Exploring multiple applications for complex learning tasks

In a recent Masters assignment I completed I came across an intriguing article by Parmaxi, Zaphiris and Ioannou (2016) that uses a design-based research methodology to explore different technologies that enable collaborative production of artefacts. Artefacts here refer to tangible products from online collaboration among learners (undergraduate students in the context of the article). These might be shared stories, reports or presentations. The tasks leading to their creation are complex and require a wide range of thinking and communication skills. You can also read more about the approach and ideas generated in an earlier article by Parmaxi and Panayiotis (2015).

Design-based research involves iterations of hypothesis building, research design and testing. Each iteration aims to refine the working theories being developed in the study and improve the designed intervention. The goal is not just to seek understanding but to achieve a positive outcome for the context examined. To this end, researchers taking a design-based approach seek to collaborate closely with practitioners and participants in the context studied at each iteration of the project.

What interested me about the study was both this evolving design approach to understanding and the exploration of multiple online technologies to best facilitate the collaborative production of online artefacts. The affordances of different applications were trialled in the project-like tasks of the study and no one application provided a perfect solution. Learners gravitated towards using social media like Facebook to manage collaboration. The immediacy of alerts on their personal devices helped to ensure discussion flowed quickly better enabling decision making. However, Facebook was inadequate for organising and prioritising draft products that the learners shared and reworked together. Applications like Google Docs were found to be effective for managing the redrafting process and file sharing services like Google Drive were helpful in organising and sharing work.

I liked the study for its frank open admission of the messiness of exploring an effective integration of different technologies in complex learning tasks. You don’t start out such a challenging project knowing from the outset what the solutions will be or the exact combinations of technology you need to use. This evolved with each iteration of the project, different combinations of technology selected at later iterations of the study in response to earlier feedback from participants and observations of what worked well and what did not. The authors make some interesting conclusions at the end of their articles about the different affordances of the various types of technology used – no application is a magic bullet.

This approach I think has exciting potential not just for educational research but for the development of supporting technology interventions for learning and development in professional contexts. The trouble is you do tend to get bombarded by hard sales on particular applications and quite naturally vendors espouse the multiple benefits of their product. But, for developing effective learning solutions for complex tasks it may be helpful to pursue an explicit strategy of combining multiple products and moving from a single shot problem-resolution methodology to continuous cycles of design, technology intervention and review.

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