Instructional technology and college education

In this op-ed on the New York Times, Jeff Solingo, editorial director of the Chronicle of Higher Education points to a few concrete, urgent actions that universities and colleges across North America should take, in order to weather the financial crisis affecting institutions of higher education.

When it comes to education, I find myself consistently siding with the “conservatives”. It is not that I dislike change per se — quite the opposite, if anything; and there is no reason why teaching, and more generally the way society organizes and administer the education of its youths, should not be constantly evolving, in a way mirroring cultural and economic transformations. However, I also think that due to its very importance, education is something with which we should tinker as little as possible, and only when hard evidence warrants it. Making changes to the educational system requires time (measured in decades), not only in terms of sheer implementation, but especially when it comes to assessing their effectiveness.
The damage imparted by an educational reform ultimately deemed flawed, on a number of generations, is a terrible price to pay to social experimentation. This is why education leaders and politicians should adopt a healthy skepticism, and embrace the hippocratic First, do no harm motto of medicine.

Perhaps this is why I am wary of some of the recipes suggested by Solingo in his op-ed, aimed at revitalizing college and university education and bringing it up to speed with a changed world. While I can only applaud his call for reclaiming “academics as a top priority”, with a clear reference to the seemingly uncontrolled expansion of administrative expenses, which “have grown faster than instruction on many campuses” [0], the main point of his editorial is an exhortation to college and universities to embrace the use of technology in the classroom, as well as to offer more content online. There is a sense of urgency in Salingo’s recommendations, mostly because, according to him, universities have to “catch up” quickly, following a decade of inaction (those dreadful nineties).

On these two points, I think that great caution should be exercised, lest we wish to go through decades of ineffective education, followed by decades during which we try and go back to the way things were. Make no mistake, I am not suggesting that the traditional model of education is perfect. It is entirely possible that classroom instruction, with which we have all grown up, that has existed for centuries and has served society well, is inexorably destined to become extinct, swept away by the information revolution that has been taking place before our eyes for the past two decades. It is entirely possible that two decades from now there will be no more classrooms, libraries, campuses, that education will be entirely online, that students everywhere will learn by watching content delivered remotely, or recorded, take tests on the internet and attend virtual graduations.

On the other hand, it is also entirely possible that none of that will happen.
Most of us agree that some, possibly a lot of human activities, will not go virtual any time soon, and may not go virtual ever, typically those based on some minimal level of interaction among individuals. And it is not as if there are no data justifying some skepticism. Online universities have existed for quite some time, and while they certainly have a place in the educational landscape, few people would contend that they represent an equally effective alternative to traditional classroom teaching.
The fact that a lot of reputable “traditional” universities are offering more and more online courses, is no reason for every university to follow suit. Fads exist, in education like in any other human enterprise.
The experience of online realities (such as Second Life) is quite telling, in this respect. Second Life (SL) is now almost a decade old. It was launched among much hype, as a tool with the potential to open new horizons to education, commerce, research and what have you; multinationals, major high-tech firms such as Microsoft eagerly established a presence therein, for fear of being left behind what was branded as nothing short of a “revolution” in the way business would be conducted. By now they have practically all pulled out. By all accounts, SL itself is in a state of abandon, after failing to deliver upon its promises; this is a telltale sign of the great challenges that going virtual poses.

While I agree that internet technology has a place in the broader context of college education, I remain convinced that campus-based institutions should make use of it sparingly, mostly as an aid to classroom-based instruction. Instead of trying to compete with them (a race to the bottom that traditional universities simply cannot win), universities should clearly differentiate themselves from for-profit online diploma mills. Great emphasis should be placed on the difference between learning and obtaining a degree, and on the superior educational experience of classroom-based instruction. The day we academics no longer believe that sitting in a classroom, listening to a person explaining and answering questions from other students, is the best way to learn, then we will know that universities as we know them have come to the end of the line. But until then, until hard data convincingly show that students learn more by going online instead of going to school, there is no reason for universities to try to increase online course content beyond what they are all already doing, other than to keep up with a fad.

Same goes for instructional technology. At this point in time, at least in North America the use of computer technology in and out of the classroom, for example, is no novelty anymore. I was an enthusiastic early adopter in 1996, and have made extensive use of it myself since, and while I am the first to admit that it renders some aspects of teaching easier, chiefly the running and administration of large-enrolment courses, its real effectiveness in terms of content delivery and learning should not be exaggerated.
My personal observation is that students do not learn more and/or more quickly just because widgets, movies, animations, online lecture notes and power point presentations are put at their fingertips. None of these things are replacements for attending lectures, reading the textbook, thinking about concepts on one’s own, discussing them with instructors and fellow students, doing the homework. Students who are willing to put the time, do well, those who are not do not — no technology will change that state of affairs, making a video game of education is not the way to go.
How much “technology” is needed is a choice that universities and colleges should leave to the individual instructors. Any general policy or guideline, attempting to shove preconceived notions of what teaching should be down the throat of those who face students every day, is wrong-headed (if that is being “conservative”, fine, call me one).


[0] If anything, I wish that Solingo had devoted a much greater share of his editorial to this aspect, seeing by many of us as the most important issue with modern time academia (see here for instance) instead of a single, cautious paragraph, bordering on the perfunctory.

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12 Responses to “Instructional technology and college education”

  1. mareserinitatis Says:

    Oh, Massimo, really?

    You of all people should know that relying on experience can be a poor substitute for data. You should also understand that learning is essentially a neurological exercise, and should listen to what neurologists have to say.

    Studies evaluating performance in introductory physics classes tend to show that the primary factors seem to be instructor presentation, prior knowledge (i.e. preparation), time spent studying, group versus individual learning, and time spent studying. Prior knowledge is the largest factor, in most cases. In almost all cases, though, the medium of delivery has a nonexistent impact.

    The other thing to note is that lectures are one of the *poorest* method of delivery. While you may not think watching a video on a computer is better than someone explaining something in a lecture, neurological studies show that this is false. Sitting down and doing homework is going to help more than sitting in a lecture. Reading the book…well, that depends. For most people, they’re probably about even. If you look at groups of students with learning disabilities, however, you’ll find those that are visually impaired are going to fair better in a lecture hall. Those with physical hearing loss and auditory processing issues are going to fare better with reading.

    The other thing is that I think there is this notion that somehow those students who are able to function well in the classroom are inherently brighter and more capable. What it really means is that they have chosen a traditional schooling route, and this works well for them. Traditional classroom lectures, however, don’t work well for a significant subset of people for a variety of reasons. I think keeping things in a traditional classroom is what works well for the teacher, and ignores the actual needs of the students.

    No, I didn’t cite studies. I think this might be a topic for a blog post, so if I write that up, I’ll definitely give references. But, that being said, there is nothing stopping you from looking at the literature yourself. And most of it contradicts what you’re saying here.

    • Massimo Says:

      Only a few observations:

      1) Of course, my individual experience is no foundation to design an educational system, and I am the first to admit it. Then again this is just a blog. At the same time, having taught the same course to over a thousand students in the course of a few years, using different methods of delivery (one more “traditional” and one relying much more heavily on internet technology), and having noticed no measurable difference in the average student performance, I think I am entitled to be skeptical when I hear some administrator with little or no teaching experience make drastic, self-righteous statements on how things should be “improved”.

      2) If, as you state, the method of delivery makes no difference, what would then be the rationale for re-organizing and changing everything, including how classrooms are designed (in order to allow for fancy multimedia based lectures) ?

      3) I have no trouble conceding that in a group of several hundred students there will be a few, possibly as many as 10%, for whom a certain teaching methodology will be more effective. So what ? Do you think it is possible to find the way of teaching that works perfectly for everyone ? I am skeptical. I think that the best we can aim for, is reach the largest number of students.

      4) You are right, I am not familiar with neurological studies, and as you may imagine, I am hardly qualified to evaluate them because I am no neurologist. And I actually do not care what neurologists (or any other -ologists) say. You see, to me, “data” is something different in this field. If I am going to be asked to teach a course differently from what I have always done, the data I want to see must show that student achievement and performance in that same course, is measurably higher on average (nothing will ever work better for everyone, I don’t think), with the proposed methodology. Show me that and I shall do whatever you say — no questions asked. Without that, it’s all blah blah blah to me.

      5) Any claim of greater effectiveness of teaching strategy A over B must be supported by data collected from the same standardized tests upon which society has come rely to make all-important decisions, such as admission to graduate school. Anything else is irrelevant, in my opinion.

  2. A.M. Says:

    I never realized what an absolute breeze my mid-90s (mostly tech-free) university experience was until I worked in technical support.

    Though there’s classes online (fully online, hybrid, or just a syllabus slapped into a course shell), there’s also the registration system, student accounts, financial aid and transcripts all online. And what a friggin mess. Glitches, bugs, and firewalls. Connectivity drops. Seemingly inscrutable error messages. But nothing really gnaws at the faculty/staff member and/or the student like the glitches, bugs, firewalls, connectivity drops, outdated plugins (which Firefox decides to block) and other incidents that affect the online classroom–all the time.

    And why? Because it’s about grades, tuition money, honesty (“Did you really submit that paper?”), integrity (“I really did submit the paper!”), frustration, and frustration, and frustration. That’s an awesome learning environment.

    I’m sure quite a few go on without a hitch (for most). Yet I’ve wandered around in so many of these “online classrooms” wanting to tap on the screen at their interface. Is there really a “classroom” in there?

    I dunno. I think they are mostly nifty as a repository for supplementary materials. Otherwise, it’s like it’s trapped. Boxed. Booked.

    Lastly, I was recently reading/watching the debate in The Chronicle of Higher Education about classroom technology and lecture “fail” when I started to think about how labor intensive it can be prepare lectures in the classroom and how labor intensive it is to build them online. And how university and college administrators may start to seek the “best presentation”. Then I realized we could very well end up in a future with standardized courses containing the most “relevant” materials distributed into online classrooms. Tried and tested videos! Totally remove the professor! Cost effective! Standardized! Validated learning outcomes! Nations of students all watching the same TV program! Or playing the same educational video game, to which you alluded.

    • Massimo Says:

      It’s more than that. I see a subtle, sneaky attempt to downgrade public education, creating a two-tier system in which only an elite gets to go to very expensive, “traditional” colleges and universities (where instruction will be classroom-based, of course), while the rest, the vast majority, are stuck watching standardized online content.

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        The thing is, at least online education is a lot easier for people who can’t attend a traditional campus. My mother was trying to go through school while she was working full-time and raising three kids. She was told that she couldn’t finish her degree unless she took time off from work to attend some classes which weren’t offered in the evening….which her boss told her she couldn’t do. How does that help anyone? What about my son, who can’t go to the local university because they won’t accept his GED, but can take online classes at a *better* college that will? Or hearing impaired students who have a very difficult time in a lecture course but do just fine when most or all of the material is visually presented? I don’t know that it’s downgrading education as much as democratizing it. College has *always* been reserved for a very special subset of the population until recently, and I actually have a seen a lot of online classes that are far better than those offered in a traditional classroom.

      • Massimo Says:

        I think we are talking about two different things here. I have never said that all online education is inherently bad, though you seem to be attributing to me that extreme position, which I am not holding in the least. I am not disputing that online education may be the only/best option for some — but, from it being a valid option for some, to it replacing classroom teaching for everyone, there is a bit of a leap, don’t you think ?
        And, yes, it is a politically motivated push. Make no mistake, the moment you start accepting that it is all right to replace classroom teaching altogether with online videos, that human contact is no longer required, that all that matters is that piece of paper and there is no value at all to the campus experience, then at that point we might as well close down all public universities and replace them with (except for the few privileged ones who will continue to pay top dollars for the education that seems to work best for the majority).
        There are some influential groups that cannot stomach the notion of public university, public health care, public transportation, public anything. They dislike the fact that college education, once a privilege of the wealthiest, has since the GI bill become accessible to two thirds of the population in the US (see here, for instance).
        They fall short of saying that they wish to see it go away, because it would not be popular, and therefore opt for the subtler strategy of trying to bring back society to pre-WWII levels by systematically dismantling public education, while pretending to fight to “make it better”. It’s the rhetoric of school vouchers, of bloated administrations, of relentless cuts, and yes, of increased online delivery.

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        What you said was that it was part of creating a two-tier system, and that online education would be part of the lower tier. By saying people would be “stuck” with online content was a bad thing.

        I’ve had enough lousy lecturers as well as enough experience with my kids’ education through online courses to know that online content can be very beneficial, and in many cases, superior. My one son takes accelerated online math classes through Stanford, and I can tell you that it’s far better than what he might get through a lot of in-class lectures. (There are few other places where a second grader can learn set theory, probability, and algebra.) Even in on-line learning, there is still a person available at the other end to answer questions and help through rough spots.

        There is *already* a two-tier system in place. What I find interesting is that it’s places like MIT, Harvard, and Stanford that are pushing this as much as anyone else. How is this creating a two-tier system? Also, this has already been the status quo for gifted elementary and secondary education through places like Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities for two decades. It’s got a pretty decent track record among younger students. Universities are just late adopters.

      • Massimo Says:

        Just so I am clear: are you saying that online education has been shown to be just as good as (if not better than) classroom teaching, across the board, not just in individual cases but for the vast majority of students ? That if asked for advice, you would recommend any parent not to bother sending kids to college, just have them enrolled at some online university, because they will surely learn more ?
        That it makes no sense for states and provinces to keep funding higher education based on classroom teaching, that it would be an effective and appropriate cost saving measure to move to online delivery as much as possible — there would be no need to hire teachers (I am sure administrators would keep their jobs) anymore, to build classrooms, dorms, campuses ? That classroom teaching should be left to private universities, if they really feel that it should be offered, but public education should be mostly, entirely online ?
        That therefore administrations are justified in their push to replace classroom teaching with online content ? Because this is the point of the post. No one here is questioning the offering of online content in addition, or as an aid to classroom teaching, even though in my experience the effectiveness of the former remains largely to be shown (again, I do not care about individual cases, we are talking about the majority of students here).

        Me, I happen to think that for a “traditional” university to offer entirely online courses is absurd — the whole point of having a university in the first place is to have a campus, classrooms and humans as teachers. Those who see no value in that, who would rather take online courses, have already many online universities to pick from, no need for each public institution to duplicate that (one would be enough — it’s online anyway). Either most students end up making that choice, in which case one can argue that traditional education has outlived its usefulness and should just be phased out, or the majority continue to believe that classroom teaching is superior, and that is how public colleges and universities should continue to operate. My opinion. My blog.

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        If you really want to look into it, Stanford’s EPGY program began offering their math courses to public school systems, and these systems found that it worked very well for students across the board, but particularly benefitted the top quartile of students: (Also, they’ve done a lot of other research on computer-based education, dating back to the 60s, which you can read about here:

        My observation with both of my children is that their math abilities increased far more using computer-based education versus sitting in a classroom. They each used different programs. My older boy used one which communicated the lessons primarily as text, while the younger one uses the Stanford program, which communicates information through ‘mini-lectures’ with accompanying visuals. Each of them has been, on average, at least 3 years ahead of their peers in math once they began working on those programs. Before that, they were often less than a year ahead. Because they could work at their own pace on developmentally appropriate material, they were able to accelerate significantly.

        What I’m saying is that students do not learn by sitting in classrooms…students learn by actively engaging in the material, and lectures are the worst way to learn. Computers may not be the best way to learn, but they often are better than lectures.

      • Massimo Says:

        I was not aware that there is now solid research showing that online education is superior to classroom teaching for the vast majority of students (I assume that at Stanford they no longer offer classroom-based math courses — it would make no sense to have continued, given that online courses work better). I am surprised that classroom-based education still exists at all, and that so many of us still believe that it is better — but I am sure society will soon abandon this useless relic of a time past, and embrace the more effective online education.

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        You’re being pedantic now.

      • mareserinitatis Says:

        Well, it’s not computer based, but MIT is completely getting rid of lecture courses for freshman physics and moving to a completely interactive lab-type structure:

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