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Computers And Education


Teaching is about a relationship of people appropriate to discovery of the student. Just as we were fools to think we could use television to replace teachers we were fools to think that computers would dramatically change

Two Paradigms for Computers in Education

In the late 1980s and early 1990s we thought we could automate aspects of education and use computers to replace teaching. Now we know that the best use of computers is to extend the reach of teaching and learning. The changes in how we think about computers in education parallel how computing has changed. When Turing wrote ???? he suggested that we could have artificial intelligences able to interact with other people in ways indistinguishable from how humans interact with us. The promise of AI was that it could replace human intelligence in interactions. It hasn't worked and probably won't. Computing, however, moved on to a paradigm as old as Turing which is that of the machine as an extension rather than replacement. Our graphical user interfaces - the desktop are one of the outcomes of a vision of information technology that looks at how we can help humans interact rather than replace them. The short story about computers in education is that they have worked where we used them to extend the reach of teachers and learners and they haven't worked when we tried to go cheap and replace teachers. Lets look at what really gets used:

  1. Drill (and kill) software
  2. Computers in the administration of education
  3. Course management systems (CMS)
  4. Communications technologies
  5. Simulations

Powerpoint and the Coffeehouse

What happens when we confuse the forms of education with the goals?

One big debate on campus is what to do about all the students fiddling on their laptops while we lecture. There is a temptation to want to force students to pay attention, to ban laptops or at least turn off the wireless so they can't message each other. Strangely at academic conferences things are going the other direction. I love to have my laptop open when I listen to lectures. I can follow references. I can answer e-mail. I can do all the things I don't want my students to do. With Twitter we now have guerilla chatting about talks happening while the talk is boring us. To be honest not having a laptop didn't make much of a difference when I was an undergraduate. We all learned how to cope to those parts of the lectures that were boring or obvious. We doodled, we passed messages, we wrote letters to lovers, we read for other classes and so on. The real problem is the lecture which is generally considered the best way to get information from a prof into a student's notebook without it sticking anywhere in between (or making a difference later.) The lecture, when it becomes the only way students hear from professors, is an insult to their learning. It is an admission that we can't afford to develop personal relationships where we could learn their names and actually respond to students as individuals. The anonymity of the lecture is the price we pay for trying to teach students in large batches cheaply. Messaging or playing games on their laptops is their response to our insult. Why should students pay attention when we don't.

This is not to say that there is no place for the lecture. It is only to say that the lecture is one of the least effective ways to develop a relationship of discovery with the student as a unique individual.

And Power Point?, as Edward Tufte has pointed out, doesn't help much. The cognitive style of Power Point is that of a military parade where ideas are lined up and cross the stands in batches to the sound of trumpets. You take a complex idea with all the hairball of connections and you iron it out into slides with three to five points each and then you march them past the students hoping they will someone reconstitute the complex from the marching points. Then we are surprised that students can't synthesize ideas we have taken out of synthesis in order to make them pointless?

Of course, I use Power Point, but after Tufte I would like to think about how else I could organize complex ideas and think through them with students. A Power Point deck is not the end of learning nor does it replace the explanation and discussion.

The problem, of course, is not lectures or Power Point. They have their place. The problem is that universities have slowly been trying to teach more and more students with fewer and fewer faculty. We all know how funding per student has steadily dropped to the point where the relationships we had with professors who knew us just don't happen to all but the most aggressive students. The univesity, like the toad in warming water, adapts by shifting around and looking to technology for salvation. The technology companies tell us success stories through breathless venues like the Edu Cause? Review. We tell ourself about the exceptional innovations that might scale out into a solution and we have been doing this now for decades. What we ignore are the raw statistics of student/faculty ratios or class sizes. Magical thinking inspired by all the projects people like I have worked on blind us to all the courses that are too big and how few chances a student has to get to know us.

The best way to see the disparity is to look at how the wealthy American liberal arts colleges present themselves. Unconstrained by tuition limits and provincial funding they advertise their student-faculty ratios, class sizes and special relationships. Take Swarthmore College, on their Academics page they start with:

At the heart of Swarthmore's academic experience is the special relationship that exists between students intelligent, well-prepared, imaginative, and highly motivated and the faculty with whom they work in and out of the classroom.
It's enormously exhilarating to teach Swarthmore students, who are uncommonly bright and willing to take chances and ask questions. And the College's small size and 8:1 student-faculty ratio make it an ideal setting for faculty to get to know students well and become their intellectual mentors.
This begins in First-Year seminars, which are designed to give entering students an immediate opportunity to engage in intensive discussion on a lively array of topics (in groups of no more than 12), in order to develop the skills needed for constructive participation and effective communication.

Now try to find such information on the web site of your favorite Canadian University.

What is amazing is what a good education students are getting despite the underinvestment. Students do learn, often from each other, but it is not thanks to technology. It is thanks to their interaction with each other, their motivation, and the quality of what they do get.

Learning to Sketch

Perhaps the greatest danger I see in the use of computers in education is their use too early or their use alone. I'll give an example from my field, multimedia. A good graphic designer doesn't sit down to photoshop to work up ideas for a web site. They start by sketching and Photoshop is not a good sketching tool. A pencil and a really big piece of paper is a good sketching tool. The problem I have been a part of is forcing students to professionalize their work before they learned to think it through. A designer needs to be able to both sketch ideas quickly and then take some through to professional completion.

Gaming the System

So how could we use computers in education? Well, everyone is convinced that games and simulations are the way. The promise is that if we could just make learning as fun as World of Warcraft then learning would just happen. While there is some truth to this I doubt we will ever see serious learning games that are competitive with entertainment games. There are a number of reasons to be skeptical about games in education:

  1. The computer games that our students find attractive are just that, "games". As game theorists will tell you, the nature of play is that it is voluntary and that it is separated from everyday concerns. People play to get away from the stress of work. The moment you make a game, no matter how attractive, a requirement of a course, then you it become work and loses its playfulness.
  2. The computer games we are trying to emulate cost hundreds of millions to make and rarely have a shelf-life of more than five years. We simply can't afford to make serious games for everything our students need to learn. More importantly that money could be spent better - on good teachers and very small classes where the oldest game in the polis is used to individually challenge students to learn - conversation. We should try gossip ... it works. The only way to make gaming work economically would be to do it on a very large scale and that would probably meant that MIT writes all our curriculum and the rest of us just mark the assignments. For that matter we can probably get decent marking cheaper from India where they have plenty well educated people capable of marking essays, even in English.
  3. It hasn't really worked and people have been trying.

Beyond Productivity

When I tried the argument against games for learning on my colleague Kevin Kee at Brock he describes how he has taught students to develop games that model knowledge and that is the answer. Where gaming works is when you ask students to try to create a game, even a paper, pencil and imagination game. To create a game about some phenomena like trout in a lake you have to model a system. To do that you have to ask what is known about trout populations, predators, their environment, their reproduction, their food supply. All of sudden you have "problem based learning" where the problems of creating a believable and accurate simulation challenge students to seek out information, simplify it, and then re-present it in a way that is accessible.

The Multimedia programme at Mc Master? was developed along the same lines - that the best way to teach using computers was to give students the skills to express themselves with computers. And we aren't the only ones. A report by the American Counci of ??? called "Beyond Productivity" argues that the sweet spot in computing is at the intersection of creative practices and information technology. The economic growth is in areas like computer games, digital video, electronic music, and digital imaging. The US (and by implication Canada) need people who can creatively use technology not drones who have been squeezed through tutorials. Computer game companies like Ubisoft, Silicon Knights, EA, and Bioware need people who can be creative with computing. All the successful businesses of the Web 2.0 rebound have been companies that creatively deployed already developed technology to social ends. Facebook is not really new technology, it is a new use of technology that is persuasive and that lets people express themselves.

The University and Computing

Alas the university, organized as it is along 18th century lines that separate engineering from art has struggled with these emerging hot spots that straddle our silos. Computer science, for that matter, is hardly a science, at least to the students who study it to get jobs programming. The colleges like Sheridan were able to respond far faster to the need of what MIT's Jenkins calls participatory culture where youth expect to participate in the creation of culture rather than just admire it. Colleges responded by rapidly developing animation programs, web design programs, graphic design programs and electronic music programs. For all sorts of reasons universities have lagged behind trying to post-modernize while cutting faculty. Its obvious why we would be tempted to use computers to teach all sorts of subjects, but it is also clear why it didn't work, will probably never work, and why we should return to the idea of the university as a place for shaping the mind rather than furnishing it through multiple-choice quizzes computerized under the banner of innovation. No, the university should be a place, even a virtual place, that is open to relationships of discovery including the discovery of computing.



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