Time for High-Tech Education

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

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Time for High-Tech Education

by S.T. Bond, April 28, 2004

My father worked his way through college in the early1920s, in part, by unloading railroad cars of sand for a "sand, gravel and concrete" business. Unloading one car was considered a day's work, and Dad, who was athletic, delighted in finishing by early afternoon.

Today no one unloads sand using labor. When Dad went to class he learned in a situation almost exactly the same as learning today, though. It consisted of a room full of people listening to a teacher, using a textbook. Make your claims, but audiovisual and a little computer access of information instead of access through a library doesn’t represent much of an improvement, perhaps as much as my father’s youthful performance in the sand car, as compared to that of an older man who did it for a living.

What has made the difference in unloading railroad cars is the substitution of capital and engineering for labor. There has been no such substitution in education.

Anyone who has tried it will tell you that teaching is a difficult job. Certain personality types find it less difficult than others, but many who try find it almost overwhelming. There are reasons for this. First, you must do several things at once: you have to present a plan for learning, by lecturing, discussion, group sessions or some other activity. At the same time you must maintain discipline, keep the learners on task. If you have 25 learners, they may be quite diverse, and a lot of applied psychology is required. It was a lot easier in the days of McGuffey's Readers, because all the children in those rooms came from a similar cultural background. Be it a farm community, a mill, a fishing village, a railroad town.

If you are teaching, you must also, either in a short time at school or on your own time, plan additional activities for the future, and evaluate the effort of your students for the obligatory grade. You never satisfy all parents and some actively fight you through their children. This is a situation which encourages “muddling through,” rather than making the effort to be precise and thorough. You have to teach all learners in the room the same course, in the same length of time, and the variable between individuals is how well they absorb it.

Does the technology exist to "mechanize" teaching? It certainly does, but few recognize it, and there are several high barriers to adopting the technology. How do you mechanize teaching?

Consider a high school biology computer program lasting several weeks. The computer provides pictures, spoken and written material, drills, tests (scored by the computer), possibly homework, virtual dissection, internet research, chance for composition (again scored by the computer for English, if not for content and quality of writing), and it doesn’t have to be exactly the same for each learner. Feedback through drills and tests could tell the program the learner needs additional drill or material. And there could be different programs, with different goals teaching the same material, just as there are different textbooks.

Technology using the computer that way has never been done before, through learning programs that are developed like motion pictures. Movies are the product of many people working together. Someone has an idea, and then writers, directors, actors, composers, cameramen, costumers, and others work together to make a product. That product can be purchased for about six to eight dollars for an hour and a half or two hours. This product may be seen by millions of people. Not every one sees the same movies, of course. But they are so engaging people sit still and enjoy them without necessity of “discipline.” The cost per unit of time to the viewer is about what it takes to teach a learner in school.

What are the shortcomings of learning by such computer programs? Eyestrain, if learners aren’t allowed to do other things through the day, and work at their own pace. Certain things can't be taught this way -- real dissection, manipulation of chemicals, how to use tools, how to use the library, safety in courses that require safety. Many things require hands on learning. Also, on the face of it, such computer learning doesn't facilitate social skills -- but formal class work as now conducted isn't very good at that, either. Flabby bodies would be encouraged, if there were no provision for exercise, but ordinary classes are at fault in that respect also. It would require considerable capital outlay and retraining teachers.

What are the advantages of using the computer as the primary source of material to be learned? They are legion. Instruction can be based on completion of units, and each unit set up so that predetermined learning tasks must be accomplished to complete the unit. Completion time depends on the learner, rather than the teacher. If someone is sick, or goes on vacation, a longer time is taken, rather than loosing some of the learning tasks intended. High aptitude learners cut out repetitious work, or get a unit designed for them. Less academic or less motivated learners take a longer time, and get more drill.

The teacher becomes a computer facilitator, a subject mater resource, and a disciplinarian. The teacher does not make lesson plans and does not give the same boring class several times a day. Attendance is taken from the fact the computer is "up" and in use. Grading is objective, done by the way the learner goes through the programs, including tests. The teacher may be required to judge subjective factors, such as emotional maturity or social skills, but the primary achievement is acquisition of skills taught by the computer program. The learner is not bounded by the teacher's academic interests, or to the teacher's academic achievement. To a considerable extent the instruction is not limited by the teacher’s motivation.

The learners do not have to sit silently listening; they may talk to each other. They may help each other without disturbing the rest of the class. They may get up and walk around, look out the window, think a while, then come back to the station to work. If extra curricular activities take them away from class, instructional time is not lost, just postponed. Homebound learners could take the computer home with them.

The high achiever is the one who completes the most, and most difficult, units. A certificate from school X represents the same accomplishment as a certificate from school Y, if the same units have been passed. One of the major difficulties with education today is there is no quality control, a certificate from a program is not related to the learning, of different learners even in one school.

Cultural factors could be taken into account in programs for different learners. If the parents wished to have a certain cast for the learner's education, programs could be designed to present a creationist’s view of evolution, an African view of history, emphasis on local history, even use different languages. One child in a school could take Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Hebrew or Latin language courses without getting together a whole class, or even finding a qualified teacher.

Another aspect of teaching this way is that the program can be run through trials and adjusted, like other industrial products. It can be checked with groups with different backgrounds. The usual method of teaching it does not have enough repetition to do this. The class is given one or several times on a day, then forgotten until the next year.

What would such a computer program be like? It would be assembled like a movie. Someone would have an idea, flesh it out somewhat, and find financing. Then he/she would hire subject matter experts, graphic artists, sound experts, and writers. They would decide on content, and how it was to be presented, and set objectives for length, difficulty, audience and a host of artistic factors. Bits and pieces would be collected, put in orderly arrangement, and reviewed for continuity, difficult spots and appeal to the chosen audience, judged by people familiar with such programs. Judicious use could be made of diagrams, exposition, film clips, items for drill, music, internet access, and so on. In fact anything that can be presented in a movie or on a computer would be usable.

I believe private enterprise would be most creative and successful. University College of Education people lack the flair, and certainly a bunch of teachers would not have it, with their limited, nearly identical education, and most assuredly not if they have to construct something so complicated at the same time as teaching classes the usual way.

What stands in the way? A lot of very large barriers. 1. Teachers themselves would regard it a reduction of status. They would go from being the expert to being a facilitator. Worst of all, older teachers, with years of service in would have to make some serious adjustments. 2. You can count on the union to object for sure. 3. College of Education types would be against it. When someone knows as much as such people do, it’s very hard to change one’s mind. College of Education people are influential both in the university and in the state legislature. 4. School Boards are highly conservative, especially when untried, very different, capital intensive measures are involved. 5. Older people and the less flexible among the school patrons. Many remember school with cozy warmth when they look back on it. In fact, school is terribly inefficient, boring to most learners and teachers during the time they are in school, and schools are unable to turn out a good, uniform product.

A lot of fumbling occurred in early production of movies. The same could be expected of computer programs involving 15 or more hours of learning on some subject. High risk capital investment is involved. A program utilizing computer education would have to be carefully designed to provide variety of activity, including physical exertion, socialization between learners and between learners and teachers and appropriate activities for learning that could not be done on the computer.

The advantages of computer education here conceived are so great, however, that the author believes this is the way teaching will be done sometime in the future, except post-graduate courses in the university and some corporate and government education. Speed, quality, uniformity, provision for individual differences and relaxed relations in the classroom argue for a new paradigm which would end to shoveling sand in the classroom.

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