Meaningful Learning and ICT

Some notes written as introductory material to this year’s primary PGCE course

What is meaningful learning? It is learning with a purpose, learning which allows those who engage in it to attach more meaning to the world around them, learning in which things make more sense. Jonassen’s exploration of this area (2007) argues that meaningful learning is characterized by its being: active, constructive, intentional, authentic and cooperative. It is worthwhile thinking about each of these aspects to consider how ICT might make learning more meaningful.

Active: at its best, ICT can offer much to promote active learning- children using a computer creatively are actively engaged in their own, for them meaningful, work, often experimenting with the affordances of an application, such as a word processor, painting package or presentation program, for themselves, actively exploring and attaching meaning to icons, buttons and menus as they do so. The experience of trying multiple strategies to make a program do something is commonly encountered. The same experience is found with many a computer game, where through experiment, play and direct experience, users become immersed in the virtual world of the game, manipulating the tools provided to overcome barriers and achieve goals. At a higher level, the creative activity associated with programming provides a rich medium for creating or adapting software tools.

Constructive: in learning to use any software, users are directly engaged in constructing their own models of how a program functions – which causes have particular effects. When software, particularly simulations and games, behaves in an unexpected, puzzling way, cognitive conflict causes users to develop more and more refined models of the virtual world on screen, thus providing experience in the construction of new ways of understanding things, with ready application beyond the screen. ICT also empowers its users to construct their own artefacts, be they digital photos, audio recordings, video, simulations or spreadsheet models, which embody something of their perception of the world around them, partly clarifying their understanding of the world but also allowing more meaning to be attached to observations and experiences.

Intentional: Papert’s work (1980) on giving children control over computers through the Logo programming language is but one, early example of how good use of ICT can put children in control, not just of technology, but of the learning process itself: as children set the goals for leaning, deciding for themselves what it is they want to achieve or what they want the computer to do, the learning they engage in to accomplish such goals becomes more meaningful for them. Again, software that supports children’s own creativity is where this can be most clearly seen: think of the child mastering painting or video software to produce just the effect they want, or a child exploring the functionality of word-processing or presentation software to present things in the way they want. Children’s use of the Internet to search for, and learn about, topics of their own interest also provides for personally meaningful learning as their own goals are pursued. ICT makes the personalisation of learning more practical, in ways that go far beyond the limits of automated adaptive learning design.

Authentic: working on the computer allows children to engage with authentic, real-world situations that would otherwise be beyond the scope of even the bravest, most well resourced schools. The Internet provides access to almost the whole world’s knowledge, with some excellent resources now written with children in mind. Tools such as Google Earth and Flickr allow children to experience places and cultures far removed from their own. Conversely, digital media tools allow children to document their own unique experiences. Spreadsheets, databases, simulations and games allow complex, real-world situations to be modeled, analysed and explored without resulting to the over-simplifications typical of text book questions.

Cooperative: ICT is most effective in supporting meaningful learning when its power to facilitate communication, collaboration and cooperation is utilised – this can be simply a group of children sharing a laptop, classroom computer or PDA, a whole class working together with an interactive whiteboard, or the use of social software and other Web 2.0 tools through the school’s learning platform. Learning platforms allow the conversations about learning that begin in the classroom to be continued beyond the timetable and the school gate. Indeed, the internet brings opportunities for meaningful, collaborative learning between learners in one school and another, here or abroad, within reach of every class teacher.

Simply using ICT doesn’t magically make learning meaningful, but when used well, ICT can do much to make learning more active, to support pupils construction of meaning, to allow pupils to pursue goals of their own choosing, to engage with real problems and to cooperate beyond the limits of the classroom. Young people’s learning is not, of course, limited to what happens in school – thanks to the near ubiquity of the home computer, these aspects of meaningful learning can be found in children’s informal learning beyond the curriculum as well as their more formal school based studies directed, supported or scaffolded by their teachers.

Jonassen, David H. et al. (2007) Meaningful Learning with Technology. 3rd ed. Allyn & Bacon.
Papert, S. (1980) Mindstorms: Children, computers, and powerful ideas.