Mimi Recker

Appropriate Use of Educational Technologies: A Layered Approach

In Educational Technology Review

Summer 1997, no. 6, in press

Dr. Mimi Recker

Victoria University of Wellington

P.O. Box 600

Wellington, New Zealand



As perhaps the world's largest information organisation, education stands to profit greatly from new information and communication technologies. This potential has translated into a great deal of development targeted at education -- unfortunately often accompanied by a great deal of overhyped claims. In this paper, I argue that many of these claims are in fact category errors and ignore fundamental problems facing education today. Moreover, new technology approaches are often driven by high-tech interests, rather than educationalists concerns. As an alternative, I present a layered framework, which integrates a bottom-up view of Information Technology usage and a top-down view of education. This conceptual framework helps identify appropriate and judicious use of new information technologies and clarify the kind of educational opportunities they support.


As perhaps the world's largest information organisation, education stands to profit greatly from new information and communication technologies (Hamalinen, Whinston, and Vishik, 1996). This potential has translated into a great deal of development targeted at education -- unfortunately often accompanied by a great deal of hype. As a result, we see bold claims such as:

In this paper, I examine some of the assumptions underlying these kinds of claims. In particular, I argue that many are in fact category errors and ignore fundamental problems facing education today. Moreover, these new approaches are often driven by high-tech interests, rather than educationalists concerns.

As an alternative, I present a layered framework, which integrates a bottom-up view of Information Technology usage and a top-down view of education. This conceptual framework helps identify appropriate and judicious use of new information technologies and clarify the kind of educational opportunities they support.

A Layered Approach

Figure 1 shows the layers comprising the framework. These layers are 1) delivery of material, 2) media, 3) computational activities within educational technology, 4) modes of communication, and finally, 4) the learning phase. The bottom layers concern IT technologies and approaches, whereas the top layers involve educational issues. In the following sections I define and describe each layer, and illustrate with educationally-relevant examples.


The delivery layer involves how information technology is used to transmit educational materials between learners, teachers, and providers. For example, technologies such as CD-ROMs and computer networking technology all support delivery of educational material.

The delivery vehicle currently receiving the most hype is, of course, the Internet. A popular metaphor for the Internet is the 'information super-highway.' To me, this metaphor conveys the image of someone driving a convertible Porsche with the stereo turned up and wind-blown hair, as she cruises down the wide open lanes. But, in reality, the Internet is not at all like that. In fact, it's really more like driving around the hilly town I live in, Wellington, with its small, narrow, slow, and twisty streets where I often get lost.

Figure 1. The layers of the framework.

Thus, the validity of this metaphor is worth examining. Is 'surfing the net' really about education? Is access to information the critical factor? If this were true then text books would have solved the problems in education years ago.

Indeed, access to vast acres of digital libraries and information is an important potential of the Internet. But information access is only one aspect. More pertinent to education, networking supports the formation new learning communities that transcend traditional classroom boundaries. For example, distributed groups of students, teachers, mentors, experts, and parents can engage in knowledge-building activities with new forms of communication and information media. In this way, we might think of information as bricks, and constructed buildings as the resulting knowledge.


The next layer comprises the types of media employed within educational technology -- and nothing more. Information technology supports many types of physical media: text, 2-D and 3-D graphics, animations, digital audio and video, virtual reality, etc. Often, educational software places great emphasis on its multimedia capabilities, and implicitely promises significant educational advantages. In fact, studies that compares learning from different types of media are inconclusive in showing advantages of one physical medium over another. In general, research on what types of digital media and materials facilitate learning is confusing and contradictory and largely dependent on the specific learning context (Kozma, 1991; Najjar, 1996).

The lack of conclusive evidence reflects the fact that many factors, above and beyond simple media, affect a student's learning process. These factors include, for example, students' background knowledge, their motivation and interests, their learning strategies and goals, and the overall learning context. Therefore, rather than base the design of a hypermedia system on the physical properties of the information contained in the system, designers should focus on the cognitive and learning goals of particular educational contexts, and seek to support those with educationally meaningful activities.

An additional important form of computational media is something I call 'dynamic interactive representations.' These are representations, which learners can manipulate, that might reflect and support a particular activity within a discipline (Recker et al., 1995). Consider, for example, the use of Mathematica in mathematics education to enable students to manipulate mathematics representations in a way that reflects the activities and practise of mathematicians. In the same way that calculators changed the emphasis of arithmetic, educational usage of Mathematica in calculus courses can shift emphasis away from routine, paper-and pencil derivations to student manipulation and transformation of the fundamental concepts of calculus.

Computational Activities

The next layer represents the computational activities that support learning. These include, for example, simulations, games, information browsing, design environments, etc.

Simulations. Computer simulations provide environments where learners can interact in a simulated world and engage in activities otherwise not possible in the real world. For example, a physics simulation might enable a student to manipulate force and acceleration (notoriously difficult concepts) to observe the resulting effect on bodies in motion (Roschelle, 1992). Or, in an astronomy simulation, the student can manipulate the force of gravitational attraction between bodies and see the resulting effect on planets. These activities obviously can't be performed in the real world.

Computer games. Any video-game shop will have a roomful of kids pumping their money into different machines. Children seem to find these games very motivating and engaging. From a pedagogical standpoint, the challenge becomes embedding educational content within similarly motivating environments (Malone and Lepper, 1987).

Information browsing. The advent of the Internet supports ubiquitous access to digital information. But, as mentioned earlier, it's importance is not to be over-emphasised. Instead, I prefer to emphasise 'information literacy.' Ubiquitous access to information requires teachers and students to learn new skills of finding, evaluating, and filtering the vast acres of digital information.

Without information literacy skills, we risk developing a new 'copy-and-paste' generation of learners. For example, students completing an assignment can simply use Internet search engines to locate relevant Internet documents, and then 'copy-and-paste' the content to create their assignment. It is that easy.

Design environments. These are environments where students can design and build manipulable artefacts. Through hands-on design activity, they can engage in theory building and testing (cf. Soloway et al., 1992).

On Interactivity

I digress for a moment to talk about 'interactivity' and 'interaction.' Often, the key selling point of computer-based learning is the fact that it is 'interactive.' The implicit assumption is "if it's interactive, it is good; if it's not interactive, it is bad." Following this logic, books are 'bad' because they are not terribly interactive; there is no mouse to click or button to push.

This sort of belief also comes up when people boast about their new educational Web site on the Internet and boldly claim "we received 100,000 hits in our first week". Surely one 'hit' on a Web site does not imply meaningful activity or learning.

Instead I prefer to emphasise a notion proposed by Tim Berners-Lee (1996), the inventor of the World-Wide Web. He proposes that we focus on supporting 'inter-creativity' in computational activities. The idea is not to focus on mouse clicks and button pushes. Rather we should focus on supporting the ability to build and to create, both individually and collaboratively.

Communication Modes

The next layer addresses communication. New information technologies offer new means of congregating and interacting, virtual or otherwise, to support new modes of communication within education. These new modes are typically considered along two dimensions: 1) location and 2) time. Putting these two together results in a 2x2 matrix (see Figure 2). I'll discuss each quadrant in turn.


These are learning activities that occur at the same time and in the same place. This is a well-known educational context, occurring in classrooms, lectures, and seminars.

Figure 2. Dimensions in modes of interaction.


In this mode, students and teachers may be separated geographically but are engaged in activities at the same time. For example, consider a distance education course in which teacher and students are not co-located, and classroom discussions are communicated via audio conference.

Synchronous communication tools such as digital video and audio conferencing, on-line chat, and MUDs (Multi-User Dungeon) all support this mode. In a MUD on-line world, participants can "talk" and learn from each other, to collaboratively construct the virtual world in which they are interacting (Bruckman and Resnick, 1995).


This mode contains 'asynchronous' approaches to communication, such as electronic mail, electronic mailing-lists, on-line bulletin boards, and Internet Newsgroups. There are many important educational activities that can be explored in this mode, wherein communication and exchange of ideas is bound neither by time or place.

For example, in the Kids-as-Global-Scientist project (http://www-kgs.colorado.edu), students in many schools around the world use electronic mail to communicate their results of investigating weather patterns in their area. This approach provides a motivating and authentic collaborative context, in which students engage in inquiry and reflection activities. In addition, the context exposes students to a diversity of world views (Riel, 1995).


Let's turn to the lower quadrant now: coming to the same location at a different time. This mode is a little bit harder to think about in terms of a communicative context.

In terms of education, I want to propose that we view networked digital documents as 'places' that can be visited at different times by students and teachers. This notion is brilliantly explored in an essay entitled The social life of documents (Brown and Duguid, 1996). This essay proposes a new role for documents in the digital age, and argues that digital documents are changing the ways in which we use and view information. In particular, within the networked digital realm, information publishing has become widely available, but with much less permanence and stability. Authors can delete, modify, and update documents continually, in a way that is often invisible to readers. Digital documents also offer to readers the possibility of greater interactivity (via hyperlinks) and annotation of documents. These transformations serve to remove the role of editor and publisher. Moreover, they blur the distinction between author and reader.

The key aspect of their argument is the notion of documents as resources for constructing and negotiating social spaces. Specifically, documents can serve as means for making and maintaining social groups, and as ways for coordinating social practise. Every country, every cultural group has examples of important documents surrounded by much social constructions and reconstructions. For example, in New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi, a landmark agreement signed between the indigenous Maori people and the British colonialists over 150 years ago, is having wide impacts today on the political, social, and educational landscapes.

In the digital realm, the impact of documents on these spaces and groups can span time and space. For example, 'zines' are on-line magazines, which are typically hastily assembled, edited, and published electronically. Zines are usually targeted at a very specific social sub-group (sometimes very odd sub-groups). The important idea is that these 'zines' allow the formation of loose 'cyber -communities' that are spread around the world. In this way, these zines support the creation of communities and the creation of meaning centred around documents. Within education, we can think about documents as 'places' that bring teachers and students together to construct new social meaning.

Learning Phase

Last, and certainly not least, we must consider the learning phase. From an educational standpoint, this is perhaps the most important consideration.

Mayes (1995) proposes that we view learning as a continuous, iterative cycle of conceptualisation and re-conceptualisation. Within that process of learning, there are at least three identifiable stages: conceptualisation, construction, and dialogue. Conceptualisation occurs when students are exposed to a new topic, and asked to take on new concepts. In construction, students build ideas using these new concepts. In dialogue, students talk about, debate, critique, and reflect upon these new concepts. These three phases and very different in terms of their learning contexts. As a result, they have very different implications in terms of the kind of activities and the kind of information technology and communication tools appropriate to each phase.


In this paper, I've proposed a layered framework for thinking about the varied roles of educational technology in supporting teaching and learning. The bottom end of the framework is more driven by information technology concerns, whereas the top end focuses on educational issues. As I've illustrated, each layer has different foci, both from a technology and educational viewpoint. Each layer contributes differently to the overall enterprise.

This view implies that the enterprise of designing, evaluating, and integrating educational technology is inter-disciplinary, involving many groups of people. The relationship between layers, representing how various groups of people involved in the process may interact, therefore remains unspecified. Clearly, no group should dominate, and dialogue must involve all groups.

At a minimum, the dialogue should address the following issues involving the target learning context and the target infrastructure:

Provide compelling reason for use. Often, technologists propose tools new intended to replace perfectly acceptable existing approaches. People are very reluctant to change current practise unless they see significant advantages afforded by a new approach.

Plan for integration, or how will a new approach be integrated into the existing infrastructure and curriculum? Often, brilliant new educational tools are developed that are unfortunately so far out of sync from the current target contextual infrastructure that they have no hope of being applied. Not every technological innovation, however cool it may be, is appropriate to the educational context. There must be careful and intelligent meshing of technological and educational agendas. Institutions must address IT issues coherently, and make the necessary financial commitments to build a leading-edge networking infrastructure, with wired offices, classrooms, residence halls, and seamless off-campus access.

Train the learning community. Sadly, the education landscape is riddled with stories of classrooms where lovely new computers sit quietly in a corner because no one has bothered to provide instructions for how to turn them on. Any educational technology plan must include addressing student and teacher training and development.

Address equity. I close with brief thought on equity, as illustrated by the following quote:

"There are thousands of buildings in this country, with millions of people in them who have no telephones, no cable TV and no reasonable prospect of broadband services. These are called schools, " Reed Hundt, Chairman US Federal Communication Commission, quoted in The New York Times, 1995.

Equity issues, of course, manifest themselves in many ways: economic, gender, cultural, etc. Here, I can only emphasise access. Governments and the IT industry must provide leadership and commit funding to promote access to computer and networking technologies, through ownership, rental, or low-cost access computing facilities.


Portions of this paper were presented at the Humanities Association of New Zealand (HUMANZ) and Telecommunications Users' Association of New Zealand (TUANZ) Seminar series, "Communication Technologies -- What are their Social and Cultural Implications for New Zealand?", October, 1996, Wellington, New Zealand. I thank the attendees at this seminar for useful discussion about these issues.


Berners-Lee, T. (1996) On simplicity, standards, and "Intercreativity." Interview in World-Wide Web Journal, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp 3-10.

Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. (1996). The social life of documents, http://www.firstmonday.dk, May 1996 (also, in Release 1.0, Esther Dyson (ed.), October 11, 1995).

Bruckman, A. and Resnick. M. (1995). The MediaMOO project: Constructionism and professional community. Convergence, 1:1, pp 94-109, Spring 1995.

Hamalinen, M, Whinston, A., Vishik, S. (1996). Electronic markets for learning: Education brokerage on the Internet. Communications of the ACM, Vol 39, No. 6: 51-58.

Kozma, R. (1991) Learning with media. Review of Educational Research, 61(2):179-211.

Malone, T. and Lepper, M. (1987). Making learning fun: A taxonomy of intrinsic motivations for learning. In Snow, R. and Farr, M. (eds) Aptitude, learning, and instruction: Volume III. Conative and affective process analyses, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, NJ.

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Roschelle, J. (1992). Learning by collaborating: Convergent conceptual change. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 2(3), 235-276.

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