Emerging technology interview with Steve Wheeler

Associate Professor of Learning Technologies at Plymouth University

There’s a smorgasbord of emerging technology out there, but how can we judge what to use as part of our learning approach, and when?

Learning Technologies expert, Steve Wheeler shares his views on emerging technology, and explains what he’s watching most closely, and why.

Video: Steve Wheeler answers our questions about emerging technology in learning

What emerging technology trends have the greatest potential for elearning?

You know, some years ago I was speaking at an event and they said, ‘What's going to be the future of learning, Steve?’, and I said well, I think it's going to be smart mobile, and I think I was right. I think smart mobile - the hand-held device, the device you can tap and pinch and swipe, and which connects you to the world - I think that's still, for me, the best possible technology to support learning in any situation, whether  its workplace learning, in the classroom, on the move. So, mobile, smart technology for me still has the most promise.

Having said that, built-in within these tools there are a range of new possibilities so I'm not just talking about things like GPS, I'm thinking about things like augmented reality. So, to hold up your device and activate some software that will allow you to find the nearest tube station, for instance, and as you get closer to the tube station it becomes superimposed upon the live image that you're getting from you camera, and it gets larger as you get closer to it, that to me is quite interesting.  Also the idea that you can point at a crowd of people and it will determine who else is on Twitter based upon their GPS location system, and show you who the people are. That to me is rather daunting, but also rather exciting, and those are the kind of things I think we have to look forward to.

Why do you think mobile devices and augmented reality will help the learning sector in particular?

Well, the thing is you see learning is both social and personal, so you've got both elements. The social element is that you can find other people that are interested in the same things as you. That could be through some kind of aggregation tool or curation tool for instance, but it's also personal in as much as you can choose your own pathways, you can create your own desire lines, and that's why I think that's such an exciting technology still.

Which tips do you have for people wanting to invest in emerging technologies for learning?

The problem is that a lot of organisations choose technology because it’s shiny and exciting and new; they do it because they think if we don't do it someone else will and then we're going to get left behind. I think that's a false economy and it's based on faulty logic. What we should be doing in any organisation, school, college, university, business, whatever, is we should be looking at the problems we've got to solve first and finding out then what technologies are possibly available to solve those problems. So it's the problem first, followed by the technology and not the other way around.

Should we be waiting until our learners adopt a new technology or should we be leading the way as learning providers?

That's a really interesting question because it's like a chicken and egg situation.  I think ‘both’ is the possible answer there.  I think that learners do bring in new devices which organisations may not possibly have available at the time or be interested in purchasing because of either a strategy or a policy.  But also, I think, organisations can actually offer learners or employees advice about software and technology that will support their learner while they are on the job. So, for me both the Bring Your Own Device and Choose Your Own Device strategies answer that question. The Bring Your Own Device is going to be learners and employees bringing their own technologies into the workplace . Obviously with that there are the attendant problems of things like privacy, inter-operability and compatibility. But on the other hand, if the employer themselves offers Choose Your Own Device with several different options and the employee chooses from that, then I think that solves a lot of the problems, and it works both ways.

What are the pitfalls of learning providers focusing too closely on emerging technology?

Well that means the technology comes first and the pedagogy comes second and that again is a big mistake.  I think you might call that a form of technological determinism where you are driving pedagogy through the technology, but it should be the other way around. The pedagogy, the learning and teaching should come first. As I said before, the technology should be used to support it, facilitate it, make it happen.  So for me the technology is always secondary.  

Do you think workplaces and classrooms are going to look very different in future?

It’s very difficult to predict the future.  What we can see are the trends that are happening. So, we know there’s going to be more smart mobile, that bandwidth is going to increase, and we know that the smart mobile will become smarter.  We know that there are things on the way such as the Semantic Web. We've already got the Social Web, Web 2, or whatever you want to call it, but Web 3 or the Semantic Web, or any other name you want to give it, is on the way, and that’s where the web starts to bring together intelligence as well as social and information; you put the three together and you see a very powerful system.  We know that that’s happening; we know that’s on the way. We’re seeing examples now, for instances in things like recommender systems and collaborative intelligent filtering. So, you go on to Amazon and you buy a book, and Amazon says to you, ‘Did you know that 26 people who bought this book also bought these books?’, and suddenly you’re interested in books that you didn't know existed. It’s great marketing, but think about how that could be used in a learning context where students can be given pathways, selected pathways they can follow to make learning easier and faster for them, and then they can tailor and personalise that in their own way and create the desire lines I talked about earlier on.  To me, that is the future of online learning certainly, and probably the future of education per se.   

See the video interview. Follow Steve on Twitter or visit his blog.

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