Where Edtech Can Help: 10 Most Powerful Uses of Technology for Learning

Post by Open Colleges on March 1st, 2015

Regardless of whether you think every infant needs an iPad, I think we can all agree that technology has changed education for the better. Today’s learners now enjoy easier, more efficient access to information; opportunities for extended and mobile learning; the ability to give and receive immediate feedback; and greater motivation to learn and engage.

We now have programs and platforms that can transform learners into globally active citizens, opening up countless avenues for communication and impact. Thousands of educational apps have been designed to enhance interest and participation. Course management systems and learning analytics have streamlined the education process and allowed for quality online delivery.

But if we had to pick the top ten, most influential ways technology has transformed education, what would the list look like? The following things have been identified by educational researchers and teachers alike as the most powerful uses of technology for learning. Take a look.

1. Critical Thinking

In Meaningful Learning With Technology, David H. Jonassen and his co-authors argue that students do not learn from teachers or from technologies. Rather, students learn from thinking–thinking about what they are doing or what they did, thinking about what they believe, thinking about what others have done and believe, thinking about the thinking processes they use–just thinking and reasoning. Thinking mediates learning. Learning results from thinking.

So what kinds of thinking are fostered when learning with technologies?


If you distill cognitive psychology into a single principle, it would be to use analogies to convey and understand new ideas. That is, understanding a new idea is best accomplished by comparing and contrasting it to an idea that is already understood. In an analogy, the properties or attributes of one idea (the analogue) are mapped or transferred to another (the source or target). Single analogies are also known as synonyms or metaphors.

In using technologies to represent their understanding, students consistently are required to engage in the comparison and contrast reasoning required to structurally map the attributes of one or more idea to others–that is, to draw an analogy.


Using technologies as tools to learn with entails learners representing what they know–that is, teaching the computer. To do so, learners must express what they know. Using different tools requires learners to express what they know in different ways. Technologies can be used to help learners express themselves in writing. Learners can express themselves using a variety of tools, such as databases, spreadsheets, and expert systems, each tool requiring different forms of expression.

Technologies can support verbal and visual expressions as well. Contrast these varieties of expressions to those required by state-mandated tests, where students’ only form of expressions is the selection of answer a, b, c, or d.


Experiences result in the most meaningful and resistant memories. We can recall with clarity experiences that we have had many years before. The primary medium for expressing experiences is the story. Stories are the oldest and most natural form of sense making. Cultures have maintained their existence through different types of stories, including myths, fairy tales, and histories. Humans appear to have an innate ability and predisposition to organise and represent their experiences in the form of stories. Learning with technologies engages stories in a couple ways.

First, the experiences that students have while using technologies to represent their understanding are meaningful and memorable. Second, students may seek out stories and use technologies to convey them.

Problem Solving

Using technologies to express and convey learner knowledge all entail different kinds of problem solving. Learning with technologies requires that students make myriad decisions while constructing their representations. Deciding what information to include and exclude, how to structure the information, and what form it should take are all complex decision-making processes.

Students also engage in a lot of design problem solving while constructing their interpretations. They also must solve rule-using problems in how to use software. When learners are solving problems, they are thinking deeply and are engaged in meaningful learning. What they learn while doing so will be so much better understood and remembered than continuously preparing to answer multiple-choice test questions.

2. Mobile Learning

True mobile learning has been around for close to a decade, right around the time when the first smartphone and tablet (Apple) were introduced and opened up a new world of possibilities for training and education. Enough time has gone by where today’s youth are exposed to mobile devices from the day that they are born, and as such they are very much accustomed to using it for both learning and entertainment.

Adapting to the needs of 21st century learners, countries like Turkey aim to supply all of their students with 10 million tablets by the end of 2015. Thailand’s government is planning to supply 13 million mobile devices to students within the same time-frame. Tablets aren’t the only piece of technology driving mobile learning, though. In one survey, 73% of teachers said that they and their students use smartphones for educational purposes.

With tools like MOOCs, e-learning tools, blogs and wikis, and social media, supporting students’ informal learning (as well as formal learning) can be a key to helping them become lifelong learners.

3. Access to Education

The United Nations estimates 58 million children from ages 6 to 11 don’t attend school, a number that has remained stubbornly stagnant since the middle of the last decade. One nonprofit believes it has the solution: Create software so exciting to use that kids will want to teach themselves.

X-Prize is challenging entrepreneurs to develop open-source software that children can use to acquire basic literacy and arithmetic skills on their own.

“It’s based on the supposition, still unproven, that kids can teach themselves how to read and write,” says Matt Keller, director of the Global Learning X-Prize.

The five best submissions will receive $1-million each to test their software in 100 villages in an English-speaking part of sub-Saharan Africa. The best of those five will receive a $10-million prize so long as the software improves learning.

“My guess is the team that wins is going to be the team that develops something so sticky, so dynamic, so engaging that kids are enthralled by it,” says Mr. Keller. “They’re going to learn in spite of themselves.”

4. Deeper Learning

“The most powerful uses are where people are producing,” says Karen Cator, president and CEO of Digital Promise and former head of the Office of Technology at the US Department of Education, in a recent Mind/Shift interview. “They’re answering questions that they are intimately involved with.” She gave an example of one social studies assignment to create a narrative for the Mississippi river. Students started at the headwaters in Bemidji, Minnesota and told stories of the people and places all the way down the river’s banks to the Gulf of Mexico. They used publishing tools to create multimedia presentations: “It’s something you couldn’t do very well without technology,” Cator said.

5. Continuous Feedback

There are countless studies that illustrate the benefit of using technology-based continuous feedback methods to improve student engagement. At Utah State University, for example, researchers conducted a study to examine the use of frequent, anonymous student course surveys as a tool in supporting continuous quality improvement (CQI) principles in online instruction.

The study used a qualitative, multiple-case design involving four separate online courses. Findings suggested that instructors used student feedback to make course changes that alleviated technical difficulties, added and clarified content, and contributed to future course changes. Students and instructors responded positively to the opportunity to give and receive anonymous feedback and felt that it helped improve the course.

The study also found that students like to be asked to help improve their learning experience, as long as the instructor listens and responds to their feedback.

6. Unlimited and Immediate Learning

It is easier than ever to learn anything you want, as quickly as you can. Some experts have argued that this reliance on technology is making us less intelligent, but this simply isn’t true. If anything, the Internet has opened up more opportunities for us to think more deeply. For comparison’s sake, imagine two people, one of whom can’t write very fast by hand and the other of whom writes at a normal speed. Because we think as we write, the person who writes slowly will be forced to think slowly as well, since part of his brain is focusing on the writing.

But the person who writes normally will be able to think more quickly, since the action is more routine, requiring less brain power. Now imagine two people writing a research paper, one of whom gets his facts quickly online and the other of whom gets his facts slowly, at a library. The person who gets the information he needs more quickly will be able to move on with his writing more quickly, thereby conserving brain power.

The person who flips through several books in order to find the information he’s looking for will be slightly more exhausted by the time he thinks about incorporating that fact into the argument he’s making.

7. Creation and Contribution

Countless programs and platforms now allow us to create and share material in a way that was not possible before the rise of technology. Blogs, for example, are a great way to develop creative thinking and writing in students. They provide freedom to students to post whatever they want and comment upon or share each other’s material. They can openly write on topics that intrigue them and give vent to their ideas without having to worry about grading or grammatical errors.

Similarly, games have proven to be one of the best ways of promoting co-operation and creativity. Educational games keep students engaged with their study, ignite the interactive and imaginative element in their thinking and mold it towards creativity.

8. Social Connectedness

To examine the effectiveness of smart technologies in improving or maintaining the social connectedness of older people living at home, researchers at La Trobe University in Melbourne conducted a literature review to determine how effective smart technologies can be in improving or maintaining the social connectedness of older people living at home. Eighteen publications were identified that evaluated the effect of smart technologies on dimensions of social connectedness. Fourteen studies reported positive outcomes in aspects such as social support, isolation and loneliness.

There was emerging evidence that some technologies augmented the beneficial effects of more traditional aged-care services.

In another recent study, researchers at the University of North Texas found that university students who used text messaging to communicate with other students during group projects felt more socially connected and communicated more often with questions and ideas.

9. Global Awareness

Marcel Proust, the French novelist, once wrote, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” He realised that by working with people from different backgrounds and cultures, we become better able to explore new ideas and possibilities for improvement.

“Options that would not have occurred to us before stand out as obvious if we understand how other people experience the world,” writes José Picardo, head of modern foreign languages at Nottingham High School, in a recent article for the Guardian. “This is why it is so important for students to have a deeper global awareness and understanding of other cultures.”

Fortunately, in today’s increasingly interconnected and globalised world, tradition is being supplemented with new and exciting ways to bring the world into a formal learning setting. Modern means of communication such as social networks and video conferencing can ensure that our students experience foreign cultures with unprecedented ease.

“Course Twitter accounts link students in real time across the face of the planet with projects devised around common academic subjects and cross-cultural understanding,” Picardo says. “Skype allows us to converse face-to-face with people from other countries, allowing us to hear it directly from the source. Google Maps lets our pupils take a walk down the streets of every major town and city in the world, allowing them to sight-see and get a sense of other cultures.”

Blogs, he adds, provide geographically distant schools with the means to partner together so that their pupils can interact in a safe virtual environment, contributing a valuable international dimension to peer assessment.

10. Understanding Learning

A Washington State University professor has figured out a dramatically easier and more cost-effective way to do research on science curriculum: through video games.

Called “computational modeling,” it involves a computer “learning” student behavior and then “thinking” as students would. Rich Lamb, who teaches science education at WSU’s College of Education, said the process could revolutionise the way educational research is done.

“Traditionally, we’d be confined to a [course setting] to study student learning for virtually every potential theory we have about science education and curriculum implementation,” Lamb said. “But now, instead of taking a shotgun approach, we can test the initial interventions on a computer and see which ones make the most sense to then study in a [course setting].”

This means that in-person research becomes more finely targeted and requires fewer student subjects. It also requires less time from researchers and costs less money.

“In the current model of research, we go into a [course setting] and spend months observing, giving tests and trying to see if changes to a specific model work and how to best implement them,” Lamb said. “It will still be necessary for researchers to go into an [actual course setting]; hopefully that never goes away. This just gives us more flexibility.”

Lamb and his fellow researchers have been using an artificial neural network they named the Student Task and Cognition Model.

Students are given tasks to complete in an electronic game. The tasks are scientific in nature and require students to make a choice. The researchers use statistical techniques to track everything and assign each task as a success or failure.

“The computer is able to see what constitutes success, but it’s also able to see how students approach science,” Lamb said.

Because the computer is learning an approach to science, rather than just how to do a specific task, it will later try to solve a different problem the same way a student might.

“The computer is learning to solve novel or new problems, which means we can test different educational interventions before ever getting to a [course setting],” he says. Those initial tests will not only tell researchers if a specific educational model will work, but will give a specific percentage of success.

“Even with a large research team, it’s usually too difficult to test more than one intervention at a time. Now we can run multiple interventions, choose the one that looks like it will work the best and then just test that one.”

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