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Do I Dare? Is It Prudent?

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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So, the Internet will, on the one hand, change everything and, on the other hand, change nothing. I think faculty members have to hold both of these perspectives, though not necessarily at the same time.


The article below is a well written statement on the factors to

consider deciding on the role of technology in teaching and learning.

It is the tenth posting in a series of selected excerpts from the

National Teaching and Learning Forum newsletter reproduced here as

part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of

information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not

already a subscriber, you can check it out at []

The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers

subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of

helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National

Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, March 2001, Volume 10, Number

3. ? Copyright 1996-2001. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction

with James Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights

reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Teaching at its Best

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


----------------- 1,959 words -----------------


Tom Rocklin

University of Iowa


. . . in the winter of 1813-1814 . . . I attended a mathematical school

kept in Boston . . . on entering his room, we were struck at the

appearance of an ample Blackboard suspended on the wall, with lumps

of chalk on a ledge below, and cloths hanging at either side. I had

never heard of such a thing before.

--May, 1866, cited in

Anderson, 1962

As it turned out, Mr. May went on to introduce the blackboard into wide

use throughout the Common Schools of Massachusetts. But how did he,

or any teacher, decide that a blackboard was a worthwhile piece of new

technology to incorporate into the teaching/learning process? I don't know

the answer to that specific question, and so far as I have found, the debates

(if there were any) about the adoption of the blackboard have been lost to


Today's generation of faculty members faces decisions about a different set

of technologies. Many of us are still making decisions about the role that

computers and the Internet will play in our teaching and our students'

learning. How can we make those decisions wisely?

You Say You Want a Revolution?

If I had a quarter for every time I've read about how the Internet is

revolutionizing an industry, I'd be able to buy a Power Mac G4 Cube and

a 22-inch Apple Cinema display. If I only got a quarter for every time I've

read about how the Internet is revolutionizing higher education, I could

probably still buy a Cube, but maybe with the 15-inch display.

It's true. The Internet is revolutionizing higher education. But that's not

the same thing as saying that the Internet is revolutionizing learning. It


I imagine that the Internet may have profound effects on who learns, who

teaches, where teaching and learning take place, how much higher

education costs and a host of other issues. Those changes are probably

profound, and thus, it is entirely possible that the Internet will

radically reshape higher education.

What the Internet won't change is the nature of human cognition and

social interaction--and therefore of learning. Study after study (see Clark,

1983, for examples) has demonstrated that the medium of instruction has

little if any effect on the nature or amount of learning that takes place.

So, the Internet will, on the one hand, change everything and, on the other

hand, change nothing. I think faculty members have to hold both of these

perspectives, though not necessarily at the same time.

When we are thinking about (and worrying about) the future of higher

education, or when we are working to shape that future, the fact that the

Internet may change everything should be uppermost on our minds. Those

changes are likely to be gradual, structural, and systemic, and it would be a

shame if faculty members defaulted on their role in shaping them. On the

other hand, we faculty members teach within today's system, and the

structural changes that may come offer little guidance in deciding how to

use technology today to help our students learn.

When Is a Non-revolution a Revolution?

So I don't think that faculty members should try to make decisions about

technology adoptions based on expectations about the ways a particular

technology may revolutionize learning. Instead, I suggest we direct our

attention to a much more mundane perspective: How can a candidate

technology increase the efficiency with which I and my students do what

we need to do to promote learning right now? Though I've labeled the

question mundane, the answer may be revolutionary--revolutionary at

the scale we faculty members usually live: the individual course or

chunk of the curriculum.

"Efficiency" carries with it ugly connotations of industrialization and "bean

counting." Generically, though, efficiency refers to the ratio of output to

input, and in the context of teaching and learning, I'm using the word to

refer to how much learning we can provoke from a given level of effort on

the part of the teacher and the learner.

Here's why efficiency is so important. Over the long haul, we are not likely

to see extravagantly more effort on the part of our students. Neither are

we, their teachers, likely to be able to devote a lot more effort to our

teaching than we already are. If effort is a relatively fixed

quantity, the only

route to improved learning is efficiency.

The value of efficiency is even greater than the value found in working

smarter at what we already do. It also lies in being able to do new things

without much additional effort. All along there have been learning activities

we would like to have seen our students engage in, but they simply

weren't feasible with the amount of effort available. A technology that

makes them possible with an achievable level of effort spells the difference

between the presence of those features in our classes and their

absence. And that's where the revolution comes in. Suddenly, we are

able to offer our students learning opportunities that we couldn't

offer before.

Suppose, for example, that you had always wanted students to

experience some sort of guided conversation with students in a far-

off land who are enrolled in a similar course. Before the Internet

was widely available this was theoretically possible, but for most of

us it was, as a practical matter, impossible (telephone? fly to the

far-off land?). On the other hand, exchanging email or participating

in a chat room now seems straightforward, and videoconferencing over

IP will be common soon.

Or perhaps you wanted students to assemble data from public sources

and analyze those data in order to address a course-related question.

Again, it was theoretically possible, but so logistically difficult

(copy out of a printed volume and analyze with a desk calculator?)

that it wasn't going to happen. Again, the Internet (download data

from a well-documented web site and analyze them in a spreadsheet)

makes the assignment feasible.

Time on the Real Task

Efficiency, by the way, is important even when it doesn't create a

new opportunity. Good practice in undergraduate education emphasizes


on task (Chickering and Gamson, 1987). But what task? Back in the

days when students drafted papers with pens on paper and then typed

them up, the typing was not a component of the assignment that led to

much in the way of learning. Similarly, walking to the library and

searching through volume after volume of some printed periodical

index had little to do with learning (however character building it

may have been). Nevertheless, the time spent typing, walking, and

(inefficiently) searching all consumed time from a fixed pool of time

a student could allocate to the project. Today's technologies can

increase students' effective time on task by reducing the amount of

time they spend on task components from which they learn little or


Efficiency at What?

Doing low value activities efficiently isn't a particularly worthy

goal. To adopt a technology wisely we have to have reasonable

expectation that the technology will facilitate an important learning

activity. One straightforward way to think about the issue is in

terms of the triads that the Flashlight model of the TLT group (e.g.,

Ehrman, 2000) uses. A triad consists of an education goal (in this

context, I would say a desired learning outcome), an activity (what

students will do) and a technology that facilitates that activity.

Consider a simple and rather traditional case. The instructor of a

survey course wants students to be able to use appropriate

terminology and apply each of several theories to the analysis of

particular problems. Students will read a textbook to learn the terms

and theories. In order to both monitor and encourage textbook

reading, the instructor may want to administer low stakes weekly

quizzes. If the class is large, administering even a brief quiz may

take as much as 20 minutes, or something like 13% of the week's class

time for a course

I know some teachers who, faced with this situation, have chosen to

administer the quiz on computers. Students take the quiz outside of

class, and those 20 minutes in class can be used for other purposes.

Equally important, because the scores are generated, recorded, and

reported automatically, the teacher saves considerable time each

week. That time can be put to more productive use.

Fools Rush In

Even when we identify a worthwhile learning goal, a student activity

that will support that goal, and a technology that will increase the

efficiency of its pursuit, questions remain--let's call them economic

questions. Before implementing an attractive technology in our

teaching, we need to

consider costs in two broad categories.

First we need to ask what it will "cost" to get started with a particular

technological innovation. Some of these costs might be monetary (buying

software or hardware, for example) and those will often be both obvious

and difficult to fund. Sometimes a true "off the shelf" solution is available

and these monetary costs are the main costs of the project.

Much, much more commonly though, the main costs will be

someone's--usually the faculty member's--time. These costs are often

unaccounted for and overlooked. I don't fill out a time sheet showing

how many hours of my work are to be billed, for example, to each

class I teach (and I don't want to!), but the fact of the matter is

that my time is usually the limiting factor in what I can accomplish

as a teacher. Assigning a monetary value to my time doesn't do much

to help my decision-making. I can, however, consider the opportunity

cost associated with implementing a particular learning technology.

That is, I can, and should, ask what else I could be doing with my

time if I weren't implementing this learning


These up-front costs are only part of the cost side of the equation. I also

need to think about the continuing costs associated with the project.

Again, some of these may be monetary (e.g., license renewals), but

usually the opportunity cost associated with my time will be the

deciding factor. If

maintaining a web site takes so much time that I can't give students

prompt feedback on their work, that web site may not be a good idea.

These two categories of costs (initial and ongoing) interact. I may

tolerate very substantial start-up costs if the ongoing costs will be

low. This is akin

to paying more for a high-efficiency furnace because of the ongoing

savings I expect.

Still, my habit of continually tweaking and tinkering with a new solution is

an ongoing cost. Does it have any justification? Some. We faculty

have a lot more experimenting to do before we know as much about how

to use the Internet as we do about how to use blackboards. Even if my

tweaking isn't justified by the learning of my current students it

might be valuable (particularly if I share my experience with

others), in shaping our future as teachers and learners.

Summing Up

I know of a number of ways in which blackboards can make my teaching

and my students' learning more efficient, so the blackboard is a

candidate technology. In today's environment, the cost of adoption of

the blackboard is pretty low. They're relatively inexpensive to

install and last a long time. My investment in developing instruction

that uses a blackboard isn't at serious risk from changing standards.

Although I have to be a little bit concerned about the possibility

that blackboards will go away, I've thought some about the migration

issues to, for example, document cameras, and I think they are

manageable. So next semester, I'll be using a blackboard.

If only my decisions about computers and the Internet were so straightforward.


Clark, R. E. (1983). "Reconsidering Research on Learning from Media." Review of

Research in Education, 53 (4), pp. 445-459.