Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
The article below is a well written statement on the factors to
consider deciding on the role of technology in teaching and learning.
It is the tenth posting in a series of selected excerpts from the
National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as
part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of
information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not
already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/]
The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers
subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of
helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National
Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, March 2001, Volume 10, Number
3. ? Copyright 1996-2001. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction
with James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights
reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.
UP NEXT: Teaching at its Best
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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DO I DARE? IS IT PRUDENT?
University of Iowa
. . . in the winter of 1813-1814 . . . I attended a mathematical school
kept in Boston . . . on entering his room, we were struck at the
appearance of an ample Blackboard suspended on the wall, with lumps
of chalk on a ledge below, and cloths hanging at either side. I had
never heard of such a thing before.
--May, 1866, cited in
As it turned out, Mr. May went on to introduce the blackboard into wide
use throughout the Common Schools of Massachusetts. But how did he,
or any teacher, decide that a blackboard was a worthwhile piece of new
technology to incorporate into the teaching/learning process? I don't know
the answer to that specific question, and so far as I have found, the debates
(if there were any) about the adoption of the blackboard have been lost to
Today's generation of faculty members faces decisions about a different set
of technologies. Many of us are still making decisions about the role that
computers and the Internet will play in our teaching and our students'
learning. How can we make those decisions wisely?
You Say You Want a Revolution?
If I had a quarter for every time I've read about how the Internet is
revolutionizing an industry, I'd be able to buy a Power Mac G4 Cube and
a 22-inch Apple Cinema display. If I only got a quarter for every time I've
read about how the Internet is revolutionizing higher education, I could
probably still buy a Cube, but maybe with the 15-inch display.
It's true. The Internet is revolutionizing higher education. But that's not
the same thing as saying that the Internet is revolutionizing learning. It
I imagine that the Internet may have profound effects on who learns, who
teaches, where teaching and learning take place, how much higher
education costs and a host of other issues. Those changes are probably
profound, and thus, it is entirely possible that the Internet will
radically reshape higher education.
What the Internet won't change is the nature of human cognition and
social interaction--and therefore of learning. Study after study (see Clark,
1983, for examples) has demonstrated that the medium of instruction has
little if any effect on the nature or amount of learning that takes place.
So, the Internet will, on the one hand, change everything and, on the other
hand, change nothing. I think faculty members have to hold both of these
perspectives, though not necessarily at the same time.
When we are thinking about (and worrying about) the future of higher
education, or when we are working to shape that future, the fact that the
Internet may change everything should be uppermost on our minds. Those
changes are likely to be gradual, structural, and systemic, and it would be a
shame if faculty members defaulted on their role in shaping them. On the
other hand, we faculty members teach within today's system, and the
structural changes that may come offer little guidance in deciding how to
use technology today to help our students learn.
When Is a Non-revolution a Revolution?
So I don't think that faculty members should try to make decisions about
technology adoptions based on expectations about the ways a particular
technology may revolutionize learning. Instead, I suggest we direct our
attention to a much more mundane perspective: How can a candidate
technology increase the efficiency with which I and my students do what
we need to do to promote learning right now? Though I've labeled the
question mundane, the answer may be revolutionary--revolutionary at
the scale we faculty members usually live: the individual course or
chunk of the curriculum.
"Efficiency" carries with it ugly connotations of industrialization and "bean
counting." Generically, though, efficiency refers to the ratio of output to
input, and in the context of teaching and learning, I'm using the word to
refer to how much learning we can provoke from a given level of effort on
the part of the teacher and the learner.
Here's why efficiency is so important. Over the long haul, we are not likely
to see extravagantly more effort on the part of our students. Neither are
we, their teachers, likely to be able to devote a lot more effort to our
teaching than we already are. If effort is a relatively fixed
quantity, the only
route to improved learning is efficiency.
The value of efficiency is even greater than the value found in working
smarter at what we already do. It also lies in being able to do new things
without much additional effort. All along there have been learning activities
we would like to have seen our students engage in, but they simply
weren't feasible with the amount of effort available. A technology that
makes them possible with an achievable level of effort spells the difference
between the presence of those features in our classes and their
absence. And that's where the revolution comes in. Suddenly, we are
able to offer our students learning opportunities that we couldn't
Suppose, for example, that you had always wanted students to
experience some sort of guided conversation with students in a far-
off land who are enrolled in a similar course. Before the Internet
was widely available this was theoretically possible, but for most of
us it was, as a practical matter, impossible (telephone? fly to the
far-off land?). On the other hand, exchanging email or participating
in a chat room now seems straightforward, and videoconferencing over
IP will be common soon.
Or perhaps you wanted students to assemble data from public sources
and analyze those data in order to address a course-related question.
Again, it was theoretically possible, but so logistically difficult
(copy out of a printed volume and analyze with a desk calculator?)
that it wasn't going to happen. Again, the Internet (download data
from a well-documented web site and analyze them in a spreadsheet)
makes the assignment feasible.
Time on the Real Task
Efficiency, by the way, is important even when it doesn't create a
new opportunity. Good practice in undergraduate education emphasizes
on task (Chickering and Gamson, 1987). But what task? Back in the
days when students drafted papers with pens on paper and then typed
them up, the typing was not a component of the assignment that led to
much in the way of learning. Similarly, walking to the library and
searching through volume after volume of some printed periodical
index had little to do with learning (however character building it
may have been). Nevertheless, the time spent typing, walking, and
(inefficiently) searching all consumed time from a fixed pool of time
a student could allocate to the project. Today's technologies can
increase students' effective time on task by reducing the amount of
time they spend on task components from which they learn little or
Efficiency at What?
Doing low value activities efficiently isn't a particularly worthy
goal. To adopt a technology wisely we have to have reasonable
expectation that the technology will facilitate an important learning
activity. One straightforward way to think about the issue is in
terms of the triads that the Flashlight model of the TLT group (e.g.,
Ehrman, 2000) uses. A triad consists of an education goal (in this
context, I would say a desired learning outcome), an activity (what
students will do) and a technology that facilitates that activity.
Consider a simple and rather traditional case. The instructor of a
survey course wants students to be able to use appropriate
terminology and apply each of several theories to the analysis of
particular problems. Students will read a textbook to learn the terms
and theories. In order to both monitor and encourage textbook
reading, the instructor may want to administer low stakes weekly
quizzes. If the class is large, administering even a brief quiz may
take as much as 20 minutes, or something like 13% of the week's class
time for a course
I know some teachers who, faced with this situation, have chosen to
administer the quiz on computers. Students take the quiz outside of
class, and those 20 minutes in class can be used for other purposes.
Equally important, because the scores are generated, recorded, and
reported automatically, the teacher saves considerable time each
week. That time can be put to more productive use.
Fools Rush In
Even when we identify a worthwhile learning goal, a student activity
that will support that goal, and a technology that will increase the
efficiency of its pursuit, questions remain--let's call them economic
questions. Before implementing an attractive technology in our
teaching, we need to
consider costs in two broad categories.
First we need to ask what it will "cost" to get started with a particular
technological innovation. Some of these costs might be monetary (buying
software or hardware, for example) and those will often be both obvious
and difficult to fund. Sometimes a true "off the shelf" solution is available
and these monetary costs are the main costs of the project.
Much, much more commonly though, the main costs will be
someone's--usually the faculty member's--time. These costs are often
unaccounted for and overlooked. I don't fill out a time sheet showing
how many hours of my work are to be billed, for example, to each
class I teach (and I don't want to!), but the fact of the matter is
that my time is usually the limiting factor in what I can accomplish
as a teacher. Assigning a monetary value to my time doesn't do much
to help my decision-making. I can, however, consider the opportunity
cost associated with implementing a particular learning technology.
That is, I can, and should, ask what else I could be doing with my
time if I weren't implementing this learning
These up-front costs are only part of the cost side of the equation. I also
need to think about the continuing costs associated with the project.
Again, some of these may be monetary (e.g., license renewals), but
usually the opportunity cost associated with my time will be the
deciding factor. If
maintaining a web site takes so much time that I can't give students
prompt feedback on their work, that web site may not be a good idea.
These two categories of costs (initial and ongoing) interact. I may
tolerate very substantial start-up costs if the ongoing costs will be
low. This is akin
to paying more for a high-efficiency furnace because of the ongoing
savings I expect.
Still, my habit of continually tweaking and tinkering with a new solution is
an ongoing cost. Does it have any justification? Some. We faculty
have a lot more experimenting to do before we know as much about how
to use the Internet as we do about how to use blackboards. Even if my
tweaking isn't justified by the learning of my current students it
might be valuable (particularly if I share my experience with
others), in shaping our future as teachers and learners.
I know of a number of ways in which blackboards can make my teaching
and my students' learning more efficient, so the blackboard is a
candidate technology. In today's environment, the cost of adoption of
the blackboard is pretty low. They're relatively inexpensive to
install and last a long time. My investment in developing instruction
that uses a blackboard isn't at serious risk from changing standards.
Although I have to be a little bit concerned about the possibility
that blackboards will go away, I've thought some about the migration
issues to, for example, document cameras, and I think they are
manageable. So next semester, I'll be using a blackboard.
If only my decisions about computers and the Internet were so straightforward.
Clark, R. E. (1983). "Reconsidering Research on Learning from Media." Review of
Research in Education, 53 (4), pp. 445-459.