Computers in Education

27 Feb 2017 16:30

(This has ended up with more personal anecdotes than is usual for me; I should think about why.)

The obvious place where computers have a role in education is, of course, in teaching about computing and programming. (I have vivid memories of my first encounters with programming, in Basic and Logo, on school computers so primitive I'm not sure CPUs that weak are made any more for anything.) Beyond that, since they've invaded big chunks of our professional and social lives, I certainly wouldn't want to go back to typing essays or hand-writing math, or printing out "hand outs" rather than just posting PDFs, and I wouldn't want my students to, either. Beyond that, though, I confess to a certain reactionary (and, as a teacher, self-interested) skepticism as to the value of computers and especially of online communication to really change education, at least not for the better.

To illustrate: When I was a math-hungry boy of nine or ten, my parents set me to watch a TV program on applied math which was broadcast on public television by one of the local universities. (I could probably dig up the details.) This, along with instruction at my father's knee, was how I learned about vectors and matrices and linear programming, and difference equations and amortization. Later, I learned lots about classical mechanics from watching The Mechanical Universe. This was great for me, but televised classes like this were an old and well-tried idea by the 1980s, and of course they work much better for some people than for others. What helped me benefit from these shows? I was already very interested in the subjects, and I benefited from a lot of (totally unearned) advantages: background knowledge; the freedom to put a lot of tranquil time into watching educational videos, reading the accompanying books, and doing problems for fun; having people around to ask for advice. Had I not been a privileged upper-middle class child of a highly educated family — say, a middle-aged parent with a job and family responsibilities, or even just a poor kid in a disrupted household without money to spare for scratch paper — how much good would this have done me? Would I have gotten anything out of a TV class on a subject I wasn't interested in, say a foreign language, however much that might have been to my long-term benefit?

As I said, distance education through TV was already an old idea by the 1980s, and it didn't replace or even transform higher education. When I look at what's being done by way of online education, I don't see all that much of an intrinsic advance. Having to watch on a set schedule hasn't been an issue since the spread of videotape in the 1980s. Getting immediate feedback on multiple-choice or short-answer questions is a matter of looking at the answer key in the back of the book (and not cheating yourself by looking first). The only thing which the current set of on-line courses seems to do which the TV courses of my childhood didn't is provide an easier way of finding fellow learners to ask for advice, which is useful but doesn't seem to be revolutionary because it is not, I like to think, a substitute for engagement with someone who actually knows more and can explain it, i.e., a teacher.

Simply put, my sense is that the sort of people who learn things well from current online courses, and the sort of subjects they learn, are much the same as the successes of TV distance learning, and for that matter much the same as the successes of self-study with books. Since the printing revolution did not destroy face-to-face higher education, I am not sure why being able to watch recorded lectures on tablets should do so.

What might do so would, I think, be one of two things. One would be if the computer could develop some of the interactivity of the human teacher. By this I don't mean just scoring answers on quizzes, but actually looking at the student's work to see what they understand and what they don't, and changing what gets taught next accordingly. People have been working on tutoring systems like this for decades, and while they have been making some progress, it remains a very hard problem which is nowhere near solved, even for fairly circumscribed subjects like elementary geometry. (It's hopefully not AI-complete.) The other potentially revolutionary development would be if, somehow, online education could in itself provide the supportive social context for study; I can hardly begin to imagine how this would happen, but I wouldn't want to rule it out.

All of which said, while I clearly have opinions about these matters, they are little more than half-informed prejudices. I've not studied actual evidence about the strengths and weaknesses of existing projects, or proposals, to meet my own usual standards for taking someone's opinions seriously. Since this issue is not going to go away, and since at this point I'm committed to teaching as a career, I ought to fix this...

See also: Education, Academia