Conceptual Challenges and Digital Technology

My educational background suggests that many scientific concepts are taught only conceptually. Examples and hands-on application of knowledge acquired in courses were limited to available resources that were often inadequate and static – we did not have many opportunities to explore the concepts in real-life settings or play with these concepts in a virtual environment. This prevented us from understanding scientific concepts thoroughly. In most cases, the instructors usually stood in front of the class or showed videos as they taught the concepts. This was also well illustrated in the  “Heather’s challenges” course video.

From that video, I learned that students strongly hold onto their private scientific views. I see two reasons that contributed to the misconceptions of scientific concepts. The first one is that such misconceptions are often not challenged in schools during instruction, and therefore students continue to regard the misconceptions as true. The other reason is that students don’t have many opportunities to explore or examine concepts they learned in science classes. How can we overcome these problems?

We find some answers in scientific papers examining how the application of new technologies in the classroom can improve learning. So, “Does the medium change the Message?” The answer appears to be “Yes, and profoundly so” (Yazon, Mayer-Smith & Redfield, 2002). The WebCT content of the auto-tutorial genetics section was chunked, self-paced, and acquired collaboratively through peer interactions. These interactions were further enhanced via the instituted student help desk for individual and small group tutoring. The results of the study strongly indicate the course promoted independent learning and understanding as opposed to rote learning. In effect, the new method allowed students to experiment with the concepts through technology. It also provided valuable feedback, via the help desk, that challenged students’ privately held scientific views.

What else can technology do to address conceptual challenges? It turns out it can keep students more engaged with their learning through the process of gamification. This process improves flow and helps students form new conceptions faster and more accurately. According to Professors Dilip Soman or Nina Mažar from the Rotman School of Management, teachers can gamify learning content by following these five steps: understand the target audience and concepts, define learning objectives, structure the experience, identify learning resources, and apply gamification elements(Stephen, McRobbie & Tom, 2000).

So, if technology can facilitate and enhance learning, why isn’t it widely adopted? To a no small degree, it is because teachers’ conservative culture states that technology would make students lazy – pushing a button should not substitute understanding of the underlying scientific principles(Huang & Soman, 2013). These attitudes can and do change but progress is slow.

I believe that digital technologies – like interactive virtual simulations, videos, augmented reality, and gamified learning content – would help students experiment and understand scientific concepts more inquisitively, in simpler and more engaging ways.  


Yazon, J.M., Mayer-Smith, J.A. & Redfield, R.J. (2002). Does the medium change the message? The impact of a web-based genetics course on university students’ perspectives on learning and teaching. Computers & Education, 38(1), 267–285.

Stephen Norton, Campbell J. McRobbie & Tom J. Cooper (2000) Exploring

Secondary Mathematics Teachers’ Reasons for Not Using Computers in Their Teaching, Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 33:1, 87-109, DOI: 10.1080/08886504.2000.10782302

Huang, W. H. Y., & Soman, D. (2013). Gamification of education. Research Report Series: Behavioural Economics in Action, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto.

One comment

  1. Interesting post. As I have read through all the posts a trend has arrived, we need to challenge students’ beliefs, provide them a reason why, to question their understandings if we are to build their knowledge. What I found interesting in your post is that you identify that using technology for interactive virtual simulations, videos and more would allow for students to expand and understand scientific concepts more inquisitively and I couldn’t agree more. What is ironic is the advantages to students to build the capacity to question their own thinking (Does that make sense?”) is the exact skill we are asking all educators to make. From operating room to classroom, we need the perceived experts in these areas to also reexamine their knowledge around technology to open a truly honest dialogue about how to use technology to support and enhance student’s learning experiences.

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