Changing Technology

Staying on Track and Maximizing the Technology

Zac WoolfittAmsterdam (NL), November 2017 - Zac Woolfitt is a lecturer and researcher at Inholland University in The Netherlands. With a background in tourism, in which he worked in the US and Canada for ten years, he is now based near Amsterdam. Since 2010 he has been conducting research into the effective use of video in higher education. In Session ENG 63, 08 December from 12.00 to 13:00, he will explain the "Sweet Spot of Maximum Technology Impact".

What tools can be used to find the “Sweet Spot of Maximum Technology Impact”, and what are the criteria?

Zac Woolfitt: The "Sweet spot of maximum technology impact" is the concept I use to define the desired point of balance between the potential of a technology, your ability to apply that technology to a specific learning task, and your understanding of how well you are mastering the technology for the task at hand. It basically boils down to knowing how to use a specific technology and staying on track while you are using it to do what you need it to do, without getting side tracked. That is a lot easier said than done.

The 24/7 pull of technology makes it very difficult to stay on track with learning. Even when we are fully focused on a specific assignment, our technologies provide distractions in the form of beeps, buzzes, and pop-ups that pull us away from quiet focus. Short of switching off our devices, or disconnecting from Wi-Fi, it is challenging to use our time efficiently and effectively. What steps can we take to master technology so that it serves our needs, on our terms, and does not sidetrack us from our learning?

In this context, technology refers to the combinations of software and apps available through various devices. Each technology has certain functional potential, and the aim is to gain sufficient understanding of the affordances offered by that technology while minimizing the investment time to understand and benefit from it. Firstly, when engaging with a new technology, quickly understand the key benefits and get through the "learning dip" quickly to start benefiting from what it has to offer.

Secondly, identify what specific functionality is important, without getting distracted by features that are interesting, but may not be relevant for the task at hand. Finally comes metacognition: This is when learners tune into their thought processes, when they become aware and carefully listen to and interact with their inner voice. This is the most difficult part - but the most rewarding - as they critically monitor their learning process in the context of technology and develop strategies to stay in control.

The tools can be used to find the sweet spot to focus on the technology, its uses, and metacognition. For the technology, this might include reading the manual, taking an online tutorial, or participating in a discussion forum. For the functionality, consider the specific learning task at hand and match it to the relevant functions of the technology. For metacognition, this requires setting up a series of questions to ask yourself and becoming aware when getting sidetracked. It also involves - through the internal dialogue - getting back on track and reflecting on that process.

Questions might include "How well do I know the functionality of this technology?"; "What do I need to use the technology for in order to achieve the specified learning task?"; "How effectively am I currently using the technology and what steps can I take to get back on track when I become distracted?"; and "Am I master or servant to the technology?" In order to be useful, the criteria for these questions are that they are relevant and that they support staying on track and maximizing the technology.


Does the definition of the "Zone of Effective Learning" depend on context or is there a general formulation?

Zac Woolfitt: The definition of the zone is dependent on both the learning context and awareness of the learning processes. Regarding the specific learning context, it depends on where the studying is taking place (at home, in a classroom, at work, online); whether the studying is being undertaken synchronously or asynchronously; and whether the individual is studying with fellow students, with a teacher, individually, or in an environment that combines one or more of these.

It also depends on awareness of the learning processes; motivation vs. boredom; state of mind regarding the learning; self-awareness of the learning process; and ability to get into discussion internally, with fellow students, and with teachers. The goal of the framework is to enable a deeper understanding of the relationship among these elements so they can be examined and their specific affordances understood.

The "Zone of Effective Learning" can be defined as the place where learning and technology are aligned to minimize resource use and maximize the learning outcomes.


How much weight do you allocate to technology and how much to didactics?

Zac Woolfitt: Technology is a double-edged sword that provides the tools to support us and also to distract us. It is a fine balancing act to get what you want out of various technologies, without tipping over into aspects of technology that eat up time, deplete energy, and frustrate us. Suddenly, an hour has been spent clicking through a site we never intended to open when we sat down to study. I allocate about one third of the weight to technology since it is both the tool we can use to achieve our learning goals, but also the very cause of much distraction and lost time.

However, in the context of this model, I consider didactics to carry most of the weight. The zone of effective learning with technology can only be achieved in the context of the use of a didactic approach in which the dialogue between teacher and student is ongoing, open, and supports this process. Teachers and students can develop various strategies and approaches to ensure effective teaching, learning, and technology use. The dialogue between teachers and students creates what John Hattie refers to as "visible learning".

We need to manage rapidly changing technology, develop strategies to deal with the constant distractions, and encourage a dialogue between students and teachers regarding effective technology use. Support can help teachers develop skills for blended, flipped, and interactive teaching as we move from the more traditional role of "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side". Through examining these issues, the goal is to develop a series of strategies for teaching, learning, and the use of technology.


How much personal interest do learners have to bring with them in order for the optimal mix to have an effect?

Zac Woolfitt: There is a series of steps that a learner goes through during this process. It can start with minimal interest, but establishing and then maintaining the optimal mix requires reaching and then sustaining an adequate level of interest and motivation. It is a continual balancing act of maximizing the technology use, while avoiding distractions.

  • Awareness involves learners becoming aware of their technology use. This could be prompted by the teacher in the learning context or could be a moment of self-realization caused by an internal or external trigger.
  • Acceptance is related to learners’ realization regarding their position in relationship to technology: Are they masters or servants?
  • Decision is based on the learner’s position in the relationship and linked to a conscious decision to take action.
  • Action comprises the set of planned steps the learner decides to take in order to adjust the relationship.
  • Understanding results from the learner gaining insight and understanding while coming to terms with the nature of the technology and its relationship to learning. It demands a set of questions leading to reflection.
  • Metacognition is defined as ongoing reflection of the situation stemming from conscious and focused awareness of the internal dialogue regarding that situation.
  • Perseverance is the ability to invest energy into staying on track.
  • Sustaining demands keeping focused, balancing between the positive aspects of technology without being sucked into the negative.
  • Reflection is the ability to contemplate the process internally and share and discuss the thought-output externally.

So, it starts with personal interest and then requires a lot of ongoing effort and hard work. This can help students achieve the optimal mix that is best for them. To stay on track, students must balance the temptations of technology with their studies, their (online) social lives, and working to pay their bills. Becoming aware of, and then getting into, the zone of effective learning can help us all maximize our learning outcomes, while developing a healthy and sustainable relationship with technology.