Emerging Technology, Learning Theory, and Instructional Design

Symbiosis: Co-Evolution of Emerging Technology, Learning Theory, and Instructional Design

By Jessica Caron and Kevin Brennaman


This paper focuses on the relationship between emerging technology and learning theory, specifically focusing on social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace, and educational gaming and simulation. Learning theories relating to both topics are explored. Several learning theories can be used as a basis for the integration of social networking in education. These theories include, but are not limited to, social learning and collaborative learning theory. While educational games and simulations have close ties to constructivist learning theories. No matter what technology is used in education, one thing is for sure: technology is changing the traditional classroom.

keywords: emerging technology, learning theory, educational gaming, social networking

According to Moore’s law, technology performance (as quantified by the number of transistors on a microchip) is increasing in an exponential manner. Moore’s Law, which has held true for the past 40 years, has numerous implications. This rate of exponential change means that approximately every two years our technological computing capability doubles, and with this rapid change in performance capabilities comes both technological and societal change. On a daily basis the increase in technological performance and our societal acceptance of technology can be seen; for example, mobile technologies (e.g. cell phones) have become a nearly ubiquitous and well accepted part of mainstream culture. The technology of today has changed drastically from that of the past, as has the way in which technology is integrated into every facet our daily lives. The field of education is not immune to this technological shift.

According to Smith (2005), “In 1999, about 52 percent of K–12 teachers said they used technology in instruction (Lanahan, 2002). About 90 percent of children ages 7 to 17 reported using computers in school, as did 97 percent of high school students (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2004)” (p. 9). While a significant portion of students and instructors report using technology, use is not always indicative of integration into the curriculum. The integration of technology into the classroom is imperative if we are to educate our children and empower them to be successful; not only today’s technological world, but well into the future.

Technology can help us to meet the needs of a diverse learner population, better prepare our students for lifelong learning, and help us prepare our students for the classrooms and workplaces of the future. Over the years, instructors have felt that the classroom experience of their students is enhanced with technology, and history has shown us that technology can be integrated into the curriculum in positive ways that help to engage and educate learners. However, technology integration necessitates changes in how we deliver curriculum as “emerging technologies afford new opportunities as well as responsibilities” (Belarrain, 2006, p. 149). When considering technology integration, the question becomes not how technology can improve what we are already doing, but rather how these emerging technologies can be used to enhance education in ways that take us further than before.

Emerging technologies in the classroom

Over the years, educational technology has adapted to changing technologies and societal changes, expanding to include new technologies as they emerge and adopting instructional design paradigms that are suited to the integration of technology. In 2005, Educause, in conjunction with the New Media Consortium, identified both educational gaming and social networking as technologies likely to have a significant effect on education. These emerging technologies are indeed proving to have an impact on education at all levels (Johnson et al., 2005).

Social networks

More and more students are using online social networking sites, such as Facebook and MySpace, for leisure activities. In 2007, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) conducted a study of students’ Internet usage; more specifically, the use of online social networking sites was investigated. The study concluded that 96% of students with online access have used social networking tools. Nearly 60% of those surveyed reported using social networking sites to discuss educational topics, including schoolwork (NSBA, 2007). While social networking technology is experiencing a widespread adoption by students, there is still much controversy surrounding this emerging technology in relation to education. Should the use of social networking sites be allowed in the educational setting? Learning theories and instructional design Models could suggest a use for these social networking sites for educational purposes. Look at the history of one of these popular social networking sites.

Facebook, originally launched in February of 2004 at Harvard University, was designed as a way for students to connect with their peers about classes. After its first month, half of the Harvard undergraduate population had a profile. Facebook was soon extended to other Boston Universities and eventually to anyone with an e-mail address. Facebook now contains over 19 million users worldwide (Thompson, 2007), making it one of the largest social networking sites with an educational focus.

This shows the idea of social networking sites in education does have a basis in several learning theories. Several major learning theory paradigms, such as behaviorism, social learning theory, social development theory, and social constructivism can provide support for the use of social networking sites in education.

Learning theory and social networking

Learning theories have a tremendous impact on the use of social networking sites in education. One particular area is behaviorism. Proponents of behaviorism state the learner responds to external stimuli. Social networking can provide the learner with external stimuli via comments from other users. Alfred Bandura’s social learning theory is a prime example of how social networking sites can be used. Social learning theory states people learn from one another via observation, imitation, and modeling (Kioh, 2008). While observation, imitation, and modeling are more difficult to accomplish through a computer than in person, it can be done. Of course, one must first fulfill the necessary conditions for social learning to take place. These conditions are: attention, retention, reproduction, and motivation. The learner must pay attention to what is being modeled. If the learner does not pay attention learning cannot take place. The learner must retain what he/she paid attention to. No retention means no learning took place. The learner must be able to reproduce what is seen. This shows the learner has retained the information. The learner must be motivated to learn. Social networking sites can provide the necessary motivation for learners. They also provide the necessary chances for reproduction of material and opportunities of retention. This theory is sometimes related to Vygotsky’s social development theory. Vygotsky proposed that social interaction precedes development. Vygotsky claimed that social interaction plays a fundamental role in cognitive development. While Vygotsky was studying this theory primarily in children, the theory still has basis in older students. We see this with Vygotsky’s idea of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This, simply put, is the gap between a student’s ability to complete a task with help and his/her ability to complete the task independently. Social networking allows learners to complete tasks with help from other sources helping students to achieve tasks within their ZPD. As the learner matures, the site allows the learner to demonstrate his/her ability to complete tasks independently. The facilitator should collaborate with the students to help facilitate meaning to the students. This theory became one of the foundations for constructivism.

Within the realm of constructivist learning theories, there is a branch called social constructivism. Social constructivism emphasizes culture and environment as a part of the learning process. Learning is constructed through interactions with and among other students. Social networking sites provide an avenue for students to interact in an asynchronous place independent manner. Students are able to learn from the web-based environment around them and become a community of learners. Lave and Wenger took these ideas and developed the term Communities of Practice (Oliver & Carr, 2009). This is a group of learners with the same interest who want to learn more about the interest. Several social networking sites contain groups members can join to explore their interests. These groups are for people to learn more about different topics. This idea is similar to the thought of collaborative learning. Collaborative learning allows for learners to work together to solve a problem. This cognitive constructivist approach, allows for students to learn in socially and cognitively rich environments. Piaget (1932) pointed out that collaborative learning has a major role in cognitive development. Social networking sites provide the avenue for learner to collaborate on different topics and seek solutions to problems.

Social Networking sites in education provide opportunities for students taking online classes to collaborate on topics. Of course, theories do not mean anything unless they are utilized in the classroom. Take for example a study done on the use of Facebook in an organic chemistry class at Iowa State University. Students were invited to join a Facebook group where they could discuss class topics and ask questions of the professor. The conclusion of this study determined students were more comfortable using Facebook to pose questions (Schroeder, 2009). However, the footnote to this study was that the use of social networking sites needs to be explored and taken seriously as an educational tool.

Educational gaming and simulation

Gaming is a pastime that has become very popular in US culture; according a recent survey by the Entertainment Software Association (2008), a reported 65% of households in the US participate in gaming. Statistics such as this combined with the affordances of the gaming medium itself (e.g. immersive environments, authentic problem solving, and learner autonomy) have led some educators to integrate gaming into the classroom. While the integration of games into curriculum is not completely novel, technology in the classroom has enabled educators to employ gaming in ways not previously possible and, due to these new technological affordances, educational gaming is taking on new life (Garris et al., 2002). However popularity does not imply universal acceptance, as aptly stated by Wideman et al. (2007) “There is skepticism in the educational community regarding the applicability of gaming to education” (p. 15). Games have been shown, in numerous studies and in homes across America, to both interest and motivate students, but to some extent the question ‘how does this apply to the education community?’ still remains.

Despite this ongoing debate, gaming in the classroom has been shown to lead to increased student engagement, increased learner autonomy, and increased meta-cognition while providing active, experiential, immersive learning environments (Kiili, 2005; Tüzün et al., 2009). While these are all positive benefits, the increasing integration of games into the classroom brings with it a central challenge: instructors must reevaluate how they teach in virtual (game) environments. This reevaluation means assessing both the learning models and instructional design theories being employed in their classrooms.

Learning theory and educational gaming

As technologies progress and practices in the classroom adapt, effects on theory can be observed. Some existing learning theories are adapted to the new environment while some new models are developed. In the case of gaming, integration into the classroom has been influenced by several existing theories while also influencing the development of others. This has led to a rich tapestry of learning theories being applied gaming in the classroom and in the gaming literature.

Gaming in the classroom has in particular been influenced by the existing learning theories of Problem and Inquiry Based Learning (PBL and IBL respectively) (Kiili, 2004; Tüzün et al. 2009), Constructivism (Garris, 2002; Lainema, 2009; Wideman et al., 2007), Experiential Learning (Freitas & Neumann, 2008; Kiili, 2004), Piaget’s theory of Intellectual Development (in particular the assimilation, accommodation, and cognitive disequilibrium cycle), and Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (Kiili, 2004).

According to Kiili (2005), educational games offer “provide a meaningful environment for problem-based learning” (p. 17) as the gaming environment provides increased learner autonomy in an inquiry centered game based environment. The concept of PBL is well supported by the gaming and simulation environment as the technology allows us to build a game around authentic tasks requiring students to engage in problem solving and inquiry. Gaming has also been shown empirically to support learning in this context. In a study using pre and post tests combined with interviews and open-ended questions, Tüzün et al. (2009) assessed gains in student achievement and affect following interaction with the inquiry based educational game, Quest Atlantis. The results showed a statistically significant positive gain in achievement and affect as a result of the educational gaming. Constructivism has also played a large role in the integration of Gaming into the classroom.

As a theory, the constructivist learning environment has many corollaries with the simulation and gaming environment. The theory of constructivism offers a robust model of learning in the gaming environment (Lainema, 2009). For example in a game cycle, a cyclical process involving user judgment, an elicited behavior, followed by immediate feedback through which the user gains some knowledge, students are asked to construct their knowledge regarding the environment as they are engaged in the gaming activity this parallels the construction of knowledge cycle that is at the heart of constructivist environments. Similarly, the Experiential or Exploratory Model of Learning (EML) (Freitas & Neumann , 2008; Kiili, 2004) has been applied to gaming. EML, firmly rooted in Kolb’s constructivist experiential learning model (Garris, 2002) and Vygotsky’s theory of the zone of proximal development (Kiili, 2004), the EML endeavors to shift the classroom focus from just content delivery to looking at entire learning experiences. This shift is described by Freitas and Neumann (2008) as shifting the emphasis in the classroom to “provide(s) less emphasis upon curriculum and more emphasis upon sequencing learning experiences, meta-reflection, peer assessment and group work” (p. 351) As the gaming environment offers greater learner autonomy, this shift in focus is of utmost importance. While the above noted theories have been adapted to gaming, gaming has also influenced the development of some emerging theories of learning.

Emerging learning theories such as anchored instruction, situated cognition, and engagement theory have been to some degree influenced by the incorporation of activities like gaming in the classroom. At the heart of all of these models is a base recognition that there is interdependency between a technology and the societal context in which the technology is used; this interdependency then influences education. Speaking about engagement theory specifically, Beldarrain (2006) addressed this issue saying “Engagement theory ascertains that technology can achieve certain types of engagement and interactions that would otherwise not be possible” (p. 147).

Instructional design and educational gaming

As with any technology integration, the integration of games and simulations affects how curriculum is delivered in the classroom. According to Freitas and Neumann (2008), educational gaming offers a complex learning environment that has the “potential for practitioners to adapt lesson planning in order to facilitate or ‘choreograph’ ‘flows of experiences’” (p. 344). This allows instructors to move from an educator centered classroom to a student centered classroom environment. There are two interrelated models of instructional design commonly applied to educational gaming : Gagne’s Nine Events and Objective Driven Design. It has been postulated that Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction are inherently embodied in game based learning environment (Freitas & Neumann, 2008). Gagne’s systematic approach to curriculum design offers a framework for content delivery that aligns well with the game cycle and therefore can be easily applied to the development of gaming curriculum. While Gagne’s Nine Events of Instruction are closely aligned with the gaming cycle, another instructional design model that is often used in gaming curriculum design is objective driven design.

Objective driven design is a curriculum design methodology that stresses the need to identify learning objectives prior to identifying technologies; your learning objectives should direct your technology choices while your technology should never drive your learning objectives. Traditionally learning objectives have been written around Bloom’s taxonomy. However, one way in which technologies like gaming are influencing instructional design is in the updating of Blooms taxonomy to include verbs specific to events in digital media (e.g. Blooms Digital Taxonomy by Andrew Churches). While objectives are changing due to technology, their importance to curriculum development is still paramount as argued by Freitas and Neumann (2008): “For this to be the case, and as Mayes and de Freitas and Neumann have argued, the importance of alignment between learning objectives, activities and outcomes is paramount” (p. 344).


Technology is ever-changing, from our home lives to the classroom, technology is changing everywhere. We are evolving from filmstrips and reel-to-reels to computers with basic programs to Web 2.0. It is widely known technology is rapidly evolving and reshaping our lives. Yet the question becomes not how technology can improve in what we are already doing, but rather how the affordances of these new and emerging technologies can be used to enhance our classrooms and empower our students in ways not previously possible. Freitas and Neumann (2008) postulate that:

The use of these tools may significantly reshape how we think about learning, creating changes in the role of the tutor, allowing for different scenarios for learning, empowering the learner and presenting greater opportunities for reflection. These changes have the potential to support behavioural [sic] change and learner engagement on a new level and at a time when students are particularly disengaged from traditional learning this may offer the education system real scope for improving the quality and depth of learning. (p. 351)

These emerging technologies are having a tremendous impact on the classroom. In particular, social networking and gaming are changing the face of our classrooms. No longer is using the computer considered a fun activity. These technologies have brought the computer to the forefront of education, making technology an equal counterpart to the textbook in the support of educational endeavors. The traditional classroom has changed to become a melding of the old and new blending emerging technologies into existing classroom structures to create novel hybrid learning environments. The role of the teacher has even changed from that of lecturer to that of facilitator.

The blending of technology into the classroom not only creates new learning environments, but it also provides an opportunity for educators to reassess both the learning theories and instructional design models being used in their classrooms. Teaching practice and technology integration have a symbiotic relationship with the theories of learning and instructional design; as new technologies are integrated into the classroom, previously established theories are being applied in new ways adapting to the change or, in some cases, new theories are being born. As technologies continue to change, so too will our classrooms. The cycle of learning theory evolution will continue.


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