The following is the third in a set of 7 ‘The Future of Education‘ articles. It is written by Dr. Abir Qasem, an Assistant Professor of Computer Science, and Director of Academic Computing at Bridgewater College and Tanya Gupta who has worked on technology and economic development.
The blogosphere and the mainstream media is filled with success stories of technology’s successful adoption in education. However, many educators complain that when they try to introduce technological innovation on their campuses, they face obstacles.
For example, according to Boston.com, there are many schools that are Internet-free. For example, at Tufts, certain areas are kept Internet-free. At Amherst College, students are encouraged to disconnect from technology for at least 15 minutes in order to enjoy relaxing activities, while students at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester participate in a week long silent retreats during which they disconnect from technology.
There are others, such as Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT who travels around the country encouraging colleges to pull back on Internet access. This can be the case even with high schools – at the Waldorf School for instance there are no computers, no TV screens, smart boards, video cameras and other equipment that is found in many public and private schools, and it is by design and not because they lack funds.
This Washington Post article describes how professors have banned laptops from their classrooms at George Washington University, American University, the College of William and Mary and the University of Virginia, among many others.
So should the technology proponent do ? As a follow up to our previous blog which was on the similarity of ATMs and online education, here is a handy guide to some of the most common arguments made against the use of technology in education, and how to counter them:
Give me a little of that human touch
Just like that Bruce Springsteen song, most teachers believe that the human touch is essential in imparting education. Some also believe that using technology in education compromises the human factor.
Dr. Nancy Bunge from Michigan State University writes about ”Why I no longer teach online“. In her article she describes how she engaged in “online learning” by turning a part of the course over to a computer, with some degree of human interaction (i.e. she sent electronic responses to the students’ online work), which “weakened the bond” between them. (The Chronicle of Higher Education’s 2011 issue of Online Learning)
José A. Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University is removing computers from lecture halls and urging his colleagues to “teach naked” — without machines. Bowen says class time should be used for engaging discussion, something that “reliance on technology discourages.”
Dr. Bunge speaks of her “technological ineptitude” (her own words), and we think this is often a reason why many oppose technology in education. In her particular case, it seems she interpreted online education as substituting a computer for some of the classes. However using technology in education is about redesigning pedagogy by taking advantage of the available technology, and not just substituting faculty time with technology. Educating people about what education technology (including online education) is all about can address this problem
In the case of Dr. Bowen, far from technology discouraging discussion, it has been found that technology can enable engaging and open discussions. Studies have found that people in face to face groups tend to instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own, while in electronic brainstorming, individuals are emboldened and thus large groups outperform individuals; and the larger the group the better. The protection of technology mitigates many problems of group work (New York Times).
We have a personal story to share as well – Abir found that using Piazza (a Web-based discussion board) for one of his classes, actually led to the students taking charge of the discussions to the point that topics not originally on the lessons plan were tackled successfully.
In short, using technology in education does not mean that the human factor has to be compromised. Technology can enhance the human factor by automating tasks that take away from lecture time. Technology is sometimes more effective than human effort. For instance electronic grading of multiple choice questions will always be more effective than human-based grading.
Till death do us part
Perhaps the most difficult group to deal with are those who have some familiarity with technology, and have developed an unfortunate, undying bond with a particular piece of technology. For example they may like a particular course management system (CMS), and argue against any new CMS or similar innovations.
Even IT staff could be a part of this group, as many IT staff in universities think that classroom technology is the only educational technology they need to be concerned about. In many cases, education technology is interpreted as hardware (Clicker) or strictly instructional software (Prezi).
Not much attention is paid to the fact that education technology can also be technology that better helps us manage information. Even this very nice graphic of the evolution of classroom technology does not include much of information technology even though it has been around for the last two decades or so.
To address this, we need to provide examples of how the new technology works, and how it would benefit the institution. Virginia State’s Business Department, for example, thanks to an effort led by Dean Mirta Martin, piloted the use of open e-textbooks via Flat World during the 2010-11 school year. They were able to demonstrate that they could save the students more than $200,000 that year.
Open e-textbooks were piloted in nine core School of Business classes and, this year, the number went up to 16 classes. A selling point was that open source digital texts cost about $20 per text, as compared to more than $250 for some regular textbooks and can be edited/supplemented/tailored by professors (hence the word “open”). Using available facts, we need to communicate that education is ultimately an information/skills exchange and to make this exchange effective, we need to use all tools available, including hardware (Smart boards), software (Piazza), processes (upside down classroom) etc. Being a technology evangelist and demonstrating relevance can help people to understand and appreciate technology on campus.
Never good enough
Even at schools where the role of technology is recognized and respected, such as MIT, there is confidence in online education but skepticism about online education ever being comparable to face to face education. MITx’s webpage says MIT’s residential-based education is “the heart of the MIT community, and an MIT degree holds special distinction”….”MIT believes firmly in the residential model of education”.
In fact online education is seen as (1) an opportunity to improve the experience of traditional, residential MIT students and (2) lower the existing barriers between residential campuses and the learners around the world. There is no acknowledgement that online education is a response to the fact that, well, traditional classroom education may well be on its way out.
Educators in this situation may want to prepare their universities for the eventuality that the university, as we know it today, may go away. To do so, they can talk about the experience of Sebastian Thrum who said that when he and Peter Norwig offered their class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to the world online, free of charge , “Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined.
This one class had more educational impact than my entire career…Now that I have seen the true power of education, there is no turning back…..I am determined to help bring education to everyone out there”. The biggest selling point of technology, and in this case, online education, is that colleges can expand their market from hundreds and thousands to millions. In such a case, it may make sense to invest funds to prepare for a world where online education may take precedence over face to face, and even MIT may have to do so, soon.
If nothing else works, educators may wish to quote Transforming American Education National Education Technology Plan 2010 (U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology) which describes the technology challenge well:
“The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students’ daily lives and the reality of their futures. In contrast to traditional classroom instruction, this requires that we put students at the center and empower them to take control of their own learning by providing flexibility on several dimensions….Technology should be leveraged to provide access to more learning resources than are available in classrooms and connections to a wider set of “educators,” including teachers, parents, experts, and mentors outside the classroom….enable 24/7 and lifelong learning”
When we learn a new skill, we do not doubt that we need special training in that skill. For instance we would not fly a plane without taking flight lessons. Similarly we need training to ensure that we know how to integrate technology into the classroom Technology is not an end in itself, but rather a means by which learning outcomes can be improved. Hence educators must be able to understand technology and the usefulness/relevance of that technology. If either of these two do not happen, technology will be seen as an obstruction to, rather than a catalyst in the learning process.
With the above, we hope you will be able to convince the techno-conservatives into seeing the transforming power of technology in higher education.