Avoiding the pitfalls of technology-assisted learning

Properly implementing learning technologies benefits teacher and student alike.


It’s difficult to avoid the pitfalls inherent in implementing technology-assisted learning.


Clarify the goals and objectives of an online education program prior to its implementation, and ensure that quality is not compromised.


The temptation to think of technology-assisted learning as an inherently good idea has led many schools into territory for which neither faculty nor students are sufficiently prepared. Few administrators in troubled financial times can resist the dream-come-true profit margins that classes with no classrooms can add to the balance sheet. Nonetheless, they come at a price, and there are good pedagogical reasons to look hard at the costs behind the criticisms. The administrator who simply chalks complaints about online teaching up to the automatic recalcitrance with which academicians face any change is likely to be mistaken. Ironically, administrators should be just as wary of faculty and students who embrace it too easily.

We have the tools; do we have the talent?

Putting the technological tools in place is relatively easy; implementing a quality online learning program is both more difficult and more important. Just as an excellent script doesn’t necessarily lead to a great movie, program managers can’t evaluate their project without evidence of positive results. Saying that an interactive forum is available for students to voice their questions and gain online access to information does little more than describe tools. The success lies in how those tools will be used to achieve a quality product.

The path of least resistance

After they master the mechanics of technology-supported courses, both faculty and students quickly learn that there are routines that enable them to abandon human interaction. The machines are capable of facilitating interaction, but they must be used properly in order to avoid replacing it.

For instance, some online courses grade students according to levels of participation by looking at course statistics for time spent online and frequency of log-ins, or by counting the number of contributions to message boards and comments made during virtual class time in a chat room. When getting on the scoreboard is what counts, quantity quickly replaces quality. Contributions degenerate to the level of “I agree with so-and-so”; “good comment!”; or rehashes of a previous post. A quantitative basis for grading may be appealing to teachers when compared with the demands of using judgment and applying standards of quality to student work. Successful programs, however, don’t succumb to the path of least resistance, and instead use technological tools to enhance learning and participation.

The fuzzy line between “education” and “entertainment”

It is easy to miss the importance of managing boundaries when entertainment is used as a device for teaching. The deficient “performer” – the teacher without the unaided talent for intellectually capturing students’ attention and keeping them on board – can simply build entertainment value technology (video and audio, interactive games, computerized “anthropomorphs” at the head of the class) into their online courses. Whether or not learning is taking place becomes secondary to making education “fun.” The real-time teacher who checks students by looking at them and listening to them, and who hammers home the lesson is missing online because such confirmation isn’t possible. There is no way to bring the entertainment to an end, bring students back from the medium to the message, and confirm that learning has happened. The online teacher must reach the students with the same level of force and attraction that the graphics, music, and games hold for the student.

“Is it really you?” Honesty and authentication issues

Undergraduate and graduate students are often missing an innate sense of the rules regarding plagiarism and doing their own work. Putting courses online – even when they include real-time chat sessions – removes what little opportunity teachers now have for detecting fraud. In fact, it invites teachers to the dance. The most sophisticated technology for verifying who’s at the keyboard (which now includes such sci-fi props as thumbprint and retina scans) have no real use beyond login. After passing through the login “gate,” either student or teacher can leave a willing surrogate at the keyboard and be totally elsewhere for the hour. The anti-plagiarism software purchased by schools, publishers, and others who need to verify original work is easily thwarted by having an “original counterfeit” paper written by someone else. The same potential exists for teachers’ grades and comments, and even for facilitation of live chat sessions. Any institution worried about the effects of a mercantile attitude toward what is happening inside its walls – whether it be trading homework for grades, or babysitting classes for a paycheck – will find all its worst fears realized in online courses.

Violating the “value proposition”

Every institution has a “value proposition,” whether or not it has been articulated in a marketing strategy. The value proposition states what the program does best, manages the expectations of those enrolling, and reaches out to those who want what the program promises to deliver. Unless technology can be used to strengthen the value proposition, it will surely undermine it. For instance, very often the value proposition of small colleges revolves around building education on strong personal relationships and personalized stewardship of the student’s educational experience. Nothing threatens this deliverable like moving classes online. Technology can start off as a supplement for enriching face-to-face quality, and wind up replacing it, something that is nearly impossible to prevent while trying to maximize use of the technology. When this happens in a place where faculty, students, and the culture on campus depend on the promise of relationship-based learning, those opposing the technology will be right to do so. Without a ruthlessly honest understanding of how the use of technology will affect the core values of the program, stakeholder dissatisfaction is nearly a foregone conclusion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *