Research in Teaching & Learning in a Technology-Based Environment:

Theoretical Perspectives Influencing Inquiry Methods


John Arul Phillips

Proceedings of the Qualitative Research Convention: Navigating Challenges, 2001, Oct. 25-26. University of Malaya





With the advent of information and communication technology, research into its impact on teaching and learning at all levels of education and training has been prolific.  Initial efforts tended to compare technology-based teaching with more 'traditional'  teaching methods with the quasi-experimental design being most popular.  Besides seeking causal determination, prediction, and generalization of findings, there is growing realisation to investigate deeply into the processes involved with the aim to illuminate, understand, and extrapolate similar situations using qualitative inquiry methods.  A compelling reason for the selection of qualitative methodologies within the educational technology research arena is the shift in the theoretical emphasis from a more behaviourist perspective of technology application to a more cognitive-constructivist view of teaching in a technology-based learning environment.  The cognitive-constructivist conceptual framework that has become the dominant structure for investigating the teaching-learning processes in a technology-based classroom has necessitated more qualitative tools to be adopted.  While not ignoring the importance of measuring the product of learning, there is also a growing interest in examining the processes involved in learning, there is also a growing interest in examining the processes involved in learning.  Hence, it is not surprising that the interview, participant observation procedures, clinical inquiry and ethnographic techniques have been widely applied in gathering data about the technology-based classroom. The paper will trace this shift in theoretical perspective and methods of investigation as well as illustrate the trend with samples  of works from the writer's research project.




The advent of information and communication technology (ICT) in teaching and learning has witnessed a proliferation of research at all levels of education and training. Initial efforts tended to compare technology-based teaching with more 'traditional' teaching methods with the quasi-experimental design being most popular. However, of late there is growing realization to investigate deeply into the processes involved in the technology-based learning environment with the aim of illuminating, understanding, and extrapolating to similar situations using qualitative inquiry methods. A compelling reason for the selection of qualitative methodologies  is the shift in theoretical emphasis from a more behaviorist perspective of technology application to a more cognitive-constructivist view of teaching and learning. Hence, it is not surprising that the interview, participant observation procedures, clinical inquiry and ethnographic techniques have been widely applied in gathering data on the technology-based classroom. This paper discusses the evolution of technology in education, the accompanying theoretical constructs and influence on research methods.


The Evolving Conception of Technology in Education


Technology may be defined as the "systematic application of scientific or other organized knowledge to practical tasks" (Galbraith, 1967) and at various times in the history of education, technology has been introduced in the hope that it would enhance teaching and learning. Most significant is perhaps the 'blackboard' which persists today and might be around for many decades!.  More than two decades ago, Davies (1978) identified three major conceptions of educational technology. Educational Technology One (ET1) emphasizes the use of machines, equipment and other aids in instruction. It is in essence a hardware approach to education. "Technology is seen as a means of mechanizing or automating the process of teaching with devices that transmit, amplify, distribute, record and reproduce stimuli materials, and thus increase the teacher's impact as well as widen the potential audience" (Davies, 1978, p. 13).  Davies calls this the Audio-Visual Archetype where technology performs such functions as aiding classroom presentations, improving demonstrations by giving access to reality or simulations of reality which the teacher alone is not able to provide readily, or solving logistical problems. However, the ET1 approach has frequently been applied in piecemeal and uncoordinated fashion and consequently often does not match, in practice, the words "systematic application" in the broad definition of technology given earlier.

Educational Technology Two (ET2) is concerned with the application of behavioral science principles to improve learning. Although hardware may be used, the focus is on the learner and ha been termed as a software approach. "Technology is seen as a means of providing the necessary know-how for designing new, or renewing current, worthwhile learning experiences. Machines and mechanization are viewed merely as instruments of presentation or transmission" (Davies, 1978, p.13). The approach initially developed in the area of programmed learning in the early 1960s as  a result of the work of Skinner on operant conditioning. It was first applied to the design of learning materials and later applied to cover curriculum and course development and called the Engineering Archetype. The archetype takes the form of a definite series of steps which usually includes a clear first step, selection of instructional strategies and resources, and a terminal step of evaluation of output. Feedback is almost always a part of the process as well. ET2 represents a development in conception with respect to educational technology since it is more systematic in its approach, more explicit in its dependence on "scientific and other organized knowledge" and more focused on learning than on teaching.

Educational Technology Three (ET3) combined the ET1 and ET2 approaches but without retaining rigid adherence to a fixed sequence of procedures characteristic of ET2. As pointed by Davies, it rejected 'systematic development as the only way of proceeding, in favor of a systemic (i.e. organic rather than mechanistic) set of procedures focusing rather more deeply on the processes as well as on the products of teaching and learning' (1978, p.14). Thus ET3 is essentially a systemic approach to education. Whether at the level of planning an instructional sequence or developing a curriculum or even designing an institution-wide program the approach will attempt to define the boundaries of the system being considered and take account of all the factors involved. These factors may cover many diverse aspects such as ethical considerations of values which are deemed important to inculcate, policies and societal needs. The approach is therefore said to be total, integrated and human in character. The archetype associated with it is the Problem-Solving Archetype. Dissatisfaction with certain educational situation provides the context in which a problem is identified. In order to resolve the problem, ET3 brings to it a diversity of skills to do with observation, analysis, diagnosis and so on (Tow & Phillips, 1982). While ET3 may employ hardware and software associated with ET1 and ET2, its approach is clearly more flexible and comprehensive than the other two technologies. Hence, it does represent a further development in conception of educational technology.  

The unprecedented rate of technological development, especially in internet interactivity,  multimedia capabilities and shift in classroom dynamics towards learner centered approaches provides for  the emergence of ET4 or the Technology-Based Learning Environment Archetype which is a combination of ET1, ET2 and ET3 (see figure 1). Stand-alone computers that run short electronic lessons developed using the systems approach may no longer be the norm. Access to the global network of multimedia information and online learning communities require different conceptions and explanations of learning. While ET4 is still in its infancy, initial research efforts indicate that technology use is most successful when used for strategic purposes in particular contextual settings and content areas. Additionally, such uses of technology are successful when teachers and students engage in teaching-learning relationships that focus on data-driven content decision making. Vast amounts of information available on the internet create new opportunities to learn in a worldwide context. Increased capacity and expanded connectivity make learning with this new medium not only possible, but powerful. However, educators' knowledge of how to use that power requires considerable attention with regard to emerging research findings and best practices (Valdez, McNabb, Foertsch, Anderson, Hawkes, & Raack,  1999).  While the amount  of web information has increased and the quality of connections has improved, teachers must be able to distinguish what information has validity and what is only personal opinion. Computer-supported communication brings content experts and community members into the classroom. They provide real-world examples, model performances, and offer otherwise unavailable enrichment opportunities for students (Moller, 1998).


Conception of Learning and Direction of Research

                The direction of research in educational technology over the decades has been influenced by both theoretical perspectives and advancements in technology itself. The introduction of the personal computer in the classroom focused on Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI) which refers to any kind of computer use in educational settings and includes drill and practice, tutorials, simulations, instructional management, supplementary exercises, database development, writing using word processors, and other applications. Originating from Skinner's programmed instructions, tasks are broken up into manageable units and arranged sequentially catering to individual's pace of learning. Normally learners had to complete one task before moving on to another, immediate feedback is provided, and tasks are graded according to difficulty level. However, more recent authoring tools enable the development of  non-linear lessons and the incorporation of multimedia facilities (audio, animation, video) with the aim of enhancing interactivity with the learner.

                Research efforts focused in comparing CAI with traditional, teacher-directed instruction especially in relation to achievement. These studies have been characterized as the "no significant difference" phenomenon. Researchers design lessons using computers and test whether they produce an educationally significant improvement in students' performance. Some inquiries have found CAI superior, some have found conventional instruction superior, and still others have found no difference between them. (Capper and Copple, 1985). Researchers have also found evidence to suggest that CAI enhances learning rate. However, in some research studies students learned the same amount of material in less time than  traditionally instructed students; in others, they learned more material in the same time. But, most researchers don't specify how much faster CAI students learn.

Besides learning outcomes, research also examined the effects of CAI and other microcomputer applications on student attitudes. For example, attitudes towards computers and the use of computers in education, course content/subject matter, quality of instruction, school in general and self-as-learner. Still others investigated the influence of CAI on locus of control, attendance, motivation and time-on-the-task (Kannaman, 1990).



       Conceptions of Technology            Theoretical Perspective            Research Methods        

         in Teaching & Learning            


























Figure 1: Technology in teaching & learning: Evolution of conception, learning theories and research methods





Some researchers have conducted research to examine the effects of CAI on different populations. For example, CAI is more beneficial for younger students than for older ones. While research shows CAI to be beneficial to students in general, the degree of impact decreases from the elementary to secondary to postsecondary levels. Also, there is evidence to suggest that CAI is more effective with lower-achieving  than with higher-achieving students. Both lower-and higher-achieving students benefit from CAI (Kulik, 1983). However, the comparatively greater benefits experienced by lower-achieving students, like those experienced by younger students, are largely due to the need these groups have for elements common to the majority of CAI programs – extensive drill and practice, privacy, and immediate feedback and reinforcement (Cotton, 1997). Researchers also note that CAI confers greater benefits on economically disadvantaged students than those from more privileged backgrounds. Lower SES students benefit greatly from opportunities to interact privately with CAI drill-and-practice and tutorial programs. Closely related to the above is the finding that CAI is more effective for teaching lower-cognitive material than higher-cognitive material. This research makes essentially the same point – that CAI is particularly effective for reinforcing the basic, fact-oriented learning most often engaged in by younger, lower achieving, and/or lower SES students (Kulik, Bangert & Williams, 1983).

Research conducted with learning disabled, mentally retarded, hearing impaired, emotionally disturbed, and language disordered students indicates that their achievement levels are greater with CAI than with conventional instruction alone. In some of this research, handicapped CAI students even outperformed conventionally taught, non-handicapped students. A meta-analysis by Roblyer, Castine, & King (1988) concluded that CAI differences slightly favor boys over girls, with differences falling short of statistical significance. A few researchers undertook to compare the effectiveness of CAI in different curricular areas. Their findings, though not conclusive, indicate that CAI activities are most effective in the areas of science and foreign languages

In most of these studies, the quasi-experimental method was the dominant approach comparing the effectiveness of CAI with 'traditional' teaching methods such as chalk and talk,  the lecture, small group discussions, problem solving sessions, and the outcomes measured tended to be performance on pre and pos-tests. Like in most quasi-experimental methods,  the aim was to seek  causal determination, prediction, and generalization of findings to other situations. The correlation method was adopted to establish causal relationship between various pedagogical techniques using technology and leaner attitudes, locus of control, attendance and motivation. While these research approaches continue to be popular the findings tend to be inconclusive with regards to the efficacy of technology in enhancing learning. Gradually, a shift in research approaches is taking place with recognition of the term 'learning environment' and consequently the 'technology-based learning environment' archetype (TBLE) discussed earlier. Comparing existing teaching methods with the TBLE  may be somewhat of a futile effort because the processes taking place in the latter are different from what happens in a 'chalk and talk' situation. It is even not clear what learning outcomes emanate from a technology-rich learning environment.


Research in a Technology-Based Learning Environment: Shift Towards Qualitative Methods


The Technology-Based Learning Environment (TBLE) Archetype (discussed earlier) based on a cognitive-constructivist theoretical perspective is concerned with the way learners individually and collectively interpret or construct the social and psychological world. According to this view, there is no "real world" that pre-exists and is independent of human activity and symbolic language (Bruner, 1986). Knowledge and truth are created, not discovered. Figure 1 lists the components of the TBLE Archetype. Situated Cognition is the notion that the learning of certain knowledge and skills is best done in situations or contexts that reflect the way the knowledge will be useful in real life, i.e. authentic tasks. Many of the tools of technology facilitate the creation of environments that mimic situations in the real world which provide learners with opportunity to apply the concept, principles and skills learned. For example, telecommunications and the internet provide access to emerging disciplinary and interdisciplinary databases,  real-time phenomena, and social communities not accessible through print-based curricula. Cognitive Flexibility is the ability to represent knowledge from different perspectives tailored to the needs and levels of the learner. Multimedia technology permits knowledge and skills to be presented in a variety of different ways. Also, the interactivity of computers allows for adapting content to meet individual student needs

Exploration is pushing learners to try out different hypotheses, methods and strategies to see their effects. Internet technology provides powerful tools that allow learners to make discoveries on their own. Computers and ancillary electronic devices facilitate the manipulation of data and the visualization processes which assists with experimenting and understanding actual, futuristic, and hypothetical concepts, principles, relationships, and probabilities In the cognitive-constructivist TBLE, Cooperative Learning is encouraged when learners work in groups by questioning each other, and discussing and sharing information towards the solution of a problem. Collaborative Learning is when learners or groups of learners discuss and try out their ideas and challenge the ideas of others For example, a group of learners in Malaysia could be working on a project in cyberspace with other groups in Canada. Furthermore, cooperative and collaborative learning practiced in the TBLE  are skills required in the workplace. Articulation refers to methods of getting learners to making their tacit knowledge explicit When learners make available to others what they have done, learners are able to compare strategies and provides insight into alternative perspectives. Reflection refers to learners looking back over what they did and analyse their performance. Learners will be able see the thinking processes they used in solving problems and based on the product,  be able to determine if their strategies were appropriate.

































Given the features of the seven components, there is a compelling reason for the selection of qualitative methodologies when doing research within the TBLE  research arena. More importantly, is the shift in theoretical emphasis from a more behaviorist perspective of technology application to a more cognitive-constructivist view of teaching and learning. The cognitive-constructivist conceptual framework that has become the dominant structure for investigating the teaching-learning processes in a technology-based classroom necessitates more qualitative tools to be adopted. While not ignoring the importance of measuring the product of learning, there is also a growing interest in examining the processes involved in learning. Hence, it is not surprising that the interview, participant observation procedures, clinical inquiry and ethnographic techniques have been widely applied in gathering data about the technology-based classroom.

Qualitative research design begin with a curiosity. What does one want to know more about? In the TBLE, focus is on the processes of learning that originate from the seven components. For example, how does cooperation among group members promote learning. Rather than measuring discrete observable behavior, the emphasis is on the learner's or informant's views. Interviews and observations provide a deep, rather than a broad set of knowledge about a particular phenomenon, which are most suited when investigating cognitive and affective learning. This depth allows the researcher to achieve 'empathetic understanding'. While quantitative methods measure human behavior 'from the outside', qualitative methods access meanings that individuals give meaning to their measurable or observable behavior, i.e. gaining an understanding of how subjects themselves view their particular situations. Research in the TBLE would be an attempt to obtain an in-depth understanding of the meanings and definitions of the situation presented by informants rather than a production of a quantitative measure of their characteristics or behavior. In other words, the subjective belief of learners being studied have explanatory primacy over the theoretical knowledge of the researcher.

The following are three examples of recent studies that have adopted qualitative inquiry methods in the TBLE. McKenzie and Murphy (2000) applied a particular model of content analysis to evaluate an online discussion group. The discussion group was part of the learning environment for a subject offered at a university. The model focuses on the level of participation and interaction in the discussion group, as well analyzing the content of the messages according to a cognitive view of learning. Overall, the analysis confirmed the success of the discussion group, and provided a useful conceptual lens with which to study the online environment. In another study, Phillips (2000) interviewed graduate students to obtain their perceptions about using a web-based learning system for a course in educational management. Analysis of the interview protocols provided a deep insight into opinions about the  pedagogical approach because subjects expressed their views freely. Housego and Freeman (2000) described meaningful uses of five fictional case studies of web-based learning systems based on their experiences in innovation and academic development. The case studies showed ways in which teaching, learning and administration can be supported, adapted and extended with web based learning systems They believed that academics and academic managers will identify one or more opportunities from the case studies to apply in their own context.




                Many educators continue to perceive information and communication technology as a tool or teaching aid. However, with the increased capabilities of technology, its status has been raised to that of a learning environment with multiple capabilities to support and enhance student learning. Continual advancements in information and communication technology (ICT) such as virtual reality, fast speed access, networked communities, advanced computer graphics, abundant and relevant  online resources will constantly change learning environments and provide for different ways humans learn. Accompanying this change will see a shift towards more qualitative methods of inquiry yielding in-depth understanding of the teaching-learning processes in a technology-based environment. In other words, research should focus on understanding what, when, why and how learning takes place in the technology enriched environment which is important because this will be the pedagogy of the future at all levels of education and training. 




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