“Never before have we had such power in our pockets”

Martin Ebner

Explaining how technology has changed learning, media informatics researcher Martin Ebner discusses the challenges and opportunities of integrating technology into classrooms.

Cornelia Puhze: Technology has radically changed our world. What’s different about how a ten-year-old makes sense of the world today compared with 30 years ago?

Martin Ebner: The main difference is that we now have much greater access to an incredible wealth of information and learning materials. Nowadays, most children have their own devices, so they can access all kinds of information and have many different ways to communicate and collaborate, and that affects learning.

CP: How would you like teachers to react to this development?

ME: I would like them to be open-minded about all the possibilities new technology offers for engaging and motivating learners. In the end, it’s enough to use just a few elements that suit your own approach to teaching. I’m sure there is a way to integrate technology into nearly any lesson.

“I would like teachers to be open-minded about all the possibilities new technology offers for engaging and motivating learners.”

CP: In the future, will we even need physical classrooms?

ME: I think schools will still be necessary in the future. How we teach and how we learn will change, but I’m not sure that this will dramatically affect the physical location where learning takes place. We will probably use classrooms much more for communication, discussion, and interaction.

In the near future, we are likely to see much more video-based learning and changes in teaching methods. One new approach is the Flipped Classroom. With this approach, kids watch a video at home in which their teacher explains a concept, and then they go to school to work through the material.

Another trend that could change learning and teaching is smart glasses. Distance coaching via smart glasses could really take off in the future.

CP: How?

ME: My colleagues and I have just published a study about Distance Learning and Assistance Using Smart Glasses. We developed an app for smart glasses to support distance learning. The instructor is connected to the learner in a video streaming session and receives the live video stream from the learner’s smart glasses, showing the learner’s point of view. This allows the learner to benefit from personalized support, as the teacher explains the next step. The instructor can also draw on the video to add context-aware information.

CP: You recently published a book about seamless learning. Can you tell us about this concept?

ME: Seamless learning means learning wherever you are, in any given situation, because all of your devices are talking to each other. For example, you might be wearing smart glasses, a smart watch and a wearable device like a t-shirt. With seamless learning, the learner is surrounded by a much more intelligent environment which collects data to make the learning situation as realistic as possible.

“With seamless learning, the learner is surrounded by a much more intelligent environment which collects data to make the learning situation as realistic as possible.”

CP: Today most young people in Europe have a smartphone. Are smartphones being used in the classroom? And what possibilities do they offer?

ME: Whether or not to integrate mobile learning into the education system is currently the subject of considerable debate in various countries. I think we should take advantage of the fact that we have more power in our pockets than ever before. We just have to create the right learning situations.

Take geography, for example. You just need a smartphone, the internet and a piece of cardboard to go on a virtual reality field trip with your class. Even just letting students explore places on Google Earth using their phones is much more engaging than looking at a map in a book.

A virtual reality game that we created in my lab is a different approach to a math lesson. The kids need only a smartphone and cardboard smart glasses to play. In the game they have to solve math problems. We even create the cardboard glasses with the children as part of our maker education. That’s the idea behind connecting with virtual reality – creating tools out of cardboard while also teaching math.

“I think we should take advantage of the fact that we have more power in our pockets than ever before. We just have to create the right learning situations.”

Another fun example of smart learning that we’ve been testing in primary schools is a math-based learning game using Flic Button. It’s just a button connected to a mobile phone. The children are given three possible solutions and have to press the button to select the correct answer. Kids love this game; it allows them to interact and learn while playing. That’s the idea behind game-based learning, smart learning.

CP: What are typical obstacles when starting to use technology in the classroom?

ME: Concerns about privacy and data protection. Privacy is particularly relevant in the field of learning analytics, where data are collected to determine how effective learning is and to provide personalized feedback to the students. Take our research project of a writing platform for 8- to 12-year-olds, for example. Kids write short essays, and in the background there is an intelligent dictionary that recognizes typical mistakes made by children in this age group. If a child keeps making the same mistakes, the program will suggest specific grammar or spelling exercises. It’s a very effective way of improving writing skills, because the learner receives personalized feedback and is given targeted exercises to boost learning.

The more data we collect, the more personalized the learning experience can be. But it’s important to take concerns about privacy and data protection seriously. Of course, we collect the data in anonymized form to protect the learners’ privacy and data.

Martin Ebner is head of the Department for Educational Technology at Graz University of Technology, Austria. He is responsible for all of the University’s e-learning activities. His research focuses on the use of Web 2.0 for teaching and learning, seamless learning, open educational resources, learning analytics and computer science for children.

Martin Ebner is one of the most prominent bloggers on education in the German-speaking world.

Weekly newsletter