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Educational technology

Educational technology is a term used broadly to refer to the use of different types of technologies to facilitate, enhance and support teaching and learning. Although technology is used in higher education for administration, governance, financial management, and learner record management, the term ‘educational technology’ specifically refers to technology used for teaching and learning.

While educational technologies are not new (they have been with us since before the abacus was) – there has been an increase in the variety and complexity of educational technologies used in the past two decades. From chalkboards, flip charts and overhead projectors, facilitators of learning have moved to radio, film and video and from these to computer simulations where students control the outcomes of experiments, construct models and discuss options in blogs and wikis.

E-learning, also known as online learning, is one form of educational technology where teaching and learning is facilitated and supported through the use of information and communication technology (ICT).  Some of the ICTs that could be used for e-learning include:

  • Desktop and laptop computers

  • Learning management systems

  • Software

  • Interactive whiteboards

  • Digital cameras

  • Mobile and wireless tools, including mobile phones;

  • Electronic communication tools, including email, discussion boards, chat facilities and video conferencing

  • Virtual learning environments

The following table provides a definition of e-learning, examples of technologies used in e-learning, and how these can be utilized.

Table 1 A representation of a definition of e-learning


(A) Individual Self Study
Computer-based Instruction/Learning/Training (CBI/L/T)

(B) Group Collaborative
Computer-mediated Communication (CMC)

(1) Online Study Synchronous Communication (“real time”)

Surfing the internet, accessing websites to obtain information or to learn (knowledge or skill) (Following up a WebQuest)

Chat rooms with/out video (IRC; Electronic whiteboards) Audio/Video-conferencing (CUSeeMe; Netmeeting)
Instant Messaging

(2) Offline Study
Asynchronous Communication (“flexi-time”)

Using stand-alone courseware/Downloading materials from the internet for later local study (LOD – Learning object download)
Email. Bulletin boards, discussion boards, moderated commenting systems

Asynchronous communication by e-mail, discussion lists or a Learning Management System (WebCT; Blackboard etc)
 (Social software)
Wikis, blogs, document management systems, Flickr, YouTube, Stickam

Source: Romiszowski, (2004: 6)

Table 1 demonstrates that e-learning can be an individual or collaborative activity, and that it can take place synchronously or asynchronously. This table has been modified to include social software and mobile learning tools not included in Romiszowski’s original representation. The modifications are distinguished in italics.

Blended/flexible/mixed mode learning
Blended/flexible and mixed mode learning describes learning that combines different learning methods, for example, face-to-face instruction along with educational technologies. In this blended or mixed method of learning, contact sessions with a lecturer are supported by individual or collaborative learning through e-learning.

Distance learning
E-learning is often confused with distance learning. However, e-learning is rather used to facilitate distance learning. Three useful distinctions can be made to show differences between e-learning and distance learning:

  • While distance education always taken place far away from the instructor and the physical campus, a remote location is not a defining characteristic of e-learning, as this can also be used in campus-based, face-to-face instruction, to support classroom instruction. Usually, distance students who study through distance education engage in self-study and e-learning may be used to interact with lecturers and other students through video conferencing and other broadcasting media.

  • Secondly, distance education was traditionally based on use of notes and textbooks or tapes and radio broadcast by students in a remote location, but now in addition to notes and textbooks learning can be enhanced through the use of educational technologies like e-learning and mobile learning, which brings students and lecturers closer to each other and can increase levels of engagement between them.

  • Finally, distance learning has been a cost effective model of education provision, thereby increasing access to higher education for students who could not afford to pay for campus-based higher education.  This provision has traditionally been driven by large scale universities like the British Open University, the University of South Africa, Indira Gandhi National Open University, Zimbabwe Open University, Open University of Tanzania and Open Universities Australia. In contrast to the low cost of traditional distance education, the costs of setting up and supporting e-learning in an institution are quite high (Guri-Rosenblit, 2005).


Mobile learning (m-learning) is teaching and learning that takes place through the use of mobile devices like personal digital assistants (PDAs), palmtops, handhelds, smart phones, mobile phones, e-book readers and iPods among others.  Some of the functions of mobile devices enable them to be used for e-learning, e.g. instant messaging and online chat rooms. The potential of m-learning to overcome the digital divide is discussed further in Section 4.4 of the paper which outlines key areas where opportunities exist for enhancing learning and administration associated with learning, especially in the African context.

Social Software and Education

Educational social software consists of “networked tools that support and encourage individuals to learn together while retaining individual control over their time, space, presence, activity, identity and relationship.” Examples of these include wikis, blogs, document management systems, YouTube, and Facebook. Social software has several features that are useful for enhancing learning, i.e. presence tools, notification, filtering, cooperative learning support, referring, student modelling, student introductions for networking and documenting and sharing constructed objects (Anderson, 2005).


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