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High-tech Teaching Could be 'Suicidal'

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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University educators largely extol the wonders of teaching through technology. But skeptics question whether something is lost when professors and lecturers rely too heavily on electronic media, or when interaction with students takes place remotely -- in cyberspace rather than the real space of the classroom.


The article below presents an interesting take on the limitations of technology, teaching, and learning. It is from the Stanford Report, February 11, 2002 Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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University educators largely extol the wonders of teaching through technology. But skeptics question whether something is lost when professors and lecturers rely too heavily on electronic media, or when interaction with students takes place remotely -- in cyberspace rather than the real space of the classroom.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, the Albert Guerard Professor of Literature, is one such skeptic. "I think this enthusiastic and sometimes na?ve and sometimes blind pushing toward the more technology the better, the more websites the better teacher and so forth, is very dangerous -- [that it] is, indeed, suicidal," Gumbrecht said, speaking at the Jan. 31 installment of the Center for Teaching and Learning's "Award-WinningTeachers on Teaching" series.

But Gumbrecht cautioned that there are few, if any, studies either supporting or rejecting the hypothesis that traditional pedagogy is superior to teaching via the Internet or with a host of high-tech classroom aids. "If [such studies] exist, I think we need more of them," he said.

He added that he could point only to his "intuition that real classroom presence should be maintained and is very, very important," and emphasized the need for educators to critically examine where technology serves a useful pedagogical function and where it doesn't.

However, Gumbrecht allowed that, for courses in which knowledge transmission is the sole purpose, electronic media probably can do the job well enough. Indeed, given the 20th century's knowledge explosion and the increasing costs of higher education, using technology as opposed to real-life teachers for the transmission of information is probably inevitable, he said.

In any case, knowledge transmission should not be the core function of the university, he added, noting that the Prussian statesman and university founder Wilhelm von Humboldt, sociologist Max Weber and Cardinal John Henry Newman all held that universities should be places where people confront "open questions."

"Humboldt even goes so far to say -- and I full-heartedly agree with him -- they should ideally be questions without a possible answer," Gumbrecht said. He asserted the university should be a place for "intellectual complexification" and "riskful thinking."

"We are not about finding or transmitting solutions; we are not about recipes; we are not about making intellectual life easy," he continued. "Confrontation with complexity is what expands your mind. It is something like intellectual gymnastics. And this is what makes you a viable member of the society."

Paradoxically, "virtual" teacher-student interaction that draws out this kind of thinking probably would be much costlier for the university than real-time, in-class teaching, Gumbrecht said. The reason for this, he suggested, is that responding to e-mail from students and monitoring their discussion online would require more time -- time for which the university would have to pay the teacher -- than simply meeting with the students as a group once or twice a week.

In addition, Gumbrecht asserted that discussions in the physical presence of others can lead to intellectual innovation. He recalled a Heidegger conference he attended at Stanford about a year ago, where he said he participated in some of the best academic discussions of his career. Heidegger himself "tries to de-emphasize thinking as something we, as subjects, perform," Gumbrecht said. "He says thinking is having the composure of letting thought fall into place." Gumbrecht suggested something similar happens during live, in-person discussions.

"There's a qualitative change, and you don't quite know how it happens," he said. "Discussions in the physical presence have the capacity of being the catalyst for such intellectual breakthroughs. The possibility of in-classroom teaching -- of letting something happen which cannot happen if you teach by the transmission of information -- is a strength."

Gumbrecht argued that the way in which students react to the physical presence of one another in the classroom, as well as to the physical presence of their professor, can invigorate in-class discussions. "I know this is problematic territory, but I think both the positive and negative feelings can set free additional energy," he said. "I'm not saying the physical presence makes you intellectually better, but it produces certain energy which is good for intellectual production."

Asked to comment on some of the ideas Gumbrecht discussed in his lecture, Decker Walker, a professor of education who studies technology in teaching and learning, agreed that pedagogy via electronic media may work best in cases where information transmission is the goal -- for example, in a calculus course. In areas such as the humanities and arts, it may be a less valuable tool, he said.

In any case, the physical presence of teachers can serve to motivate students, Walker said. "I think young people are inspired more often by seeing other people who are older -- or even the same age -- who do remarkable things," he said. "It would be hard to replace this with a computer."

On the other hand, Walker maintained that computer technology can be a useful educational aid. One such benefit is access to scholars who are far away. "Technology can enable a conversation, albeit an attenuated online one, with distant experts who bring unique educational benefits, such as an expert on current research on a fast-moving scientific topic," Walker said. "This may greatly enrich a live class discussion with a local professor."

Walker maintained that the university environment is not in danger of being supplanted by technology. On the contrary, he noted, large businesses have adopted aspects of the university environment for their employees' professional education. For example, General Motors started GM University, whose main campus is at the company's new global headquarters in Detroit's Renaissance Center.

Museums also function in some ways like universities, he noted. For example, the Smithsonian Institution has numerous research, museum and zoo education departments

And for all the emphasis high-tech companies put on developing devices and software for remote communication, many have had large campuses constructed where workers are centralized -- a nod, perhaps, to the importance of person-to-person interaction.

Rick Reis, executive director of Stanford's Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing and associate director of the Learning Lab's Global Learning Partnerships, noted that the subject of technology in education covers a lot of territory. Few people, for example, are likely to argue that making students trudge over to the library's reserve desk to get a piece of reading material for a course, or making hundreds of hard copies, is preferable to posting it on the web, Reis said. But he added that whether the kind of teaching generally reserved for a seminar could be as effective online is an open question.