This article suggests a procedure to categorize the enormous amount of educational tools in the market. My approach uses a framework of three well-grounded learning theories: Instruction, Cognition, and Construction based on presentation modes (one-way teaching), dialog settings (two-way education), and collaborative scenarios (learning by mastering complex situations). As a proof of concept, I will use the Top Tools for Learning (TT4L), compiled by Jane Hart as a result of the 13th Annual Learning Tools Survey (published 18 September 2019).
Inspired by the yearly ranking of Top Tools for Learning (TT4L) compiled by Jane Hart, I wanted to know if there are global changes or trends in e-learning over the years. The ranked list of tools goes back 13 years and is available for all past years via the Wayback Machine. As a plan for analysis and for presenting results, I imagine a similar procedure as I have used in comparing static website generators over the years.
To compare the different rankings of the educational tools, I will need a classification of all apps/web services based on pedagogical reasons. For my purposes, the categorizations used by Jane Hart (see right column) is not useful:
It is the functionality of the tool itself, which motivates her division in different classes primarily. Therefore all categories contain the word ‘tool’ in their name. She distinguishes four main types:
Her sub-categorization under the four main headings is not consistent and has changed over the years. Sometimes she uses ‘Content’ as a fifth type, or she includes ‘professional’ under the heading of ‘personal tool.’
Some tools are platform-dependent (e.g., Sharepoint, Keynote).
Even proprietary name for hardware is ranked in her list (e.g., iPhone, iPad, SMART board instead of smartphone, tablet, whiteboard).
Another much better division can be drawn from her beautiful infographics (see below) on top tools for higher education 2019. Here Hart distinguishes by pedagogical reasons between
Aside from the fact that ‘formal’ and ‘informal learning’ has another meaning (see the definition by the Council of Europe on formal, non-formal, and informal learning). I do not understand why ‘studying’ is different from structured learning in an academic setting. And why should ‘studying’ be linked just with the doing-bubble?
Without going here into detail, I will use my categorization of learning theories published among others in The Zen Art of Teaching (PDF, 545 kB). This article outlines three different kinds of teaching modes:
This categorization results in different educational aspects for each of the three teaching/learning modes:
Even though my suggestion is coarse-grained as it distinguishes only three types, it has to overcome several problems of operationalizations:
Sometimes it is not easy to classify tools unambiguously into one of the three categories. Modern tools incorporate many features that may address different types of learning modes. Take, for example, the use of a learning management system (LMS). You can use it for various activities (reading PDFs, work through quizzes, or writing collaboratively into a wiki). In those inconclusive situations, I will utilize the highest predominant functionality of the tools. ‘Highest’ means that Learning II is more elevated than Learning I. This is not a quality rating of the different learning modes as all three modes have their value under certain conditions. ‘Higher’ or ‘lower’ address here the complexity of student activities.
But what is the ‘predominant functionality’ of a tool? I assume that every educational technology, every technology-supported learning environment, or internet application, implement a theoretical learning model – irrespective of opinions and beliefs of developers and teachers. In the case of LMS dominates guided learning interactivity (Learning II). Although teachers may use tools ingeniously for purposes not foreseen from the developers, I think that these inventing teaching strategies are not the mainstream.
Following other users on the web with the same subject interests, getting in contact with them, commenting their blogs, etc. entitles for Learning II but does not qualify for Learning III. I will rate an educational setting as cooperation only if the right to create or share content is distributed equally.
In Jane Hart’s list of top tools are many products and web services not primarily developed for education, like word processors, email clients, file-sharing platforms, note-taking applications, browsers, search engines, etc. The reason for this broad mixture is the content of the questionnaire and their target group. Not learners or teachers, but mainly IT professionals and learning designers, addresses the survey. This orientation leads to two biases, as mentioned by Jane Hart:
Another issue favoring general tools are the questions themselves. See, for instance, the voting form for 2020 on the right ahnd side of this article:
A valid entry needs to include 10 different DIGITAL tools (resources, services, etc) – listed in any order (emphasis not mine).
So the questions ask for digital tools, not for digital educational tools. The consequence is that the top list with a few exceptions does not include subject-oriented software (e.g., apps for learning math, science, languages). This bias is an essential drawback as many e-learning scenarios use these kinds of content-related software.
The other side of the same coin is that there is a bias to personal knowledge management applications. Software like email clients, browsers, search engines, etc., are unquestionably also essential parts of a learning ecology. Using these tools always goes together with (informal) learning experiences. But their inclusion in an educational taxonomy of tools results in a relatively small proportion of individual apps or web services for content-oriented e-learning. To distinguish those personal productivity instruments from tools explicitly dedicated to learning, I have designated them with Learning 0. Under this category, I also have classified support tools like converters or ‘neutral’ web resources like portals for icons, images, or other material.
Another complication arises from the fact that the educational judgment of developer tools can be seen two-fold:
There are content development tools which can be used by learner and teacher alike. Those apps or web services with various perspectives (e.g., blog services, screen-casting, curation tools) I will classify from their ownership. If it is easily possible that students get their personal instance, then I will designate it as a multi-purpose tool with Learning IV.
With ‘easy’ I mean
But note: Every case has to be judged individually. Particularly critical for my classification are collaborative features. If the tool only contains functionality for producing content personally, then I will value it as productivity, respectively, knowledge management tool (Learning I).
To summarize my suggestion for an educational categorization of digital tools, I will define four types of apps, respectively web services:
… to be continued
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