of learning technology research as informing the design of instructional software, it does this in a dialogic way. Theory does not simply inform design; Mayer’s findings do generate design principles, but they also reshape the underlying theory.

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