Electronic devices such as cellphones and computers facilitate rapid access to a stream of sources, each of which may receive cursory attention. Michel Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the center on Media and Child Health in Boston, said of the digital generation, “Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task, but for jumping to the next thing. The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.” Students have always faced distractions; computers and cellphones are a particular challenge because the stream of data can interfere with focusing and learning. Although these technologies affect adults too, young people may be more influenced by it as their developing brains can easily become habituated to switching tasks and become unaccustomed to sustaining attention. Too much information, coming too rapidly, can overwhelm thinking.
Much effort has been put into the technical reuse of electronically based teaching materials and in particular creating or re-using learning objects. These are self-contained units that are properly tagged with keywords, or other metadata, and often stored in an XML file format. Creating a course requires putting together a sequence of learning objects. There are both proprietary and open, non-commercial and commercial, peer-reviewed repositories of learning objects such as the Merlot repository. Sharable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM) is a collection of standards and specifications that applies to certain web-based e-learning. Other specifications such as Schools Framework allow for the transporting of learning objects, or for categorizing metadata (LOM).
A virtual classroom provides the opportunity for students to receive direct instruction from a qualified teacher in an interactive environment. Learners can have direct and immediate access to their instructor for instant feedback and direction. The virtual classroom provides a structured schedule of classes, which can be helpful for students who may find the freedom of asynchronous learning to be overwhelming. In addition, the virtual classroom provides a social learning environment that replicates the traditional “brick and mortar” classroom. Most virtual classroom applications provide a recording feature. Each class is recorded and stored on a server, which allows for instant playback of any class over the course of the school year. This can be extremely useful for students to retrieve missed material or review concepts for an upcoming exam. Parents and auditors have the conceptual ability to monitor any classroom to ensure that they are satisfied with the education the learner is receiving.
Computer-aided assessment (e-assessment) ranges from automated multiple-choice tests to more sophisticated systems. With some systems, feedback can be geared towards a student’s specific mistakes or the computer can navigate the student through a series of questions adapting to what the student appears to have learned or not learned. Formative assessment sifts out the incorrect answers, and these questions are then explained by the teacher. The learner then practices with slight variations of the sifted out questions. The process is completed by summative assessment using a new set of questions that only cover the topics previously taught.
B.F. Skinner wrote extensively on improvements of teaching based on his functional analysis of verbal behavior and wrote “The Technology of Teaching”, an attempt to dispel the myths underlying contemporary education as well as promote his system he called programmed instruction. Ogden Lindsley developed a learning system, named Celeration, that was based on behavior analysis but that substantially differed from Keller’s and Skinner’s models.
CBTs provide learning stimulus beyond traditional learning methodology from textbook, manual, or classroom-based instruction. CBTs can be a good alternative to printed learning materials since rich media, including videos or animations, can be embedded to enhance the learning.
Helping people learn in ways that are easier, faster, surer, or less expensive can be traced back to the emergence of very early tools, such as paintings on cave walls. Various types of abacus have been used. Writing slates and blackboards have been used for at least a millennium. From their introduction, books and pamphlets have held a prominent role in education. From the early twentieth century, duplicating machines such as the mimeograph and Gestetner stencil devices were used to produce short copy runs (typically 10–50 copies) for classroom or home use. The use of media for instructional purposes is generally traced back to the first decade of the 20th century with the introduction of educational films (1900s) and Sidney Pressey’s mechanical teaching machines (1920s). The first all multiple choice, large-scale assessment was the Army Alpha, used to assess the intelligence and more specifically the aptitudes of World War I military recruits. Further large-scale use of technologies was employed in training soldiers during and after WWII using films and other mediated materials, such as overhead projectors. The concept of hypertext is traced to the description of memex by Vannevar Bush in 1945.
According to a 2008 study conducted by the U.S Department of Education, during the 2006–2007 academic year about 66% of postsecondary public and private schools participating in student financial aid programs offered some distance learning courses; records show 77% of enrollment in for-credit courses with an online component. In 2008, the Council of Europe passed a statement endorsing e-learning’s potential to drive equality and education improvements across the EU.
The extent to which e-learning assists or replaces other learning and teaching approaches is variable, ranging on a continuum from none to fully online distance learning. A variety of descriptive terms have been employed (somewhat inconsistently) to categorize the extent to which technology is used. For example, ‘hybrid learning’ or ‘blended learning’ may refer to classroom aids and laptops, or may refer to approaches in which traditional classroom time is reduced but not eliminated, and is replaced with some online learning. ‘Distributed learning’ may describe either the e-learning component of a hybrid approach, or fully online distance learning environments.
Radio offers a synchronous educational vehicle, while streaming audio over the internet with webcasts and podcasts can be asynchronous. Classroom microphones, often wireless, can enable learners and educators to interact more clearly.
With the Internet and social media, using educational apps makes the students highly susceptible to distraction and sidetracking. Even though proper use has shown to increase student performances, being distracted would be detrimental. Another disadvantage is increased potential for cheating. Smartphones can be very easy to hide and use inconspicuously, especially if their use is normalized in the classroom. These disadvantages can be managed with strict rules and regulations on mobile phone use.