High-Tech vs. Low-Tech Learning

by Jen Rosenthal, MDes, CTDP

As training professionals in North America, we have access to a wide range of technological options to enhance or even deliver our training. Flashy high-tech training media may appear to be an attractive alternative to old fashioned low-tech training but is it more effective? If we increasingly rely on technological training solutions, do we risk losing the positive impact of peer-learning and interaction, collaboration and engagement?

In a recent article in the Financial Times, Sir Jonathan “Jony” Ive, Apple’s chief design officer (who helped create the MacBook, iPhone, iPad and iPod), was asked what he would like to design most. Without hesitation he replied “a soap dispenser”. Coming from a designer involved in aerospace and self-driving cars, this seemed surprising. Sir Ive explained that the “whole point of design was to celebrate being human” and as the author pointed out: “the best 21st-century design is not simply about efficiency but also about creating something that makes us feel more human — even, or perhaps especially, in a tech-saturated world”. The author went on to describe “a curious countercultural revolution going on in Silicon Valley” where Tech leaders increasingly emphasize their respect for “old-fashioned, tangible experiences” both in their professional and personal lives.

As a training professional who has worked mostly in developing countries where electricity was either non-existent or unreliable, “old fashioned, tangible experiences” were the only training methods I had at my disposal. My learners actively engaged with one another, shared stories and experiences, collaborated to solve problems and played contextualized games (physical games, board games or card games) that allowed them to apply their learning, but I sometimes wondered if my learners were being short-changed due to the lack of available higher-tech training options.

On the other hand, I’ve heard my “higher tech” colleagues asking themselves the exact opposite question. Working for large-scale corporations and higher learning institutions, they were under pressure to implement high-tech learning solutions, which they suspected lacked a certain “human-ness” and real-world connection and interaction.

We'am Hamdan’s who teaches English for the British Council in Ramallah, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories describes some of the technological challenges of teaching in a developing country and shares some great tips for teaching “low tech”-style in her article Tips for Teaching in a Low-Tech Classroom. Hamdan has been influenced by “Thornbury’s Dogme principles, which favours conversations over textbooks.” This approach led her to base lessons on “real-life communication between teacher and learners, without depending on materials and technology”. While Hamdan admits that “Low-tech classrooms feel limited in the 21st century”, she believes that “imaginative and creative thinking, teamwork and hands-on activities” are just as important as technology in providing learners with up-to-date skills and tools.

Sherry Turkle, psychologist, cultural analyst and professor in the Science, Technology and Society Program at MIT studies how technology is shaping our modern relationships: with others, with ourselves, with it. In her TED Talk “Connected but Alone”, she discusses the social implications of our tech-saturated society. She describes our current society as being “smitten with technology” but reluctant to engage in real conversations. She suggests that technology is still in its infancy and there is still time to reconsider how we use it. She asks us to think deeply about the new kinds of connection we want to have and consider how technology can lead us back to our real lives and our own communities. Her discussion highlights the importance of real-world connection and interaction in an age where technology can make us increasingly isolated and disconnected.

In his article Corporations Embrace New Learning Technologies, but Most Aren’t Ready, David Wentworth seemed to question, not the effectiveness of high-tech learning technology but rather, organizations’ ability to use it effectively. Only 20% of the organizations involved in the Brandon Hall Group’s 2016 Learning Technology Study had robust learning technology strategies. According to the author, this indicated that many of the other organizations were “simply acquiring technology, rolling it out, and hoping for the best”. Any learning technology (be it high-tech or low-tech) needs to be built on a solid strategy. Wentworth developed four “critical calls for change” to improve individual and organizational training results. These included:

  1. Focusing on the Learner

  2. Exploring New Modalities

  3. Leveraging Technology for a Truly Blended Learning Experience, and

  4. Realizing the potential in Mobile, Social and Collaborative Technologies.

Wentworth recommended using the 70/20/10 framework as a guide for leveraging technology to deliver “a much more effective well-rounded learning experience”. While he did not consider this to be a precise formula for organizational learning, he did feel it provides solid insight into how people learn. Wentworth concludes his article by stating “As multiple studies have shown, people learn more, are more engaged, and retain knowledge longer when they are able to collaborate.”

An older article called People, Pedagogy and the Power of Connection, co-authored by two Australian tertiary educators/researchers Alice Brown and Shirley E Reushie, echoed Wentworth’s recommendations but at a time when learning technology was still emerging. One of the authors identified what she called “The Winning Formula” that “challenges the view that learning is “just acquiring knowledge, skills and outcomes”, and instead provides a pedagogical approach that acknowledges contextualization and ensures learners “feel connected and part of a team of learners and that the richness of their backgrounds is valued”. The second author developed a design principle she called the “CHE Factor” which employed the concepts of Connectivity, Humanness and Empathy. Both authors employed high-tech (at the time) learning media such as e-learning, videos, podcasts, radio interviews and episodes of interesting television shows, but each deliberately approached their course design with people – the human element – at the forefront of their instructional design.

Irish researcher Edmond P. Byrne in his presentation High or low tech approaches to teaching and learning?: The value of pedagogical soundness sought to compare high tech and low tech teaching methods to enhance traditional lecture-based adult education in a university classroom. Having considered Harvard physicist and educationalist Eric Mazur’s writings on of the demise of the traditional lecture as an outmoded model of ‘knowledge transmission’, Byrne compared the use of USED high tech (clickers and live software) vs. low tech (flashcards) in his third year Applied Thermodynamics & Fluid Mechanics class. He found that students preferred the flashcards, not because they were low-tech but because they promoted peer-learning and interaction. While Byrnes findings did not ‘prove’ definitively that one method was superior to the other, they did align with his hypothesis that while technology in itself is neither ‘good’ nor ‘bad’, it can be used to either effect.

It would seem that my question of whether high-tech or low-tech learning was more effective was not really as important as how either is used to promote human interaction and reflection as part of the learning process. The use of technology for the sake of technology or to save an organization time and money can only lead to what Dr. Ian Kinchin calls “technology enhanced non-learning” unless it is used in a sound and strategic manner to facilitate learners’ deeper engagement connection with and understanding of the concepts being taught.

Jen Rosenthal's company is The Train Station Find out more about Jen here. Her post and views expressed here are her own and not as a representative of her company or Robin Yap.


Brown, Alice and Reushle, Shirley E. (2010, December) People, pedagogy and the power of connection. Studies in Learning, Evaluation, Innovation and Development, Vol.7(3), pp-37-48.

Byrne, Edmond P. (2015, July) High or low tech approaches to teaching and learning?: The value of pedagogical soundness”, Research in Engineering Education Symposium (REES2015). Dublin Institute of Technology, 13 – 15 July. (link to abstract: http://www.ucc.ie/media/academic/processengineering/publicationspresentations/ByrneEP2015REESStructuredAbstract.pdf)

Hamdan, We'am (2017, October) Tips for teaching in a low-tech classroom www.britishcouncil.org/voices-magazine/tips-teaching-low-tech-classroom

Tett, Gillian. (2017, June). The low-tech ambitions of Apple’s design guru. Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/0b045a58-4b0a-11e7-919a-1e14ce4af89b.

Turkle, Sherry (2012) Connected but alone? TED Talks www.ted.com/talks/sherry_turkle_alone_together

Wentworth, David. (2016, July) Corporations Embrace New Learning Technologies, But Most Aren’t Ready: It has been proven time and time again that technology cannot fix a bad process. Training, https://trainingmag.com/corporations-embrace-new-learning-technologies-most-aren%E2%80%99t-ready

Other related articles

Kinchin, I. (2012). Avoiding technology-enhanced non-learning. British Journal of Educational

Technology, 43(2), E43-E48.

Mazur, E. (2009). Farewell, lecture? Science, 323(5910), 50-51.

Templer, B (2004). "Reflective Teaching in the Low-Resource Classroom". Humanising Language Teaching, 6, 3. http://www.hltmag.co.uk/sept04/mart3.htm#10

Thornbury, Scott (2005). "Dogme: Dancing in the dark?". Folio. 9/2, 3–5.


Thornbury, Scott (2009-06-10). "Dogme: nothing if not critical". Teaching English.