More than thirty years ago, Richard Clark made the famous claim that “media will never influence learning” and sparked a firestorm of debate that continues to this day. Despite all our best efforts to convince them otherwise, many remain skeptical. Ten years ago I first saw the cartoon comparing workplaces now with a hundred years ago. In all but one workplace the impact of technology is so dramatic as to render the “after” picture completely unrecognizable when compared with the “before”. The one workplace that remains unchanged: the classroom. We live in an age where we are now wearing technology that monitors our vital signs 24 hours a day – the real-world tricorder – but our classrooms are essentially as they have been for a century, so perhaps Clark was right after all?

Let’s unpack that a little bit. First, the old-fashioned classroom works to some degree. Where there is one teacher and twenty to thirty or more students, the “chalk and talk” method is a lot more effective than we are willing to admit. It turns out that seeing someone model problem solving can help us establish and hone our own problem solving routines and procedures. When the teacher combines this with feedback both to and from the student and in turn uses received feedback to tailor the instruction to the needs of the students, the “traditional” method can be surprisingly effective. On the other hand, although popular, static PowerPoint type presentations are less effective than “chalk and talk” all things being equal in part because learners don’t have someone modeling for them. Similarly, computerized note taking turns out to be less effective than long hand note taking: Solutions in search of problems.

Second, media has in fact influenced learning. In a meta-analysis of meta-analyses on technology use in higher education, Tamim et al (2011) found a positive average effect size of .33 – small, but significant nonetheless: enough of an impact to advance a student by one academic term. In my own research on one-to-one computing programs I found a smaller average effect, but still positive. On the other hand, while we can claim a definite impact for technology, is that enough? When compared with other potential interventions, how does technology stack up? As it turns out, average at best. John Hattie’s Visible Learning project compares over a hundred types of intervention and finds that for the most part, they all work to a degree and the average effect size is about .4. In other words, although we can say with confidence that technology interventions work to boost learning, on average they aren’t even working as well as other potential interventions. Technology can be a solution to the problem of trying to raise performance, but is it the best solution?

The third challenge is how do we design high-impact e-learning and technology interventions that impact learning more significantly than the next alternative? –> part 4: many a slip ‘tween cup and lip (available 19 July)