What to do with the results

Tuesday, August 9th, 2005

My good friend Professor Christina Gotowka emailed me an article by Jeffrey Young from the Chronicle of Higher Education on the results of a survey conducted recently by U of Illinois professor Steve Jones. The article is titled “Professors Give Mixed Reviews of Internet’s Educational Impact.” It’s that kind of a summary article that sort of wants you to go after the original survey (or is it a study?) to get at the real meat. Here’s a snip from the piece:

Browsing library stacks could soon be seen as old-fashioned. Most of the professors surveyed, 83 percent, said they spent less time in the library now than they did before they had Internet access. But professors said that online journals, e-mail lists, and other Internet tools had become critical for keeping up with news and research in their disciplines. Ninety-four percent said they allowed their students to cite Internet sources in their papers.

Sixteen percent of the professors who responded said they had taught at least one online-only course. Of those who had taught online, 43 percent said they thought such courses took more preparation than did face-to-face courses.

Mr. Jones said that the survey suggested differences in technology’s effects on different disciplines, though he said he would like to examine that issue more closely in a future study. “We need to be much more precise at how we deploy” technology tools, he said.

He suggested that college technology leaders offer discipline-specific workshops on how to teach with technology, rather than general workshops for all disciplines. “I think we have some real need for that sort of specificity when it comes to getting technology out there for teaching,” he said.

While the original survey may make lots of sense, Young’s persistent use of terms such as Internet and technology and his selection of quotes don’t serve to illuminate anything of substance. What “technology,” what of the numerous aspects of the Internet are we dealing with here? Students and professors are now using the “Internet” to do lots of school stuff, like “communicate.” Huh? As far as I know, arXiv is alive and cooking with real hardwood charcoal.

Jones’ issue of discipline-specific teaching workshops is something that I would suggest only as a means of helping different disciples understand each other. By the way, what does “getting technology out there for teaching” mean? Out where?

I think that people still misunderstand the nature of teaching tools. There’s a sense that learning and teaching will improve, an idea I’ve never understood. Now that we have the Internet (whatever that means?), the world will just smell better and all the poor folk will have bread to eat. I don’t think that’s the point. If you begin teaching with say PowerPoint, learning changes and people “may” learn new things about sea travel in different ways than they did before.

“Educational impact” can mean lots of things and it can pertain to chalk and blackboards, which are technologies. Does a Flash presentation help people retain the information better than a lecture? Is a lecture still better when you’re also trying to teach people to listen? A forum discussion may be a piece of the larger pie of a course on literature. But we still have to see that one piece in the context of the larger dynamic of the learning process. And a good piece of chalk is still a part of that.

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