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The Significance of Educational Technology History and Research

By George Veletsianos / November 2014

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In the 2000 film "Memento," the protagonist, Leonard Shelby, is searching for the person who murdered his wife. Leonard suffers from short-term memory loss. To remember relevant information, he takes notes and polaroid photographs, and tattoos himself with the most significant facts he discovers—permanent reminders of what he knows.

Educational tchnology is currently experiencing its memento moment.

At a time when emerging technologies are expected to have widespread impact on education, it is significant to remember the fields closely associated with educational technology (e.g., instructional design, cognitive psychology, the learning sciences, etc.) are neither new, nor without a research base. These fields evidence-based insights into how and under what conditions people learn. When I read educational technology pioneers claim "the education system has not changed in hundreds of years," pioneers who otherwise have insightful ideas to improve education, I am convinced that what we need-what higher education leaders, policymakers, entrepreneurs, and grant-making agencies need, are reminders—tattoos of sorts—that the use of technology in education has a long and rich history. And that long and rich history can inform the design of contemporary digital learning environments. As Neil Selwyn argues in Schools and Schooling in the Digital Age our "curious amnesia, forgetfulness or even willful ignorance of past phases of technology development and implementation in schools" is to our detriment.

As an education researcher, and one who designs and studies online learning in particular, I felt compelled to write this piece, when I saw that in July 2014 the U.S. Department of Education funded a $2.2 million effort aiming to (a) "conduct a multi-site cluster-randomized control study to test the impact of Khan Academy" on student outcomes in developmental math, and, (b) identify the factors that make Khan Academy implementations more effective. In short, this efficacy study will compare outcomes between students who use Khan Academy resources and students who do not use Khan Academy resources. Effective implementations of Khan Academy will then be examined to identify what it is that makes them effective.

Why would a comparison between students who use versus. students who do not use Khan Academy resources compel me to write an editorial arguing we need to remember the history of educational technology?

Because enormous amounts of time and money have already been wasted on "media comparison" studies that tell us little about how learning happens, and tell us even less about how we can capitalize on the opportunities provided by emerging technologies to improve education. Media comparison studies are studies that examine whether student outcomes differ across media. Since the 1920s similar research has been conducted with an endless array of technologies. Such research compared classroom instruction with filmstrips, radio, television, multimedia, online delivery, and mobile devices. Time and time again, these studies have yielded a similar result. The result is so pervasive it has been termed the "no significant difference" phenomenon.

The no significant difference phenomenon represents the realization that replacing one medium with another, without any change in how we practice education, will have little impact on learning. My favorite example to illustrate this phenomenon is the following: A group of students watches a live lecture. A second group of students watches the same lecture on YouTube. Holding everything else constant, and given the same assessment, the live lecture group and the YouTube group will perform roughly the same.

Why? Because a lecture is a lecture regardless of the medium through which it was delivered. We should not be expecting any learning gains when there is no change in the way that instruction occurs, when there is no change in the ways that learners interact with each other, and when there is no change in learner activities. Research in the fields associated with digital learning has shown that, in general, what impacts learning is not the technology. What impacts learning are changes in instructional design and pedagogical practices supported by the introduction of new technologies. In an infamous article from the early 1980's Richard Clark compared the medium to a food delivery truck, and the belief that the medium could impact learning akin to expecting the food delivery truck could affect the nutritional value of the food it was carrying.

We still have a lot to learn about digital education. Rather than continuing to ask the same tired questions though, stakeholders need to search for answers to the questions for which we don't know much about: What is the nature of learning in digital learning environments? How do emerging technologies enable and support new approaches to teaching and education? How does our education system need to change to accommodate the learning needs of a global and networked society? And, how, and under which conditions, do emerging technologies foster the design of effective, powerful, and caring digital learning environments?

Note: The author would like to thank Dr. Michael K. Barbour and Dr. Richard E. West for their feedback on this piece.

About the Author

Dr. George Veletsianos holds a Canada Research Chair in Innovative Learning and Technology and is an Associate Professor at Royal Roads University. Veletsianos is also a former Fulbright scholar and early-career fellow of the Network of Excellence in Technology Enhanced Learning, a European Union Initiative. His research has been dedicated to understanding the practices and experiences of learners, educators, and scholars in emerging online settings such as online social networks and digital learning environments. His research and design/development work have been funded by the Canada Research Chairs program, the National Science Foundation, the European Union, the National Geographic, and the Swedish Knowledge Foundation. He shares and writes about his research at

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  • Sun, 30 Nov 2014
    Post by George Veletsianos

    Hi Ryan,

    Thank you for your comment!

    One of the historical lessons that I am trying to point to is that this type of the research (and the types of studies used in media comparison efforts) makes it nearly impossible to identify the variables that influence learning. The comparison between face-to-face and blended is not a comparison of 1 variable. Therefore, when significant differences have been observed for blended delivery models for example, it's generally unclear whether those were the result of technology or the result of a concomitant change in the learning environment (e.g., more time spent on task). This article discusses some of these issues and suggests an alternative research design for improving learning in these contexts:

  • Wed, 12 Nov 2014
    Post by Ryan Tracey

    But this isn't pure media vs media comparison, as per those who watch a live lecture vs those who watch the same lecture on YouTube. The description states that the Khan resources will be "integrated into normal classroom activities". So the comparison will be between traditional classroom-based delivery and blended delivery, which will yield much more useful results... no?