Emerging technologies, student engagement & collaboration

This is the keynote I gave at the Innovative Pedagogical Practices in Extended Curriculum Programmes (ECPs) – Regional Conference this morning:

In 2009 I attended one of the debates at the ALT C conference in the UK (one of the largest learning technologies conference in Europe), which was entitled: “The VLE is dead – is it?”. This year a similar session was called “”Is the VLE reborn?”. Universities all over the globe are struggling to understand what the future of the VLE or LMS could be. Does the model “One size fits all” still hold? Or do we need to look into other, more flexible technologies to support our students?

I personally don’t think that the VLE is dead – it serves its purpose and I am sure if you have ever had to manage big classes you have started to appreciate the ways an LMS can help you manage your class. But I also think that the use of emerging technologies is on the rise in the Higher Education sector…. We can see more and more lecturers, often prompted by their students, using technologies, such as Twitter or Facebook, which their students engage with in their everyday, social life, for informal and formal learning.

My talk today will look at the use of emerging technologies here at CPUT and talk about opportunities that these technologies afford in terms of engaging our students, especially through their openness and their ability to facilitate collaboration.

What are emerging technologies?

The Horizon reports are based on ongoing research which has started nearly a decade ago, to systematically identify and describe emerging technologies likely to have a large impact on education around the globe (Johnson & Adams 2011). In these reports groups of experts from all over the world are being interviewed and using a Delphi-based process they are being brought to consensus viewpoint,  on which technologies they perceive as “likely to have a large impact on teaching, learning, or creative inquiry on college and university campuses within the next five years” (Johnson et al 2011, 3).

Characteristics  of emerging technologies however often read like a definition of social media, for example Hatzipanagos (2011) defines them as tools:

  1. that use web as a platform
  2. are built around an architecture of participation
  3. allow for data consumption
  4. and production, by allowing remixing/mashups from other sources
  5. with a rich interactive and user friendly interface
  6. have elements of social networking
  7. and most importantly: that change the of locus of control from institutional silos to inter institutional collaboration and from teachers to the students

The following table lists the emerging technologies most likely to have an impact in the next five years in the UK, US and Australia / New Zealand report. It is interesting to see, that most technologies in the three reports overlap. All three advisory boards (in total 108 acknowledged experts) agree that for examples mobile phones will move into mainstream education, or cloud computing and electronic books (tables computing is just one of the ways to read electronic books…although it can do much more than that…)…game based learning will enter mainstream education in the next 2 or 3 years, also very interesting! Interesting also to see that the UK sees open content much closer to mainstream use than the other 2 reports…

What about other contexts? Context which are not as technology-rich as the ones represented in these reports?

There is also a Horizon report planned just for Africa, which will be published early next year and it will be very, very interesting to see whether the findings of that report will vary from the ones I just mentioned above…

Meanwhile we have to rely on our own experiences and common sense…

What can we see in South Africa?

This infographic shows the use of Mxit, Facebook and Twitter , as three social media applications in South Africa. And although Mxit is still the most popular, Facebook is definitely catching up and Twitter is also on the rise…If one looks at Facebook users we can see that a vast amount of the users in South Africa are our students’ age group…

So is this the way our future classroom will look like? Featuring emerging technologies such as cloud computing, learning analytics, game based learning, personalised learning environments, open content and mobile learning?

In 2010 we did a study at CPUT on the staff and students’ perceptions on ICT access and use at the institution and we asked questions around the use of traditional technologies, such as the Learning Management System Blackboard and emerging technologies…

And these are the results:



Valid percent

External mail



Images and Videos



Mobile technologies



Wiki/document sharing



Mailing lists/newsgroups



Social networking



Discussion forums



Instant Messaging









Alternative LMS







And interestingly, there is no significant difference in terms of lecturers using Blackboard or emerging technologies. Most lecturers use a mix of both…

Table 76: level of emerging technology use * Use of Blackboard for teaching Crosstabulation
Use of Blackboard for teaching




level of emerging technology use no use Count




% within Use of BB for teaching




little use (1-4 tools) Count




% within Use of BB for teaching




high use (5 or more 5 tools) Count




% within Use of BB for teaching




Total Count




% within Use of BB for teaching




Chi-Square Tests
Value df Asymp. Sig. (2-sided)
Pearson Chi-Square 1.234a 2 .540
Likelihood Ratio 1.247 2 .536
Linear-by-Linear Association 1.097 1 .295
N of Valid Cases 74

Now that we have established that lecturers are engaging in these technologies, we can move on and ask why are they using them. Are they any different from traditional technologies?

The big critique in the use of traditional LMS for many years has been that by engaging with that technology, lecturers have not changed the way they teach… LMS represent technology, which automates or replicates an existing practice… (Maddux & Johnson 2005)

On the other side, there are some authors who claim that emerging technologies could be disruptive and change the way we teach…

Inherently many of the emerging technologies are based on the idea of openness and collaboration and in as such the focus is also not so much on distribution of content, but on interacting, collaborating with students, but also opening up to other courses in the institutions and the community outside the institution…Facebook for example is inherently a collaborative tool…in as such this technologies might allow students and lecturers to do things that could not be done before….

The lecturers involved in our study gave the following reasons for engaging with emerging technologies:

  1. access to current, relevant, global, immediate information (12)
  2. adapting to a new generation of learners, tools that are already used by students (5)
  3. provision of a diverse learning experiences to students (5)
  4. independence from institutional systems (3)
  5. opportunity for mash up/integration (1)

I believe that the second and third point are very interesting….it’s all about listening to our students and finding new ways of engaging them …. Whether you call our students digital natives or not, they expect a different learning experiences than we had 10, 20, 30 years ago…that expect to be engaged differently than we did…

Our work at an UoT has often been criticized as being too focused on which technologies are being used and how they are used. We have heard that we don’t theorize our practice enough. One way of theorizing what we are doing is to use the lens of student engagement to try and understand the opportunities emerging technologies offer to us and our students.

What is “student engagement”?

In a longitudinal study of college drop outs Astin (one of the big names in the research around student engagement) showed that academic success is positively related to the “amount of physical and psychological energy that students devote to academic experience”. His research showed that for example living in campus residences, joining social or sports clubs holding part-time job on campus – all activities that will increase the amount of time a students spend on campus in academic-related activities, is positively linked to success and graduation rates: “The amount of student learning and personal development associated with any educational program is directly proportional to the quality and quantity of student involvement in that program” (Astin 1984).

However, time spent on task is difficult to measure and researchers have suggested different ways of looking at student engagement. Sandholtz, Ringstaff and Dwyer (1994) for example look at characteristics of student engagement, such as showing initiative, self-motivation, independent experimentation, spontaneous collaboration and peer coaching, enthusiasm and frustration…

Last year we started to do some more detailed research into the ways lecturers integrate emerging technologies in their teaching. One of the courses we studied was a third year Architectural Design course, where the lecturers first introduced a class blog to disseminate course information and later, prompted by their students suggestion, created a Facebook group for communication and feedback.

And the Facebook group took off like crazy. Students in this course are very, very busy with their final year project…and are basically working day and night to complete it… in the Facebook group this could be seen, by students posting at all times of the day and night…it gave them the perfect platform to support each other in this difficult time of doing projects and gave access to information 24/7 not just during the weekly contact sessions. They got to know each other better and also established a closer relationship with their lecturers. These are some of their comments in a focus group discussion we did with them:

B: The thing is, just coming back to the whole communication that you actually …know your fellow students…actually you can go to for advice…not just highlighting the top students in the class…gaining confidence in your fellow students not just asking [the lecturer] all the time.

A: And the other thing I will say it created that relationship with the lecturers so I believe after this whole Facebook thing I understand like my lecturers better than I thought, you know. And know I am free, I am free like to chat to them….it created that.

I: Facebook [shows us], that we all suffer together. Like one big, happy, sad family.

In this study we saw all characteristics of student engagement, we saw initiative, self-motivation, independent experimentation (students started their own Facebook groups for collaborative projects), spontaneous collaboration, peer coaching, sign of enthusiasm and frustration. The main element student stressed was the collaboration and peer coaching that was going on in the Facebook group. The lecturers as well, reported how they often stepped back and let students take initiative, reply to each other, support each other.

Student engagement and collaboration is a widely researched field. Literature links collaborative and cooperative learning to enhanced student engagement (Astin, 1987). Tinto (1997), for example, shows that collaborative learning activities allow for the development of peer support networks, which encourage class attendance and participation. Collaborative learning also leads to improved quality of learning, deeper and richer, where students not “only learn more … but better” (Tinto, 1997, p. 614).

In another study we did last year on another emerging technology, clickers or Personal Response Systems, in Graphic Design, we got interesting results. We used clickers to encourage class discussion. We asked questions without a right or wrong answer…and we asked students to discuss questions with their peers before or after voting and also always ended a question with a class discussion. Although these students are notoriously difficult to engage in discussions, this was actually a very lively class….

After the session we asked students to give us written feedback on what the liked about clickers…some of the answers were quite obvious: they liked them because they were fun and help them focus, they also liked the anonymity of clickers, the feeling of participating in a discussion without really having to talk (and a lot of these students are English second language speakers and not yet confident speaking out in class. But the biggest theme in the feedback we found was around peer learning. Student liked the clickers because they enjoyed hearing what other students thought …these are some of the comments we got:

  • You hear other people’s opinions and then you can weigh it up with your own … and with that you can formulate a better answer.
  • You hear different explanations from other people about the things that you don’t even know about.

In this study we saw student engagement on three levels: on the lowest levels clickers grabbed students attention through the novelty and fun they offered…on the next level they improved their feeling of participation through their anonymity…but on the highest level they involved students actively in discussions, through the peer learning that happened in the discussion they had with their colleagues and the whole class…

Johnson et al. talk about informal cooperative learning, which they define as “typically temporally and ad hoc, formed for a brief period of time (such as intermittent two- to four-minute discussions during a class session)” (1998, 37). One example they give is to allow students time to turn to a classmate nearby to discuss briefly a question posed by the lecturer, in order to focus student attention and ensure students’ cognitive processing of the discussed material…this describes exactly what we did in the clicker sessions….they developed something they call the “Controversy theory”:  and argue that ”students need to be confronted with opposing points of views, leading to uncertainty or conceptual conflicts, for students to re-conceptualize and look for more information, which then in turn leads to more refined and thoughtful conclusions.”

In the focus group discussion after using clicker for a series of lecturers, some of the students described exactly that situation:

  • The more people speak out their ideas, the more I think on adding to what they have said.
  • When you speak about it, something else comes up and you go deeper into it …
  • Clickers help you gain more information … it makes you do more research about a topic, to broaden it, know more …
  • When we go out of this class, we end up going to the computer, searching for more information, after using clickers…

And this is student engagement, spending voluntarily more time on something…researching after class on certain topics…And all this links to what we heard yesterday in Joanne Hardman’s talk on Activity Theory.

Another project we came across student engagement and collaboration was in the Digital storytelling project we did in Education. Students had to write a story, record it, collect digital images and put it all together into a digital movie. The way students went about it differed widely, some did it mainly on their own in the own time…but some students spent every Wednesday for 2 months with us…working on their story in a team… some of them created background songs together…and it was amazing what beautiful songs they recorded…and we uncovered the power of this collaboration in one of the focus groups we did with these students, where one of the students told us, that:

Interviewer: what part of the digital storytelling do you feel supported your reflection?
Student: okay, it was when we doing the sound recording…because I was working with my group…so when we were singing that gospel song, it was when I started to reflect back to my teaching practice…things that I helped the children to improve…[black African student]…

Actually through that collaborative act of singing a song together this student started the reflective process for her story…isn’t that amazing?

So what’s next? What is the point of my talk? I believe that a lot of good things can come out when lecturers explore emerging technologies…students, if they accept the technology, will engage on a different level with their learning….

However, although lecturers and students might embrace emerging technologies enthusiastically, it takes much longer for institutions and policy makers to adopt and implement them. Institutions and policy makers might misunderstand the usefulness of these technologies and administrative policies may slow down or halt adoption (COL 2008, p16). The lack of institutional policies results in confusing and contradicting micro-policies on departmental or even lab level (e.g. selected labs restricting access to Facebook).

I believe it is of great importance to involve lecturers, institutions stakeholders and policy makers in a debate around technical, social, legal and ethical considerations around the use of emerging technologies to allow for a more wide-spread use of them…

I would like to acknowledge all lecturers involved in these research projects, such as Jolanda Morkel, Hermie Voulgarelis, Bruce Snaddon, Marie-Anne Ogle, Dr Janet Condy, Dr Agnes Chigona, Edwine Simon, Amanda Morris, and all their students! And in particular my colleague Dr Eunice Ivala who has been an amazing mentor and collaborator in the research I have been doing!


Astin, A.W., 1984. Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of  University Student Development 25: 297-308.

Davidson, C.N., 2011. Collaborative learning for the digital age. The Chronicle. Available at: http://chronicle.com/article/collaborative-learning-for-the/128789.

Delich, P., Melly, K. & McIntosh, D., 2008. Emerging Technologies in E-learning. In S. Hirtz & D. Harper, eds. Education for a Digital World. Commonwealth of Learning, pp. 5-22. Available at: http://www.col.org/resources/crsMaterials/Pages/edDigitalWorld.aspx [Accessed April 5, 2011].

Hatzipanagos, S., 2011. Positive disruptive effects of current and emerging technologies in higher education. Presentation at eLearning@Edinburgh 2011. http://www.nesc.ac.uk/esi/events/1132/elearninged2011.pdf [Accessed March 28, 2011].

Johnson, L. et al., 2011. The Horizon Report 2011 Edition, Austin, Texas. Available at: http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/HR2011.pdf [Accessed March 28, 2011].

Johnson, L. & Adams, S., 2011. Technology Outlook UK Tertiary Education 2011-2016: An NMC Horizon Report Regional Analysis, Austin, Texas.

Johnson, D., Johnson, R.T. & Smith, K.A., 1998. Cooperative Learning Returns To College: What Evidence Is There That It Works? Change, 27-35.

Maddux, C.D. & Johnson, L.D., 2005. Type II Applications of Technology in Education. Computers in the Schools, 22(1&2), pp.1-5.

Sandholtz, J. H., C. Ringstaff and D.C. Dwyer., 1994. Student Engagement: Views from Technology-Rich classrooms. Apple Computer Inc.

Tinto, V., 1997. Classrooms as Communities. Journal of Higher Education, 68(6), 599-623.

Vygotsky, L., 1978. Mind in society. The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wilson, R. (1987). Direct observation of academic learning time. Teaching Exceptional Children, 19(2), 13–17.


About D Gachago

I have been working in the field of eLearning for more than 10 years, in commercial companies and in Higher Education, in Austria, Botswana, Scotland and now South Africa. I am still enthusiastic about all the interesting stuff that's going on and am trying desperately to keep on top of all the new technology coming out (not always managing very well).
This entry was posted in emerging technologies, research, web2.0 tools. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Emerging technologies, student engagement & collaboration

  1. TheDMdude says:

    Sometimes we mistakenly attribute characteristics or values to some technology like clickers when the value really lies in the way the technology have been used. For this reason there’s the observation perhaps that few technologies prompt a change in teaching. I assume a good change in teaching as not all change is for the better. I am interested to know why podcasting has not surfaced as a major technology player in teaching and learning. Perhaps it stems from the way it has been used…merely as a technology that re-present traditional ways of teaching. Do we have to leave it up to technology though to challenge traditional teaching and what is the ultimate aim of using technology in my teaching other than to remain relevant?

    On the issue of emerging technologies or new trends in technology use I find that we often replace one with the other simply because it is what is current rather than whether it is appropriate. A concern with making use of more and more social networking sites within education that lies outside of institutional systems is whose responsibility does the safekeeping of private or personal information become? Is it still the individual’s when it comes to the joining of FB groups or does it become the group owner’s or the insitution who is offering the course making use of FB. Perhaps it is NB to have these debates as part of our institutional discussions when adopting emerging technologies.

    • D Gachago says:

      Dear DMdude! Thanks for your comment…I think you are spot on and our research right now tries to uncover exactly those implications for the institution, to start a debate on the opportunities and challenges of emerging technologies…we are interviewing lecturers and institutional stakeholders to explore these issues a bit further…

  2. Pingback: Totgesagte leben länger ….. | Lehren und Lernen mit neuen Medien

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