Again, this is a much-delayed write up of a meeting that happened earlier in term. Many apologies to Ben. 

Occasionally at our lab meetings we are privileged enough to get sneak previews of talks that our lab members are going to be giving elsewhere. Some may call us the guinea pigs. This was one of those times, with Ben giving us a first run through a talk he had been asked to give on “the past, present and future of educational technology”.

Ben started his talk with the past technology that he had started his educational career with – slate tablets(!), log tables, and a leather ferula for motivation. He reminisced happily about the slide rule he had at university, before moving on to his PhD, showing us a picture of a darker-haired Ben with possibly the first ever Logo turtle made of Meccano. However, rather than a screen and a programming language for people to work with, they built a box with buttons that controlled the turtle and allowed them to record subroutines and build them into programs. The widespread use of computer screens happened sometime later.

Ben du Boulay

Ben sans turtle.

What he found with that turtle was that technology can facilitate communication, whether between teacher and student, or between the students themselves. Technology is also very good at providing information – which is as distinct from education as a library is distinct from a school or university. This is one of the central ways that technology is used currently, with the internet providing more information than ever before. The third way that technology is increasingly being used is tutoring. It can help to increase the skills and develop the knowledge of the users in a variety of ways.

Ben went through a list of different pedagogies, and the various ways that people have used them to inform the design of online tutors. He then moved on to an area of future research that he is particularly interested in. He has noticed a trend in the area over recent years of measuring the affect of the learner, of trying to automatically recognise the state that the learner is in. His feeling is that whilst this is an interesting area there has been little work done on what to do with this information. How should it inform the pedagogical approach of the tutoring system? Perhaps even more basically, what is the ideal state for learning? We have seen in papers reviewed by the group that some people feel that flow may be, but flow is poorly defined and a level or period of frustration would also appear to be beneficial. Ben also feels that the approach to the emotions of the learner has focussed very much on their use of the learning tutor (understandably), but as teachers and learners we know that the attitude and emotion that someone brings to learning may have little or nothing to do with either the subject or the type of learning, but everything to do with external events. Can the writers of these systems cope with a learner who’s attitude changes between every session?

These are things that the very best human teachers grapple with on a daily basis. Creating online systems  that can approach that is still some considerable way off if it is even possible, but it’s a fascinating area to investigate! Many thanks to Ben for sharing this with us.

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