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31 January 2012 / erikduval

Grand Challenges in Technology Enhanced Learning

Today and tomorrow, I am at a STELLAR event, where about 40 of us try to make progress on the development of ‘Grand Challenge Problems’ for Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL)…

Personally, I am (was?) rather interested in this notion, because I often worry that TEL as a research domain lacks direction: it sometimes seems like there is too much repetition, too much research without a clear contribution, too many projects where the relevancy is unclear…

I suspect (maybe because I don’t really know) that this is much less the case in other fields, where the direction is clear (‘we want to understand how life originated’) or the relevancy is obvious (‘we want to cure cancer’). In our case, we want ‘to improve learning’ – but what does that mean: faster, better, cheaper, …? And how do we go about achieving that: maybe we need societal reform, political action, rather than research? And what is the role of technology in this: is it at the core or at the fringe? I am sure that these questions get very different answers from different researchers in our field.

In some fields, researchers get together to re-assess the goals of what they are doing (for instance in databases or in global health) or sometimes individual researchers try to define a research agenda (as I once did with my Great Friend Wayne). In STELLAR, we followed a rather lengthy process with lots of consultation: the result is a list of 28 Grand Challenge Problems and 98 pages of text…

Some of the problems relate to suggestions made earlier by others (“One Informed Tutor per Child” sounds rather similar to ” Provide a Teacher for Every Learner” from the CRA report published in 2003). That is not necessarily a Bad Thing: maybe the challenge is still quite relevant – as is actually the case with most of the computing oriented challenges in the 2003 report.

Some other proposed challenges (“Guidance for Technology Use in Early Years”) are not exactly phrased as challenges in my opinion: that is more a piece of practical work that would probably be useful, but doesn’t seem very … challenging?

The more we discuss these challenges though and the more I think about them, the more I worry that we are ‘drowning the fish’: we point out the complexities involved, we add detail and references, we try to figure out how some of these challenges could be met, etc. The result of this inclusive process is a Big Document with lots of ideas and pointers, but it still doesn’t help to set direction or give guidance.

I’m not sure how to address this problem. Maybe you can help? If you could set direction, then what do you think we should focus on? Or do you think that all this Grand Challenge talk is not really helping, and we should be more modest in our approach. Forget about trying to set direction for the Big Quest, but just make a small step forward? If so, then what small step would you want to make?


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