In the early days of computer use in education, the computer was seen as a very sophisticated "teaching machine" for the administration of programmed instruction which was based on behaviourist learning theory. The computer was able to deliver branching programmes in which students were presented with small chunks of information and responded to multichoice questions; their responses determined what information they would be next presented with, giving the capability to diagnose errors and present remedial instruction. As well as sophisticated programmes of this nature, large numbers of computer programs for drill and practice were produced.

Tutor,Tool, Tutee
A memorable analogy to describe different uses of computers was introduced by Taylor in 1980 who introduced the phrase "Tutor, Tool, Tutee".
As a Tutor, the computer was used in the programmed learning mode described above; as a Tool the computer provides support for the student to explore ideas by reducing the need for "inauthenti labour" - for example by carrying out calculations or drawing graphs quickly; as a Tutee the computer is "taught" by the student, as in Logo-based activity and other situations where the computer is used by students as an aid to exploring their own ideas.

Taylor wrote during the infancy of educational computing and, although his three categories can be applied to many developments since then, e-learning has changed as technologies have changed. The development of the CD-ROM as a cheap storage medium for large amounts of data, coupled with the emergency of audio and video computer software, resulted in a great emphasis on using the computer to support student research. This was extended even further with the development of the Internet. The connectivity which has come about through the Internet has resulted in the development of new theories to describe ways that learning can take advantage of this connectivity. These are covered in the third part of this Study Guide.

A warning - metaphors and complexity
Over the years e-Learning has given rise to many metaphors, slogans and catch-phrases, of which Tutor,Tool, Tutee was one of the earliest. What we can now say with a fair degree of confidence is that reality is much more complex than any of them! The concept of the computer as a "tool", for example, can be useful, but much depends on our understanding about the nature of a tool - are tools neutral, or do they influence the nature of the artefacts that we produce with them (do we write differently with a word-processor than with a pen...)? We can use such mental aids to help us conceptualise the field, but need to be aware of the points at which they break down and cease to be of value. Be prepared to recognise and embrace complexity!

Paradigms of computer use in education
McDonald (1977) identified four paradigms of computer use which emerged through a widespread British study. Although the range of applications of computers in education has broadened enormously in the subsequent three decades, these still provide a useful way of looking at some of the intended learning arising from computer use. The three paradigms are:
  1. Instructional use of the computer reflected the computer as a “delivery” medium for instruction, often through programmed learning methods or drill and practise.
  2. Revelatory use was a more exploratory method in which the computer acts as a mediator between the student and a hidden model.
  3. Conjectural modes used the computer to assist the student manipulate ideas and test hypotheses.
  4. Emancipatory use enabled the learner to be more efficient by removing the burden of inauthentic labour of calculating, plotting graphs, searching data, and similar tasks.
What current applications of ICT in education do and do not fall into these fourcategories?

Metacognition and learning with computers
Metacognition is an important aspect of strategic learning and this paper summarises some of the important aspects of metacognition and the part that computer use can play in developing metacognitive skills, related to McDonald's four paradigms.

Hunt, A. N. (1993). Metacognition and learning strategies for teachers using computers. Unpublished paper. Auckland College of Education. Auckland.
Much current exploration of the nature of learning through ICT is looking at a more fundamental shift in the relationship between the computer and the learner which goes beyond the idea of "emancipation" of the learner, but postulates a role for the computer which actually facilitates a change in the way learning takes place. These ideas are introduced in Study Guide 6C on connected learning.

Do computers in education improve learning?
This is a question that researchers have been attempting to answer for several decades. The results of individual studies have shown great variation - as we might expect for any innovation in education where a large number of complex factors are in operation, including the setting, the students, their parents and homes, the teachers and the resources. It would be fair to say that teacher (and student) enthusiasm for new approaches and engaging technologies can have a major effect on learning outcomes - but this, itself, is seen by many proponents as one of the major benefits which e-learning can provide. Other arguments can be easily, and often justifiably, put forward to explain the lack of measurable positive effects that are often (not) found.
Overall it seems that much research that attempts to compare the cognitive outcomes of e-learning with more traditional methods shows no significant difference! There are basically two possible responses to this: (A) if the outcomes are no better why would you bother (particularly if it involves more effort, or more money), or (B) if the outcomes are no worse why wouldn't you bother (if you perceive other benefits).
A number of authors have noted that governments and schools have spent vast sums of money in implementing e-learning, so it is understandable that education authorities throughout the world have also put a great deal of effort into repeated reports and studies, attempting to show that the money has been well-spent. Yet, still, it is difficult to find unequivocal "hard" evidence for the value of e-learning.
An alternative view questions whther the researchers are, in fact, looking for the right things - what, exactly, do we expect to find? What research demonstrated the value of chalkboards, lectures, textbooks, overhead projectors and the many other features of "traditional" education? Computers and other educational technologies are complex and multifaceted; they can be used in many diverse ways in the service of different philosophies and educational goals. So is it any wonder that the outcomes are so variable,
I argue, however, that it is still important for us to be aware of the research evidence for a number of reasons. It can tell us what uses of ICT are more likely to be more effective than others and it can make us wary of unrealistic claims, so that we appreciate the complexity of the educational process.

Searching the effectiveness of learning with computers
The initial readings are a decade old, but the questions that they pose, and the issues that they raise, are as relevant today as they were when written.
This first approaches the use of computers in schools from a cortical perspective. The view that I want to put forward in this course is that if we are going to use e-learning we should do so with a clear understanding of its strengths and weaknesses so that we can make effective use of the tool. That may require us to be wary of overblown claims and unrealistic expectations.

Larry Cuban one of the authors, is well known for his academic work on educational technologies, including his popular book "Oversold and Underused" which examined the use of computers within schools in "Silicon Valley", California. Surely, he argued, if computers are going to be used effectively in schools it would be there, but his critique was depressing in painting a picture of unrealised expectations.

Kirkpatrick, H. and Cuban, L. (1998). Computers make kids smarter — right? Technos Quarterly for Education and Technology, 7(2)
This brief report provides a basic meta-analysis of single studies into the benefits (or otherwise) from computer-use in classrooms, based on four principle research questions. Although the results at first analysis appear to be inconclusive overall, there does appear to be some distinct benefits of computer use in schools, particularly in the areas of student attitude and certain areas of achievement. A limited study, but with some interesting food for thought.

The next paper also examines a number of studies of computer use in schools, but also provides a valuable summary of important theoretical approaches which can underpin our use of the technology. The authors of this paper propose that in order to make informed decisions about when and where to use computers, and why, teachers need to have a sound understanding of the theoretical base and pedagogy associated with their use. It challenges educators not to be uncritical acceptors of technology as being necessarily good, but to identify specific conditions and situations where learning can be optimised by the use of such resources. The reading details a research investigation utilising computer-based instruction, and claims the optimal benefit from using such programs is gained when its use is underpinned by a sound theoretical base.

Schacter, J. and Fagnano, C. (1999). Does computer technology improve student learning and achievement? How, when and under what conditions? Journal of Educational Computing and Research, 20(4).

One of the most recent publications to study meta-analyses in this area is John Hattie's book "Visible Learning" which examines a very large number of such studies (a meta-anlysis of meta-analyses!) covering many attempts to achieve improvements in learning, Hattie aims to find those interventions which are most effective in creating a difference, as measured by their effect sizes. On the whole, the use of computers, per se, has a very poor scorecard. Hattie does, however, draw a number of conclusions from his study: that computers are more effective when...

there is a diversity of teaching strategies
there is teacher pre-training in the use of computers as a teaching and learning tool
there are multiple opportunities for learning
the students, not the teacher, is in "control" of learning
peer learning is optimised
feedback is optimised
One conclusion that we may draw from this analysis is that computers are useful when employed in support of sound teaching and learning methods - methods which do not necessarily require computers.

Hattie, J. A. C. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. London: Routledge.
Another recent paper which looks at the evidence for the impact of e-learning comes from BECTA (the British Educational Communications and Technology Agency). In this paper they report on some evidence for an effect of technology, and comment on some of the problems that arise in interpreting research findings

British Educational Communications and Technology Agency (2009). Evidence on the impact of technology on learning and educational outcomes

  1. McDonald, B (1977) The National Development Programme in Computer Assisted Learning: its educational potential. In R. Hooper The NDPCAL: Final report of the Director, Ch. 3. London: Council for Educational Technology.
  2. Papert, S. (1980). Mindstorms: children, computers and powerful ideas. Brighton: Harvester Press.
  3. Papert, S. (1993). The children's machine: rethinking school in the age of the computer. New York, NY: Basic Books.
  4. Taylor, R., P. (1980) 'Introduction', in Taylor, R., P. (Ed) The Computer in the School: Tutor, Tool, Tutee, New York: Teachers College Press, pp.1-10.