Technology Enhanced Learning Environments

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This page was originally authored by Drew Ryan (2008).
This page has been revised by Yvonne Chamberlin (2008).
This page has been revised by Emily Varga (2014).

Technology Enhanced Learning Environments: A Student-Centred Approach


A Technology Enhanced Learning Environment (TELE), which focuses on a student-centered model of education, integrates themes that are given real-life applicability through technologically supported delivery methods (Hannafin & Land, 1997). TELEs are educational environments in which students are immersed in "learning by doing" with an emphasis on learning, and less on the delivery. Based upon constructivist pedagogy TELEs provide learners with opportunities to explore their own interests in a flexible (e.g., tablets, iPads, PCs, SMART Board, Laptops, wikis, moodles, virtual classrooms, etc.) and enriching manner. In turn, students utilize their background knowledge in synthesizing new information through the support of technology while acquiring new knowledge, skills, and attitudes.



Technology is in a constant state of advancement; we have advanced from slates to calculators and other useful tools. Technology has worked well to reduce the time spent in carrying out multiple tasks as well as increased efficiency in the home with the use of vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens, online banking and bill payment options and other modern facilities. It is no wonder then that advocates for technology use in schools have so many high hopes for its success in the education system.

Technology is truly beneficial to the education process. It is not just for the furtherance or continuation of the education system, but is useful for the transformation of learners and all persons involved in the education system. Recent technology tools have really managed to take learning to the next level. These tools are capable of assisting learners in the collection and analysis of data. They help learners release unlimited potentials that they may not have known that they possess. The process has only begun, but as more persons interact with the technology and become aware of its inescapable liberating and inspiring potential, they will be forced to deregulate their current practice, eradicate their inhibitions and incorporate technological tools and devices.

Foundations of student-centered, technology-enhanced learning environments

Image from The foundations and assumptions of technology-enhanced student-centered learning environments, Hannafin & Land, 2004

TELEs that are designed to support student-centered learning are rooted in five foundations: psychological, pedagogical, technological, cultural, and pragmatic (Hannafin & Land, 1997).


Scaffolding off of Piaget (1952) and Vygotsky (1978), student-centred learning environments advocate that learning occurs through environmental interactions in which an individual constructs meaning internally i.e., learning is not an external truth to be found.


The learner must engage with their learning (i.e., environment) not only in a manner that connects to their prior knowledge but also utilizes technological resources in an applicable and constructivist approach. This model encourages environments which promote sampling, discovering, manipulating, and investigating (Hannafin & Land, 1997).


Technology enables learners to adapt, modify, and extend their learning in dynamic contextualized possibilities. Students have the ability (through new technologies) to experience abstract concepts in applicable and often easily accessible formats. In turn, learners acquire deeper knowledge, skills, and attitudes regarding the topic of discovery.


By and large, the culture of any given TELE is representative of its culture of origin. Whether this is a school’s culture, school district, community, or nation all environments are embedded with cultural norms and mores. Therefore, recognizing that student-centred technological environments also espouse changes in theory, pedagogy, and technology is an ongoing reflective process.


Educators recognize the importance of having a flexible curriculum, resources, and assessment and evaluation tools at hand. Student-centred learning environments also value the ability to be malleable. Construction of knowledge, skills, and attitudes is a uniquely subjective and internalized process. Therefore, any learning environment must be able to adapt to its learners in order to optimize engagement and ultimately lead to the acquisition of the aforementioned knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

TELEs and scaffolding

In order to have a successful student-centered, technology-enhanced learning environment, students must have the proper support in order to achieve “what is beyond their ability to accomplish independently” (Kim and Hannafin, 2011). Scaffolding provides such a support and allows students to learn within their zone of proximal development. Once the student has become more capable, the external support that scaffolding provides can lessen and instead the student can rely on internal support.

Hill and Hannafin (2001) classify TELE scaffolds for student-centered learning into four types:

Conceptual scaffolds

Conceptual scaffolds allow learners to make connections between concepts and visualize and prioritize what is important. Conceptual scaffolds can be teacher-generated or learner-generated. In a technology-enhanced learning environment, conceptual scaffolds allow learners to…

Metacognitive scaffolds

Metacognitive scaffolds provide a support for learners to evaluate, assess and reflect on their current knowledge and what to do as they learn.

Procedural scaffolds

Procedural scaffolds assist learners in utilizing resources in order to maximize productivity. This can be in the form of navigational maps found on Web pages, frequently asked questions (FAQs), and trouble-shooting functions built into software.

Strategic scaffolds

Strategic scaffolds provide the learner with an alternative method to carrying out a task. Such scaffolds can provide the learner with an expert to suggest the next step in their learning, or providing the learner with a collaborative environment where they can pose questions that will be answered by others.

Scaffolding Foci Representative TELE Features
Appropriateness of task/problems Capturing stimulating issues in science topics in WISE; Presenting controversial issues in SCOPE
Questioning & Problematizing Simulations, visualization, and 3D models (e.g., Virtual Solar System, Model-it)
Assistance of internalization, independence, and generalization to other contexts Different types of "advisors" in SCI-WISE; Text-based questions; Classified "activities" in WISE
Collaboration & Discussion Synchronous & asynchronous group discussion
Engagement in ongoing assessment Online knowledge communities (SCILE, SCOPE, MediaMOO)

Scaffolding foci and examples provided from Kim and Hannafin (2011)

Examples of student-centered TELE designs

Goal-based scenarios

Goal-based scenarios (GBS) are a learn-by-doing problem that presents an interesting, definable goal and in which the specific learning that must occur takes place during an authentic activity. The emphasis must be placed on a skillful goal to which a student can master, rather than a skill that must be learned (Schank, et al. 1993/1994).

Components of a GBS

The component of a GBS consists of a mission context and a mission structure (Schank, et al. 1993/1994). The mission context lays out the theme of the GBS, including the specific goal of interest as well as the premise behind the mission. For example, a GBS mission could be running a lemonade stand, which could include a cover story of choosing product pricing, what types of advertising would be used, competition in the area, and the types of customers that would be enticed.

The components of a GBS and their organization (Schank, et al. 1993/1994)

The mission structure is the student’s “plan” to achieve the mission. The student would create a plan that would directly address the mission context and cover story, and lead the student to successfully complete the mission. This could involve specified tasks that involve designing, discovery, explanation, and control, and would be fulfilled using various actions by the student such as writing text, drawing pictures, or engaging in conversation.

GBS design criteria (Schank, et al. 1993/1994)

  1. Thematic coherence: the theme of the GBS must be consistent with the goal itself
  2. Realism/richness: the GBS must be realistic and have enough variation to be perceived as relevant and interesting.
  3. Control/empowerment: the GBS must allow the student to have control over the successful completion of the goal.
  4. Challenge consistency: the effort required by the student to carry out the process leading towards goal completion must be of consistent difficulty.
  5. Responsiveness: a GBS must provide useful and prompt information/feedback.
  6. Pedagogical goal support: the GBS must not lose sight of the intended skills that are to be learned.
  7. Pedagogical goal resources: the GBS must provide adequate resources (video tutorials, instructions, prompts, guides) to support the intended learning goal.

Examples of TELE goal-based scenarios

  • SimCity: simulation game that immerses the player in an environment where they accomplish a pre-defined goal to earn achievements.
  • “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?”: simulation game that takes players around the world, with the end goal of solving the mystery of where Carmen Sandiego is located.

Problem-based Learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) provides a collaborative working environment in which students learn by resolving a realistic problem under the guidance of a teacher. PBL environments require students to solve problems and reflect on their process, guiding students to become active learners in a student-centered environment. The role of the teacher in a PBL environment is one of a facilitator and guide rather than a presenter of information. This mode of learning has been most widely utilized by the medical education field in providing complex patient case histories to act as realistic scenarios for students to “align problem-solving approaches with those used in clinical practice” (Allen, et al. 2011).

The problem-based learning cycle (Hmelo-Silver, 2004)

Goals of PBL (Hmelo-Silver, 2004)

  1. Construct an extensive and flexible knowledge base
  2. Develop effective problem-solving skills
  3. Develop self-direction, lifelong learning skills
  4. Become effective collaborators
  5. Become intrinsically motivated to learn

Characteristics of TELEs

Suggestions for classroom implementation of TELE with a student-centered focus

Adapted from Shapiro, Roskos, and Cartwright (1995) & Rogers (2002)

Technology and physical environment

  • Classroom design: Be aware of the intended use of instructional spaces. Do you want to encourage small-group learning, large-group learning, or collaborative learning?
  • Pod Design: Plan for ample table space and physical arrangements to encourage small-group work and collaborative learning

Technology equipment

  • Essentiality of Connectivity: Ideally, each student in the class would have access to a technology device (i.e. laptop, ePC, tablet, iPad, etc.), as well as have access to a high-speed WiFi Internet network.
  • Technical Support: Provide human resources to initiate and maintain technology-enhanced teaching activities
  • Presentation Equipment: Use of SMART Boards, document cameras, projection equipment to maximize visibility of technology images.

Technology and instructional strategies

  • Teaching Tools: These include strategies and methods to support teaching and to facilitate learning through technology.
  • Learning Tools: Technology used in the classroom allows for an external outlet for students’ internalized learning tools (such as self-efficacy, internal motivation and predicted success).

Arguments to support student-centered TELEs

Technology according to Ginsbury (1999) is of benefit to both the instructors and learners. She believes that: technology including the Internet and spreadsheet, database modeling and simulation software has made it easier for instructors to envision new ways to study traditional subjects. These tools support activities in which learners collect or analyze real world data, make observations, investigate relationships and ask ‘what if’ questions (p. 14).

Beldarrain (2006) seem to echo the same sentiments in relation to the beneficial factors of technology in education in her statement that expresses her belief that by using technology in education we can “accommodate the needs of the 21st century learner by including activities that allow students to contribute to the learning process at any time from anywhere; [they] may take on the role of instructor by sharing expertise, presenting sections of the course content, and using the file-sharing capabilities to share documents with the instructor or peers” (p. 154).

According to Frick, technology is also beneficial in terms of the student-content relationship. He believes that with the use of technology students would be actively engaged in the learning process through their interaction with the technology-mediated learning materials (see below). These materials he says afford the students unlimited opportunities to communicate and be provided with immediate feedback (1991).

Frick opines that by interacting with the content through the use of technology: students would have more control over the pace of their learning and spend as much time as needed to master particular learning objectives. The decision of when to move on to subsequent objectives would not be determined by the average group achievement but rather by the individual student's progress. Students actively engaged with content and experiencing success with it would be more enthusiastic about the subject matter they are studying. Finally, when the content is technology mediated, it becomes possible to present it more dynamically in aural and visual modalities using interactive video (Frick, 2001, para).

Assumptions, challenges, and implications of TELEs

  • Student-centered technology environments have allowed for open learning environments whereby technology tools are used to shift the cognitive process from an external to an internal locus. In this type of environment, students are encouraged to assume a responsibility for establishing their own learning goals or learning means. However, this shift has proven difficult for students who lack the required self-regulation skills necessary to make TELEs successful (Hannafin and Hannafin, 2010). Technology tools in the classroom allow students the ability to work at their own pace, but some students struggle to engaging and interact positively with the tool.
  • It is possible that a students’ familiarity with technology can impact their learning success. Students who are familiar with their mode of technology (i.e. tablet, PC, laptop, SMART Board) as well as their chosen application or software (i.e. Edublogs, wiki, Microsoft Powerpoint, Educreations, etc.) are more likely to succeed and expand upon their previous knowledge (Hannafin and Hannafin, 2010). Similarly, students who are familiar with navigating and analyzing web-based resources and information are more likely to positively impact their learning. It is important that students are able to detect reliable, accurate information on the web.
  • In collaborative TELEs, the individual differences amongst students and their levels of inquiry will influence the quality of peer interactions (Kim and Hannafin, 2011). Just as any collaborative task, one must consider the deficiencies, as well as the strengths, of group members. It cannot be assumed that all students are able to adequately research, observe, analyze, and perform when it comes to technology tools or information.
  • It is assumed that in order for a student-centered TELE to be successful, that the teacher has an extensive knowledge of the different types of technology tools that are out there. Teachers lacking an awareness of technology resources will struggle to “promote student-centered learning using technology” (Kim and Hannafin, 2011). Therefore, the need for teacher training using technologies in the classroom is important in order to support the technology-enhanced learning environment infrastructure.
  • Some researchers suggest that instead of cultivating problem-solving and inquiry-based skills, they are instead hindering them by providing clear and concise steps to solve a problem. Instead of facilitating an inquiry, they are instead simply asking students to complying with directions.
  • Use of the Internet as an information tool in the classroom can sometimes prove to be an overwhelming supply of information for the student-centered environment. Students can become inundated by the vast quantity of information and demand for superior research skills, which can threaten their success and motivation to learn (Ip and Naidu, 2001).
  • Most schools are governed by federal/provincial standards that emphasize breadth over depth, while TELEs emphasize depth over breadth (Hill and Hannafin, 2001). For example, TELEs provide students with an environment whereby learning is ongoing, collaborative, and may not necessarily be defined by the traditional summative assessments. TELEs also support wide-ranging learning strategies and diverse perspectives (i.e. non linear). In order for TELEs to be successful, school officials must understand that using many diverse, non-traditional teaching tools will still allow students to achieve the same results.

Technology-mediated learning materials


  • Physlets: A Java applet for physics that allows students to program and visualize a particular physics problem. Site provides Java tutorials, instructions, and example problems to get you started.
  • Professor Why: Provides a self-learning environment for biology, chemistry and physics. Available for desktop or mobile platforms.
  • WISE (Web-based Inquiry Science Environment): Provides various research-based biology, chemistry and physics projects whereby students navigate, explore, observe, experiment, reflect, and self-monitor student progress. WISE is completely FREE.
  • Virtual Solar System: Allows an interactive exploration of the solar system. Students can explore the orbits, surfaces, structure, and facts about each of the planets.
  • SCI-WISE: A scientist-generated online knowledge base that allows scientists to collaborate and contribute to expertly written, community-ranked definition articles. Site provides concept maps, articles, and definitions for physics, and is currently beta-testing the life sciences portion.
  • Gravit: A gravity simulator that allows students to create and visualize simulated universes. Gravit is FREE, and only available for Windows.


  • Peacemaker: Simulation game that depicts the Israel-Palestinian conflict to promote dialog and understanding. Designed for FREE download for Mac/Windows.

Community and social

  • Capitalism: A business simulation game where the player runs a business and aims to be the most profitable business in the world.
  • Civilization: A strategy game where the player builds an empire that can stand the test of time. Available for Windows or console.
  • Oregon Trail: Game designed to lead the player through 19th century pioneer life. Available for Windows, console, iPhone/Facebook (app).
  • SimCity: Simulation game that allows players to assume an avatar and complete tasks to earn achievements. Available for Windows and Mac.

Physical Education

  • IntelliGym: Designed for athletes to improve cognitive skills associated with performance. Designed for Mac, Windows, Linux.


  • Ship Simulator: A game that simulates maneuvering ships in different environments. Designed for Windows.


  • Word Munchers: Educational game designed to teach basic grammar skills.


  • Lemonade Stand: An online mathematics/economics game that has the player choose lemonade pricing and advertising in order to maximize success of the enterprise.
  • [Blaster]: Game leads school-aged children through space while improving math skills. Available for Windows/Mac, iPad/iPhone, and Android devices.
  • DrGeo: Design and manipulate geometric sketches. Available for Windows, Mac, Andriod, iPad.


  • EarMaster: Software for music students to develop ear training, sight-singing and rhythm. Available for purchase on Windows and Mac.
  • MuseScore: Music composition and notation software. Available FREE for Windows, Mac and Linux.
  • Mapping Tonal Harmony Pro: App designed to assist composers to use chords and interpret teir harmonic functions. Available for iPhone/iPad, Android.


  • Logo: Turtle graphics that introduce users to the basics of programming. Available free online.
  • RoboMind: Software that allows the development of logic, programming skills, and computer science knowledge. Available online (30-day free trial).
  • Delta Drawing Today: An early turtle graphics program intended to use programming language to execute scripted drawing and painting prompts.
  • Robots and Coding - Stop Motion: A Stop Motion video showing how Robots and Coding can be used to enhance learning environments. Created by Scott Skanes for ETEC510.


  • Explore Learning Gizmos
  • WorldWatcher

See Also

Problem-based learning


Simulation in the Humanities Classroom

[for Science Education]

[for Science Dissections]

Simulations for Social Change

[Simulations for the Science Classroom]

Real-world Applications of Simulations

External Links

  • WISE Official Website
  • Logo on the Turtle Academy site


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