Using technologies in ODL: Transforming or enhancing teaching and learning? (#change11)

During a recent Elluminate session by Tony Bates (, he posed the interesting question whether technologies are currently used to enhance rather than transform teaching and learning? In reflecting on his question, I felt, at times, as if I was trying to peel an egg with my feet…

At face value, there seems to be an interesting dichotomy here or an implied nuance that ‘enhancing’ does not result in or contribute to ‘transformation’. This would then mean that the enhancement of teaching and learning by using technologies is not the first prize, and sort of the second best option.

Enhancement may be less radical and more evolutional than transformation – but is ‘enhancement’ really second best? Or is there more to this question than meets the eye?

When the differentiating factor between ‘enhancement’ and ‘transformation’ is the notion that using technology to ‘merely’ enhance teaching and learning; we do not fully optimise the potential or affordances of technology; then I think we are on to something. The appropriate and effective use of technologies offers us opportunities to transform our teaching and learning praxis – and not using technologies to the fullest of its potential makes ‘enhancement’ a second best and lesser option.

But I think the question between ‘enhancement’ and ‘transformation’ addresses a much deeper question.

Using the range of technologies available to lecturers and students in effective ways, questions some of our most basic assumptions and beliefs about knowledge. Merely using technologies to enhance teaching and learning therefore leaves our assumptions and beliefs about knowledge, teaching and learning untouched. Embracing the full potential of technology therefore requires of us to scrutinise our basic assumptions and beliefs about knowledge, learning and the respective roles of lecturers and learners. Actually, without scrutinising our beliefs about knowledge, teaching and learning, optimising technologies may remain ad hoc or mere enhancement.

Some lecturers use technologies to enhance their teaching rather than transform their teaching practice, because enhancement allows them to keep control of what they teach, how they teach and assess it and most probably confirm their identities as ‘the one who knows…”. Enhancement also results in keeping students on the receiving end of the scale – as empty vessels to be filled. Paulo Freire describes this type of teaching as ‘banking education’ – where educators deposit knowledge into learners as empty vessels.

But there is also another way to approach the question…

Throughout the evolution of humankind, advances in technology dramatically altered what we knew, how we stored knowledge, how we shared knowledge, with whom we shared knowledge, and how we assessed the success of the sharing of knowledge. The development of language changed humanity forever. So did the evolution of writing. The invention of the Gutenberg press was another major development. The technology of storing paint in tubes changed painting and the colours that were used forever. Photography changed the nature, stature and function of painting (and painters).
And so I can continue – each technological development impacted on and still impacts on the way we see knowledge, share knowledge, how we store knowledge, as well as issues of copyright and intellectual property.

For a profound exploration on the way advances in technology changed the way we remember and forget, see the Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, Delete: the Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (2009, 2011). [If you are interested, look at the YouTube video interview with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger at]

It is therefore impossible to think that technology does not dramatically alter what we know, how we know it, how we share and evaluate knowing and how we forget (if it is still possible – see Viktor Mayer-Schönberger). It is almost unthinkable that even when we use technology to enhance teaching and learning; that it actually transforms our teaching and learning, albeit in a more indirect and tacit way. There is no way we can use technologies and not be affected by it.

In closing: While I can understand the frustration with the fact that technology is not optimally used and embraced; I also belief that using technology even to enhance teaching and learning cannot leave the way we see knowledge, share knowledge and evaluate knowing unaffected.

P.S. Except for the fact that using technology in transformative ways requires scrutinising our beliefs and assumptions about knowledge, teaching and learning; we should also not underestimate the role an enabling environment plays for students and lecturers in optimising the affordances of technology…

About opendistanceteachingandlearning

Research professor in Open Distance and E-Learning (ODeL) at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Interested in teaching and learning in networked and open distance and e-learning environments. I blog in my personal capacity and the views expressed in the blog does not reflect or represent the views of my employer, the University of South Africa (Unisa).
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7 Responses to Using technologies in ODL: Transforming or enhancing teaching and learning? (#change11)

  1. Laura Kapp says:

    Listening to Bill Pelz talk made me realise that what we often find here is an attempt to use technology, but only becasue it is technology. He has used technology to transform and thereby enhance teaching and learning. Isn’t that maybe the key? That by using technology to try and enhance teaching and learning to the fullest we transform it?

    • Good point Laura – I suspect there are many examples of using technology just for the sake of it – or not really considering the pedagogical rationale for using technology more optimally. Some technologies are also more appropriate to use in some discipline contexts than others -so I suspect it is important to find an optimal match between curriculum, pedagogy, discipline context, student profile and literacies/access of both lecturers and students.

      The other interesting aspect of the relationship between education and technology is the possibility that it is not only technology that transforms education but also that education shapes and transforms technology.

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  4. gsiemens says:

    Hi Paul – great statement: “Merely using technologies to enhance teaching and learning therefore leaves our assumptions and beliefs about knowledge, teaching and learning untouched.”

    This nicely sums up the difficulty in many universities today: we want to use new tools and technologies because we see them everywhere in society, but we are not looking deeper to realize that the tools don’t replicate our knowledge processes. They do something entirely – they shift control to end users, they create more organic and self-organizing social processes, they are defined by diversity, rather then centred on one-aspect of knowledge or curriculum, etc.

    If tools were only tools…rather than cognitive instantiations that open new possibilities and change who we are :).

    • George – thanks for the comments. It is fascinating to explore/think about the relationship between change in epistemologies/onotologies and change in tools. It is almost a chicken and egg situation? I am not well versed in the music history – but why influenced the change from baroque to classical to romanticism, modern, etc? Surely the tools remained the same? But something in society changed, something the way we see and listen to music. Interestingly, in art history, a change in tools had major impacts on how 9and what we painted. The move to having tube in paints dramatically altered who had access to, what colours we had access to and how (and where) we painted. Then came photography which had a major impact. Interestingly, the impact was not unilateral – but painting also impact on painting.

      So it would seem as if the relationship between ‘tools’ and changes in epistemologies/ontologies are maybe more complex? There are ample examples of advances in technology changing the way we see knowledge, construct knowledge, store and share knowledge, etc. But what fascinates me is when changes in society result in changes in how we use tools – as in the case of music? Most probably the answer lies in exploring not only technological changes but also changes in political, economic, environmental, social/cultural and legal frameworks and ways of knowing/being to truly understand (and map) what happens between technology and knowledge?

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