The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in human history - with the possible exceptions of handguns and tequila.....  ...Mitch Ratliffe.
Commentary of the Day - March 12, 2000: The Uncertain Promise of Technology in Teaching:
As we approach the 21st century (yes it will begin on January 1, 2001), we realize that the 20th century has been the age of technological innovation.  Many of these innovations (moving pictures, radio, television, computers, and the Internet) have greatly enhanced our ability to acquire and manipulate information.  So it is natural that those involved in teaching and in training teachers would attempt to make use of these technologies.  As each new technology has developed, some in the profession (the "early adopters") have looked at each new innovation as having the potential to revolutionize teaching and learning.

Those in the Irascible Professor's generation probably recall the claims that television was going to revolutionize education.  However, the reality has been far less than the promise.  If anything, the pervasive influence of television has lowered the educational attainment of the average citizen.  While television has given us virtually unlimited and instantaneous access to events as they happen, it also has dimmed our reflective and critical facilities.  Scores of channels of "information" compete for our attention with the result that our attention span has become limited.  We have become more and more accepting of the short  "sound bite" and the limited "visual" clip.  News has gone from the "news in depth" of the newspapers to the "news light" of television.  As readership has declined, many newspapers have attempted to emulate the "news light" of television.  The prime example of this, of course, is USA Today.

As computers have become more powerful and less expensive and as more classrooms have been connected to the Internet, the push to use this technology in teaching has become almost inexorable.  The Irascible Professor would be the first to admit that these days every student needs to have some degree of computer literacy.  What he is not willing to admit is that students learn basic subjects any more effectively through the use of computers.

As an example, here at Krispy Kreme U. one of our chemistry faculty members has devoted substantial effort to the development of software for teaching introductory chemistry.  The software that has come out of this project is superb - probably the best of its kind in existence.  Our chemistry students have the option of taking either a traditional lecture format class, or they can enroll in sections that are taught in a studio classroom using computers and this software that has been specifically designed to promote an  "active learning" environment.  This experiment has been in progress now for several years.  The results have been interesting in the sense that overall there does not seem to be much difference in performance between the students who take the traditional format class and the students who take the computer-based class.

This does not mean that the use of computers in instruction has no value.  In the case just mentioned, it may well be the case that students self-select the mode of instruction that best suits their particular learning style.  Thus, both groups may actually do a little better on average than they would if only a single mode of instruction was offered.  For certain types of instruction where drill, practice and quick feedback is important, computer learning programs can be quite valuable.  In addition, in some areas the computer has become the message.  For example, in our physics department it is essential that every one of our graduates have familiarity with the use of symbolic manipulation programs such as Mathematica®.  Thus, it makes good sense to teach some of advanced courses using these programs, whether or not students learn the basic subject more effectively.

At the recent AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, DC a symposium on the use of technology in science classrooms yielded some important information.  Namely, that most of the extant research on the effectiveness technology in teaching is inconclusive.  Just as our chemistry faculty here at KKU have found, there does not seem to much difference in performance between students who learn using computer technology and those who learn in classes that do not use computers.  There is some evidence that students who learn science topics using computers are more satisfied with their experience than students who learn without computers.  Satisfaction, however, is not the same as performance.

One of the major arguments put forth in favor of computer-based instruction is that it fosters "active learning" rather than the passive learning that takes place in the traditional classroom.  However, a skilled teacher can create an active learning environment without the use of computers.

Technology certainly has a place in instruction.  The use of computers for data acquisition in laboratory courses allows instructors and students to focus on ideas rather than on the tedious process of data collection.  Likewise, computers allow students in these courses to develop a better feel for the interpretation of the data.  However, what we perhaps are beginning to realize is that computers don't produce instructional miracles.  They do not eliminate the need for both students and instructors to do the "heavy lifting" necessary to develop insight and understanding.

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