Wednesday, April 4, 2012

E-learning, who’s in control?

Interesting story in yesterday’s New York Times about teachers (and also parents and students) in Idaho resisting the introduction of computers and online courses in high schools. In a sense it rehashes the ongoing debate (since the end of the 1990s) about e-learning.

One quote stands out for me: “Teachers are resisting, saying that they prefer to employ technology as it suits their own teaching methods and styles”. This perfectly illustrates Larry Cuban’s famous observation "When teachers adopt technological innovations, these changes typically maintain rather than alter existing class room practices." (Cuban 2001, p. 71).  Time and again we see that without redesigning courses the introduction of e-learning does not make much sense, but just adds costs, in terms of hardware and software licenses and teacher time, without producing better results. Why is it so hard for teachers to change their dominant practice of lecturing?

Also yesterday I came across this story about physics teachers that gave up on traditional lecturing because they found that students were not grasping fundamental concepts. Instead, they ask students to go over the material before meeting in class and posting questions in a learning management system that the teacher uses to prepare for class. In the classroom clickers are used to probe students understanding, as well as students discussing with each other, and, more importantly, learning from each other. The simple observation, in a related article is that a student who has just learned something might be better than an expert into explaining a new concept to a fellow student. As one of the physics teachers observes: “That''s the irony of becoming an expert in your field, Mazur says. "It becomes not easier to teach, it becomes harder to teach because you''re unaware of the conceptual difficulties of a beginning learner."

It’s not only important for teachers to understand their own limitations as experts, the hard part,I think, is also giving up control. I had an interesting experience in my own teaching career in the 1980s. One day I came to class unprepared and felt both bad and nervous about it. So I started asking students questions and letting them discuss among themselves solutions to those questions. It went wonderful, for the first time I had the feeling that students were really engaged and actively learning. Giving up control turned out to be fun as well.

Larry Cuban (2001), Oversold and Underused, Computers in the Classroom, Harvard University Press

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