The Situational Approach to Learning with New Media

The topic of whether or how children should use new and emerging technologies for learning is evergreen, particularly as the new school year commences. I’ve written in this space before about reactions to tools for electronic reading and writing, and I’ve begun to notice that commentators on these subjects adopt a few different approaches for discussing learning with new (and old) media. I call them the nostalgia, work habits, and the situational approaches.

Nostalgia Approach

The nostalgia approach tends to focus on personal and emotional connections to books. When this approach is evoked, advocates note their love for the feel of print books or associated ways of reading — the way books smell, cozying up with a book on a rainy day, a room full of bookshelves. There is certainly nothing wrong with loving books, but this approach tends to emphasize how print, a technology itself, fits into the advocate’s cultural and behavioral world. To the extent that electronic devices do not fit in that cultural context (“as the rain beat against the windowpanes, I grabbed a cup of tea and a blanket, sat down at my iMac, and double-clicked on the Kindle icon…”), they are considered bad (for society/kids).

Work Habits Approach

The work habits approach has a more concrete focus, identifying the processes or methods one uses to research or write (to give two examples) noting how changing those habits — by reading electronically, for instance — would alter the outcome for the worse. This approach has in its favor that it focuses on how technologies like print books are used. As a researcher, if I have become comfortable with skimming print books, underlining passages, and drafting notes in a notebook, I may be reluctant to move to an electronic format that did not allow all of those behaviors because such a move would make me (at least temporarily) less efficient. It is imperative to recognize the benefits of existing techniques and what work habits that can support. It is equally important to not let habits close us off to new opportunities for learning, and the habit-based approach has the tendency to treat our media environments as static or to never question the processes used for a particular learning task.

Situational Approach

A situational approach, in contrast, is respectful of the other two approaches, while simultaneously clear-eyed about the potential benefits (and drawbacks) of new technologies. Nostalgia is a perfectly reasonable guide for decorating one’s living space, and we should be wary of altering effective learning practices without good reason. But, when it comes to learning, we should be always be open to questioning our own processes and assumptions, particularly as the material and social conditions of our learning change.

I think that naming these distinctions can be productive because it helps us to identify how studies of legacy and emerging learning technologies can be planned, and ultimately applied, more strategically. Studies of emerging technologies tend to treat emerging technologies as static, for example, lumping electronic reading technologies together in ways that ignore the situational uses or unique affordances of those technologies, or only asking how well those technologies fit into existing learning habits. By adopting a situational understanding of learning technologies, researchers could ask how well-suited technologies are for particular tasks and outcomes. Such situational studies of emerging technologies require a greater investment on our part in research that continually addresses how these technologies might change learning habits.

Banner image credit: Laurie Sullivan