Technology – one piece of a puzzle

A recent post, “A Plea for “Close Learning”, by Dr. Newstok has caught my attention. Dr. Newstok’s post talked about technology in classroom, or more specifically the recent boom of massive open online courses (MOOC). MOOCs, as many technologies before, are perceived to have a potential to bring first-rate education to a greater number of people. A sincerely positive democratic goal. But this post raises the question – will this technology be something more than just a “content delivery system”?

The argument presented is valid. We cannot fixate solely upon technology, develop technology for technology’s sake, or think that technology can overcome some crucial human factors (e.g., bad teaching). Dr. Newstok goes further and reminds us of the importance of close interaction in the process of learning – “laborious, time-consuming, and costly but irreplaceable proximity between teacher and student”. And I agree with this point. Learning and inquiry often have best chances to happen in the “old-fashioned” Socratic seminar, where students have to think and consider different perspectives in interaction.

This devotion to close learning, or better learning in general, is not an anti-technology attitude. It is a call that we should not forget what the goal of education is. And that we should not forget that proper learning does not just happen without interaction. Here I would go even a step further, and claim that proper learning is hard – in a sense that it requires effort – the effort that results in learner’s development. And we need to accept that fact. Trying to make it easy should not be the main goal, but just one of the sub-goals of the attempts to make the education better.

In these attempts of improving education, we should not forget that transferring some knowledge is positive in itself. I recall an example of one professor at one university in U.S., who was very popular among his students.  A lot of people told me that I should go and attend one of this classes. His class was called something along the lines of Regions of the World, and the official course description was teaching college students “Human and physical patterns of major regions of the world. Concepts and perspectives of geography as a social science; linkages and interdependence of nations and regions.” I knew this will be an important and challenging task in educating college students, knowing that an average high school student in U.S. does not receive broad education about the world.

So I first looked at the book, and talked about the curriculum with several students. The book was developed as a comic, depicting all the world’s regions, and major events in the very recent past. Course had online lectures, online quizzes, invited speakers, and many other technological improvements. So my first impression was positive, since I was that this professor is putting some additional effort to develop his course beyond the conventional “ex cathedra” lecture. Then, I went to one of the lectures. My sample might be limited, but this lecture left me with a bitter impression. And the pieces of the puzzle fell in place. The teacher was behaving as an entertainer. Knowing that most of the people attending this course have very limited knowledge about the world outside of U.S., and were probably not very interested in knowing those things at all, this teacher actually created a counter-productive environment.

First, in order to excite student’s interest about these regions, he used many jokes, with an exaggerated number of stereotypes (e.g., French are cowards, Germans do not have sense of humor, or Russians are crazy). Failure at this point related to the well known fact that education is not just transferring “some” knowledge, since knowledge can be negative (as was the case with the information based on stereotypes). Second, the scope of the causation events he used to describe current events was limited to just several causes from the very recent past, or some isolated events from the further past. This way, the relationships he was establishing to lead his students to conclusions were often weak or did not have a lot of connection to the actual reality.Consequently, the analysis lacked depth, and sounded as something based on information from magazines. However, this lack of depth aside, he did not clarify that his knowledge is limited, or that the process of analysis he uses to make conclusions about the present needs to include much more information than he is able to include in the class.

Consequently, the knowledge that students were gaining was based on simplified, stereotypical, and limited information, and without the awareness that the conclusions on the causation of events might not be correct due to insufficient  depth of analysis. As a result, he not just failed to convey the complete information (at which point he could leave the student to develop their own conclusions), he also failed to develop a sense of analysis process needed for arriving to an informed and analytic conclusion about the current events. So, aside from all the “innovative” technology he used in the course, I had a feeling that he was actually hindering the development of his students.

This was a valuable lesson that technology is just one of the pieces of the puzzle, called improvement of learning in higher education, and if not well integrated with all the others under a holistic perspective, it might actually hinder learner’s development.

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