2 December 2022

Researcher: The Future of Learning Technology is Offline 


If learners are in more control of the technology they use for learning and the data they generate, it can create better learning as well as deeper understanding of the technology, says Postdoc Mark Johnson.   

Offline technology provides freedom to learn away from corporate surveilance

If we really want technology for learning - and not management - there is little reason why that technology needs to take the form of big online systems, says Mark Johnson, postdoc at the Department of Science Education.  

“Offline technology provides more freedom for personal organisation for learning away from corporate surveillance,” he explains.   

“A lot of “learning technology” is not really “learning” technology at all - it’s management technology. Managers write the cheque, not the learners! The tools in a program like Canvas, including the data it collects, help management organise learners, but does little to help learners organise themselves.”  

The activity of learning is largely about organization, said Mark Johnson. 

Mark Johnson
Not everything needs to be harvested by the big tech companies, says Mark Johnson.

“When learning, we organise resources we find useful as we organise our mind and body. The problem is that the tools we provide our students to learn with do very little in terms of helping them to take control of their learning processes,” the researcher said.  

“Learning technology doesn’t need to be online. Not everything needs to be harvested by the big tech companies. Today it is much easier than before to make cross-platform applications from open-source web technology, and not be limited by what is allowed on the commercial platforms." 

As part of the research project C-Camp – which aims to increase computer literacy among students at four European universities – Mark Johnson has recently created a desktop application where all data is accessible to the user – and only to the user.   

"It's about personal data and personal organisation. Students have the freedom to be creative and organise themselves in ways which suit them. They can change the app we give them if they want. And it also helps introduce them to computational thinking in a gentle way," he explains.   

Shift the control 

The dominance of big companies has helped create a critical movement in the debate about Edutech. There are worries that “big tech” will take over education. But it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater in this debate.   

"A lot of the voices that are most technology-critical haven't looked at the technology very closely," said Mark Johnson.   

"Big tech wants to make profitable businesses, and our universities provide a market for technology that inadvertently disempowers learners. The way to address this is to understand the technology better, and to shift the locus of control of technology towards the learner." 

There are no good reasons to feed students’ data to major online platforms, says Mark Johnson. But all online activities, from browsing the web to playing games and VR, create vast amounts of data which, in the hands of learners themselves, could enhance their learning and organisation. 

“If you compare the capabilities of the major learning platforms with the wide range of open tools and open source code available on the internet, the contrast is striking,” he points out. 

"One of the benefits of taking things offline is that you can start experimenting and doing things that you simply can't do in the big mainstream commercial systems. You may be creating something that can scale and may eventually exist online, but it is important to create the institutional space where you can try things out," Mark Johnson said.   

Behind the curtain 

In the C-Camp program Johnson created, students can record data about their engagement with the system as they do various activities, including engaging with AI, typing notes, or browsing and accumulating resources. This allows them to ask questions like “How long did I spend doing x? Which parts of text on this page have I spent most time looking at? What are the keywords that keep coming up in my searches? What kinds of things am I asking AI and how does this connect to what I want to achieve? What am I not looking at?” 

Seeing learning technology as a tool for organisation addresses another deep problem that Universities face with technology: encouraging students to look behind the interface. The major online learning platforms hide the construction of their tools and their data behind an interface, Mark Johnson argues. 

"The technology that students swim in and interact with day in and day out is learning technology. So why aren't they allowed to play with it? It seems obvious. Instead, we've wrapped up the technology and we're not allowed to look behind the curtain," Mark Johnson said.   

Our universities provide a market for technology that inadvertently disempowers learners.

Mark Johnson

C-Camp is specifically built in the electron framework that can make a desktop application out of Javascript. In addition to the APIs that can be called from the program, all code is stored locally and can be edited by the user at will.   

"Not everyone will be interested in exploring what's going on behind the screen. But some will, and they should have the opportunity to develop their computational thinking," he said.   

The C-Camp program illustrates this approach by encouraging students to download their own Facebook data and analyze it. Mark Johnson hopes that exercises like this help students see how tech companies harvest user data. But more generally, he hopes students can get in closer contact with their own data — especially their own learning data.   

"It's an opportunity to provide both better learning and deeper understanding of the technology at the same time," said Mark Johnson.   


Mark Johnson
Department of Science Education, University of Copenhagen