Communication supports a revolution

So, it has finally become official and Mubarak has stepped down. This is one of the most interesting uprisings I’ve seen in a long time, because it resulted in meaningful change. What is also very interesting is that the media focused very heavily on the use of technologies to support communications that led to protests, coordination, and the change they sought. Some have wisely debated the role of technology in the revolution.

As a technology faculty member and researcher, I am constantly worried that folks will focus too much on the technology itself (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, virtual worlds, other social media) and not recognize it for what it is in this case: a means to communicate. These tools allowed for coordination of mass communication through protest. It allowed for massive communication in traditional media outlets even when local police interrogated and held journalists in jail. The Internet connected devices used for communication, though the communication could have been done by other means (face-to-face, non-smart phones, etc.) People learned about the protests through social media and technology tools, which allowed them to coordinate their protest efforts and make them more effective. It may have made them more efficient. It is unlikely that they made the revolution possible.

This gets to an issue that is problematic in academic research with technologies for teaching and learning: does a particular technology have any impact on learning? It has been argued both ways now for decades by Richard Clark (1994a,b), who claimed that media and technology tools would never influence learning, and Kozma (1991; 1994) who claimed that they could. I’ve had this argument with others in graduate school and with colleagues now as an academic and I tend to side with Clark, which has made me difficult to convince/deal with on dissertation proposals, because students want to show learning gains with technology use and tend to attribute improvements not to the methods, but to a technology such as Twitter.

In my research, I would not (or should not) claim that it was the visual and immersive components of the design of Anytown that was responsible for improving student writing, but instead it was the learning activities they completed because they were motivated by the game, visual, and immersive components of Anytown (see also Warren et al 2008, 2009 authored articles in References) that improved their writing. Further, their willingness to spend more time on task and engage in voluntary additional writing enabled or encouraged by the game environment was likely also responsible. Lastly, I might attribute some of the improvement to peer student interactions in the lab face-to-face in which students discussed what and how they were writing in response to the narrative as well as to the instructor following up in the regular classroom with activities that reinforced the lessons and writing work they completed while in Anytown.

What I will not claim is that they improved because it was a game. It was not because of the clunky Activeworlds technology. The game could have been done with living actors in the classroom as long as they encouraged the writing just as students were encouraged with live role play “Boxington” activities in one of the teacher classrooms. In fact, I think some of the kids liked that more because it was hands on and they got to design their stores instead of having some random graduate student do it. These are the same kids that spent all their free time in Quest Atlantis in a world called Q-Ville where they could engage in the dramaturgical communicative action of building homes and virtual spaces that were part of their identity and were expressions of who they were. They wanted that agency of self-expression that was restricted in other places. They wanted to act upon the world rather than be acted upon.

It’s one of the reasons that I don’t think Chalk House has been adopted, because it is another instance of me writing for them instead of letting them engage in personal expressions of truth and self. However, the system isn’t prepared to give them the sort of agency to build like a Second Life could if kids were given enough time to learn the tools. Second Life has its own problems when it comes to kids, but it does allow them to construct spaces and knowledge through communication in-world. We need more safe sandbox-type spaces for education where kids can do this with simple tools like are found in Activeworlds.

The issue for me is that it cannot be the technology that is itself responsible for learning; instead it is the communication and the effectiveness of that communication that makes learning possible. The instructor coherently communicates a model or concept to a student who internalizes it. That could be done using a white board or Adobe Connect Pro (which has a white board feature), verbal discourse, or any number of other means.

Is it the white board that communicates the information or knowledge to the student? No. It is the instructor that uses the tool to convey their message, knowledge, or information and the tool may enable more efficient or somewhat more effective transmission, but it is the instructor that is responsible for the teaching and learning. Therefore, my use of Adobe Connect Pro last night to teach did not improve student learning, because many of the activities we did may have been more efficient face-to-face (reviewing instructional designs and giving feedback). However, it did enable me to teach the students at a distance, which is a great benefit of technology. It is important to note that it was the learning activities and instructional methods that were primarily responsible for any learning that happened, not the technology itself.

There were some instances due to bandwidth and other technical issues with the product that may have actually made learning less efficient or interfered with my teaching and communication of knowledge/information or the construction of said knowledge. Technology is improving, but it is important not to conflate it with who or what methods are responsible for learning in an academic setting.

So, back to Egypt. Was the technology responsible for the revolution? No. Did it enable participants in the protests to communicate more effectively and efficiently to coordinate their actions against the government. Absolutely. Did it allow participants to communicate at a distance to organize? Definitely.

Were technology tools responsible for the Egyptian Revolution of 2011? No.

It was people communicating with other people to counter the claims of the legitimacy of their government effectively and passionately in order to emancipate themselves from what was seen by many as tyranny. It is a lesson that we should not forget as we seek to design instruction using technology.

It is more important to focus on the people than the tool.


Clark, R. E. (1994a). Media and method. Educational Technology Research & Development, 42(3), 7-10.

Clark, R. E. (1994b). Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research & Development, 42(2), 21-29.

Kozma, R. B. (1991). Learning with media. . Review of Educational Research, 61(2), 179-211.

Kozma, R. B. (1994). Will media influence learning? Reframing the debate. Educational Technology Research & Development, 42(2), 7-19.

Warren, S. J., Barab, S., & Dondlinger, M. (2008). A MUVE towards PBL writing: Effects of a digital learning environment designed to improve elementary student writing. Journal of Research on Technology in Education, 41(1), 113-140.

Warren, S. J., Dondlinger, M., Stein, R., & Barab, S. (2009). Educational game as supplemental learning tool: Benefits, challenges, and tensions arising from use in an elementary school classroom. Journal of Interactive Learning Research, 20(4), 487-505.

Warren, S. J., Stein, R., Dondlinger, M., & Barab, S. (2009). A look inside a design process: Blending instructional design and game principles to target writing skills. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 40(3), 295-301.


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