As you begin to plan out the educational technologies you will use to create your own blended learning course or program, it is important to keep in mind a very broad definition of technology that includes not only the physical equipment but also the software, services, and media options available to you.
In this chapter, we will first consider this expanded definition of technology in education and why it is important to see beyond the hardware, followed by an outline of some of the main categories of educational technologies, including their potential applications and issues.
Technology in Education: An Expanded Definition
Educational technologies are often initially defined in terms of hardware: the computers or mobile devices our students will use and the networks — wired and wireless — that connect them. The physical equipment will of course be a major and essential component of any technology plan and has to be considered carefully in terms of both available resources and learner accessibility, whether your blended model includes an in-school computer lab or a bring-your-own-device flipped classroom. We have discussed and provided guidance for some of these structural issues around technology choice in earlier sections of this guidebook, including Chapter 3 on “Successful Blended Learning.”
However, one of the key themes of this guidebook is that simply introducing new technological equipment into the classroom is not sufficient for creating a blended learning environment. To understand the contributions technology can make to learning, we need a broader definition of educational technologies.
Technology is a tool or system used to solve problems. In education, that means “things or tools used to support teaching and learning” (Bates, 2015). Under this definition, educational technologies — as tools — can include software (such as word processors), systems (such as learning management systems), services (such as YouTube or Google Docs), and environments (such as virtual worlds), as well as the hardware and networks on which these all depend. It can also include traditional “technologies” such as blackboards and textbooks, though we will focus here on their online or digital counterparts.
The other component of the definition is equally important: technologies solve problems. A tool becomes a technology when it is applied with some intention to meet some human need; the definition of an educational technology will include its teaching or learning purpose. In many cases, this will mean delivering learning content as various forms of media (e.g., text, video, games), but it can also include social or collaborative activities (such as discussion boards or videoconferencing) or the creation of artifacts by learners (assessment activities or e-portfolios). The purposes we identify and the problems our technologies are meant to solve reflect our values and priorities as educators; our technological choices should go beyond whatever is trendy or new.
The remainder of this chapter will present an overview of some of the technologies available for teaching and learning in blended learning environments, along with example applications and key issues to consider when adopting these technologies. As you work through the list, it is important to see it not only as a cataloger of available tools but as technologies (1) creating opportunities for particular forms of learning, whether instructional, collaborative or constructive and (2) solving specific educational problems.
A Note on Technological Change and Obsolescence
Given the rapid rate of technological change, it is neither possible nor useful to try to capture a complete snapshot of currently available tools in a guidebook such as this. What is effective today may cease to exist tomorrow, replaced by an entirely new technology opening up unexpected and innovative possibilities for teaching and learning. Technologies also famously move through a “hype cycle” (Panetta, 2017), often reaching a peak of popular interest only to vanish into obscurity before reappearing with more modest, mainstream applications.
Our goal in the following is not to recommend specific tools we believe all blended-learning educators should be using. Rather, it is to present broad categories of technologies, or technological themes that meet teaching and learning objectives and should tend to persist even as the individual tools come and go.
Learning Management Systems
A learning management system, or LMS, is often the technological cornerstone of a blended learning environment. An LMS is an integrated software application to deliver content and resources online, to provide interaction or collaborative work spaces, and to manage complete student, course and programmer administrative functions, including registration, assessment and analytics.
There are several large commercial vendors of LMSs, including Blackboard (www. blackboard.com) and Desire2Learn (https://www. d2l.com), as well as popular, fully functional open-source alternatives, such as Moodle (https://moodle.org) and Canvas (https://www. canvaslms.com). An LMS is typically implemented on a school-, institution- or district-wide level and requires vendor or in-house infrastructure and technical support. However, there are also web-based classroom management systems, such as Google Classroom (https://classroom.google.com), that can be initiated by individual teachers, as Well as subscription-based LMSs, typically used for workplace training; applications of these simpler systems are often limited to posting a course syllabus, receiving student assignments and using basic discussion boards.
A full LMS can be a complete, end-to-end solution for e Learning. Having been developed originally for delivering correspondence content online, LMSs are sometimes criticized for emphasizing student management while encouraging a passive transmission model of instruction, including surface-level assessments such as multiple-choice quizzes. Indeed, in a flipped classroom model of blended learning, the LMS may be used primarily to allow students to access video lectures or other content between campus-based classes. However, through the careful planning and facilitation of discussion boards, chat and collaborative work spaces (now often supporting audio or video submissions as well as text), an LMS can provide a home base or platform for learners to participate in deeper, more reflective, and constructive-based communities of inquiry.
Another common criticism of LMSs is that they can increase student and teacher workload; as always with blended learning, it is important to consider activities within the LMS not as merely an add-on feature of the course but as integral components of the overall course structure.
We will look at LMSs again in the next chapter as key to developing blended learning, as they provide an easy way to integrate many technologies into one platform.
Web conferencing can be used in blended learning as an online counterpart to classroom-based tutorials, seminars or any synchronous (real-time) learning activity, such as collaborative, project- based work. Its most typical applications are for one-to-many slideshow-based presentations (webcasts) and many-to-many group meetings (webinars), but it can also include one-to-one private tutorial or innovative assessment sessions. Web conferencing tools are usually highly multi modal, with simultaneous video, voice, text chat, whiteboard annotations and screen sharing, making them rich and dynamic — but also complex — learning environments the more powerful web conferencing tools, such as Adobe Connect(https://www.adobe.com/product/adobeconnect.html), Blackboard (www.blackboard.com/online-collaborative-learning/blackboard-collaborative.html) Collaborate and Zoom (https://zoom.us), are typically offered as hosted web services with subscriptions on a monthly or per-user basis, though some may be installed in-house with appropriate technical support and infrastructure. These systems often include more advanced features that can mimic certain classroom activities, such as polling or breakout groups, and can therefore be effective for varied and interesting workshop-style learning sessions. As with LMSs, there are also low-cost or free alternatives, such as Skype (https://www.skype.com) and Big Blue Button (https://bigbluebutton.org), that can be implemented by individual teachers as open-source alternative. These tools are usually more limited and are used primarily to allow for live, personal and spontaneous learning discussions and brainstorming sessions between students and teachers.
Criticisms of web conferencing in blended learning usually revolve around accessibility, complexity and capacity. As with any synchronous learning activity, web conferencing requires learners to log in at scheduled times, which may undercut some of the flexibility we hope to achieve through online blended learning. It can also require stable, high-bandwidth Internet connections, which may make it less accessible for some learners or locations. While its multi modal capabilities can ultimately lead to stimulating class sessions appealing to a wide variety of learners, they can also initially be complex and overwhelming; training sessions and ongoing technical support may be necessary. Finally, there can be capacity limitations for many of these tools or services, such as limits on the number of simultaneous users or minutes per month, which have to be considered when planning a blended learning programme.
Nevertheless, the dynamic qualities of web conferencing environments and the sense of direct, personal connection through video and voice make these tools particularly effective for developing social and teaching presence, while the potential for collaboration can lead to more creative and flexible forms of learning. We will explore some examples of synchronous learning activities in a later chapter.
Digital textbooks, or e-texts, potentially offer significant advantages over printed texts: lower initial and updating costs; improved accessibility, flexibility and customization (including localized material); and richer learning experiences through multimedia content, embedded assessments, and interactivity. They are often considered key components of educational reform, and several jurisdictions have begun mandating the widespread adoption of digital texts.
Digital textbooks are available both through commercial publishers and through open-source initiatives. While commercial e-texts will typically be promoted as being of higher quality or better aligned with regional or national standards, the higher cost warrants a careful comparison between commercial and open-source alternatives; open-source texts are often of equal or even higher quality and offer additional advantages. Open-source texts can be shared freely and, unlike many commercial texts, never expire, allowing students to retain them as permanent references. They can be easily updated, modified or supplemented with locally relevant content or problem-based assessments, or adapted for special learner populations, and those modifications can in turn be shared with the broader teaching community.
Despite the potential for much lower costs, the development or adaptation of digital texts, especially those with rich media or interactive simulations, can still be a significant expense or require release time for teachers. Digital texts may also place a greater burden on students if they are expected to provide there own laptops or tablets,limiting the promise of greater accessibility.studies have also raised the questions of whether students in fact prefer printed texts, despite the convenience of bookmarking, searching and other usability features of digital texts. Nevertheless, digital textbooks will be a key educational technology in online and blended learning.
Blogs and Wikis
Blogs and wikis are online writing tools; in blended learning, blogs are primarily used for individual, reflective writing, while wikis can be very effective for collaborative research and writing activities.
A blog is an online diary that can be shared across the class or with the general public, allowing individual learners to write reflectively about their own learning and to receive feedback from their peers. Beyond reflective writing, common blog-based learning activities include reviewing and critiquing online articles or resources, journaling about experiences in project- or field-based studies (acting, in essence, as a form of e-portfolio), or citizen journalism. Recently, microblogging has become a popular form of recording momentary experiences or commenting on online references. Twitter is an example of microblogging, and while it may not be effective for deeper, reflective writing, it can be used creatively for connectivity activities such as tagging useful learning resources, as with social bookmarking, described below.
Wikis are collaborative writing spaces constructed around interlinked webpages. Using a custom markup language and management tools, learners (with the appropriate access) can create or edit any wiki page at any time, with all modifications stored in a restorable list of revisions, allowing for highly constructivist learning activities. Some common activities include brainstorming, group essays, or class books (including digital textbooks); wikis can also be effectively used for collaborative class planning or syllabi, as often found in connectivity MOOCs (cMOOCs). Wikis are very flexible and allow for a number of creative and innovative forms of learning; however, that flexibility comes at the cost of complex page management and a non-intuitive markup language, making wikis challenging for novice users.
Blogging tools and wikis are often available within LMSs or can easily be created through commercial or non-profit services such as Blogger (https://www.blogger.com), EduBlogs (https://edublogs.org) or WordPress (https://wordpress.com). MediaWiki (https://www.mediawiki.org/wiki/Mediawiki) is an open-source software for creating wiki platforms. This software actually powers the Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Main Page) platform. We must note, however, that with any commercial service used in education, learner privacy issues must be considered.
Social Bookmarking, Mashups and Digital Storytelling
Social bookmarking is the relatively straightforward activity of collecting, tagging and sharing online resources such as articles, news reports or images. Del.isio.us (https://del.icio.us), Digg (https://digg.com) and Scoop.It (https://www.scoop.it) are popular commercial bookmarking services, but RSS aggregators can also be included in this category. In blended learning, social bookmarking activities can provide the basis for critical in-class or online discussions about the resources themselves and the reliability of web-based information.
Mashups extend the idea of social bookmarking to allow learners to compile, combine and remix online resources and data in more structured ways to produce new interpretations or meaning. These new structured forms can include knowledge mapping, historical timelines or data visualization and can be powerful tools for developing learners’ research skills. A simple example is Wardle (www.wordle.net), a web service for creating word clouds, but we can expect to see more sophisticated analytical tools emerge over the next few years.
Digital storytelling can, in turn, be considered an extension or “completion” of the notion of mashups and can be a very rich and meaningful learning experience. Through digital storytelling, learners combine a range of media — text, images, video, audio, maps and data — to craft a unified narrative. Storytelling can be a powerful way for individual learners to explore and express personal experiences, while collaborative storytelling can be the basis for group research projects and constructive learning around multiple points of view. Course curricula can be structured around extended storytelling projects, and as learners develop their stories over the term, they also develop a wide range of digital literacy, as well as important higher learning skills such as analyzing, evaluating and synthesizing information. In blended learning, digital storytelling activities can be effectively combined with in-person presentations and can be applied at almost any educational level, from primary to post-secondary.
Simulations, Serious Games and Virtual Worlds
Simulations, serious games and virtual worlds are more advanced forms of educational technology, and the lines between them are often blurry.
Simple simulations can often be incorporated into blended learning as open educational resources to help illustrate mathematical, technical or scientific concepts; Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org) offers a number of such Simulations. As simulations become more complex, asking learners to consider trade-offs and multiple values, they begin to take on more of the nature of a serious or applied game. A game is considered “serious” (though hopefully still “fun”) when it is played with some pedagogical purpose in mind, and can include games in which learners explore environmental issues while playing the role of a city planner, or historical patterns while developing a civilization.
Some serious games, such as flight or medical simulations, immerse learners in three-dimensional settings and begin to take on the characteristics of virtual worlds. The full concept of a virtual world is reached when learners can begin to interact with other learners within the three-dimensional space. Second Life (https://secondlife.com) is the most familiar example, though there have been experiments with learning in “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” or MMORPGs.
Other than simple simulations, which are commonly used in blended learning, and some serious games, these more immersive technologies can be very demanding in terms of equipment, resources and learner support.
Electronic portfolios, or e-portfolios, are collections of writing, documents and other artefacts maintained individually by students to demonstrate their learning over a course or programme. Although they are typically considered in terms of assessment (e.g., as a “capstone” project) or as showcasing skills and achievements (for future employment), e-portfolios can also play an important developmental role, requiring learners to reflect on their work and evaluate it objectively. In this way, an e-portfolio becomes more than a mechanical assessment exercise; it encourages learners to take a broader, holistic view of their learning, to understand their own learning progress over time and to find meaning in the work they have done.
Electronic portfolios can be integrated into LMSs or be based on software or web-based applications, and they can be valuable additions in any learning environment — online, in-person or blended. Mahara (https://mahara.org) is an open- source e-portfolio system that can be integrated into Moodle.
In this chapter, we have surveyed a range of technologies and tools that you can consider when planning your blended learning programme or course.We have used a broad definition of technology, including systems,Software and services, to encourage you to look beyond the hardware; simply incorporating new technological equipment or devices without considering applications or how they support learning activities will not lead to effective blended learning experiences.
Technology changes rapidly, with older tools becoming obsolete as new technologies emerge, bringing new pedagogical opportunities. We have therefore emphasized broad categories of technologies rather than simply listing the latest popular tools, with the belief that understanding the uses of different forms of technologies, their implications for teaching and learning as well as their potential issues will better prepare you for adapting your blended learning in the face of constant technological change.
The technological centerpiece for most blended learning plans is the learning management system; we will continue to explore the role of the LMS in the next chapter. We have also given an initial sketch of learning activities possible through both synchronous (e.g., web conferencing and virtual worlds) and asynchronous (e.g., wikis and social bookmarking) tools; this sketch will be filled out in later chapters. Above all, we hope to have given you a rich picture of the potential uses of technologies in blended learning, from collaborative learning through web conferencing or wiki- based activities, to deep learning through blogs or digital storytelling projects.
There are many technologies with important educational applications that we could not include here. For example, social networks such as Facebook allow for the establishment of learning communities outside an LMS, while social media applications such as YouTube can be useful for teachers who want to find or create their own open educational resources, or for learners as a platform for video-based learning activities. We encourage you to continue exploring these and other technologies, to find new and innovative uses for them in your own blended learning courses or programmes, and whenever possible to share your ideas and learning activities with others.
- Consider which technology applications you have used and which are new to you. How might you use them in a blended course design?
- Web-conferencing offers much opportunity for student engagement and interaction. Google Hangout, Skype and Big Blue Button are available to you and your students even if your institution doesn’t offer a web-conferencing tool. Can you envision where in your blended course one of these tools might be used and what educational experience it could provide that otherwise might not be possible? Which of the three suggested here look user friendly and accessible to you?
- Review the description of e-portfolios. How might you or your students make use of such a tool?