July 08, 2007

Not seeing the wood for the trees, and other complaints

Today I attended an "IT in Education" conference in Tokyo.

I've been reading James Atherton's site, and came across these pages on technology (in education) in general and handouts in particular. A couple of points:
  1. technology is not neutral, and
  2. Do you want students to take notes? Would it help them to understand the material for themselves? Then don't use handouts.
I was reminded of these 2 points in today's presentations. Everyone talked about using technology to do things we already do, only more efficiently. No-one talked about how the technology impacts the process of learning. Only one gentleman touched on this briefly. In a presentation on an Excel application used to teach large classes Accounting, the presenter pointed out the advantage: previously calculations were written out by laboriously by hand on the blackboard and this took a lot of time. Now it can all be done much more quickly using this software and a large projector and screen. In the Q&A time, a member of the audience pointed out that, while writing on the blackboard may take time, it also allowed students time to take notes. Now with these Excel spreadsheets on screen and the caculations being entered automatically before your very eyes, there's no time.

So "saving time" is an advantage purely from the teacher's point of view; the point of view of class management, of delivery of content.

This is a point also made by Atherton (altho he is writing about handouts):
Copying from the board is no longer necessary, and even note-taking from verbal presentations diminishes in importance. ... To a certain extent, the teacher's position is restored. But the handout tends to be used less for the individual teacher's distinctive angle on the material, as to pare (or even dumb) down the material simply to what you need to know for the purposes of this particular course.
It's perhaps worth mentioning here that all the presentations referred to the present situation of university teaching in Japan, which means a continual moaning about the falling academic standards of entering students, so perhaps dumbing down is a quite deliberate attempt by teaching staff, to desperately reach those students that regular teaching cannot reach. Back to Atherton.
After all, what is being done with the time which is being saved? Students no longer have to copy from the board, or even take notes....this is not merely about the teacher transmitting knowledge: it is also about ownership of it. (my emphasis)

Another complaint I had was one I frequently feel when attending Japanese academic conferences: the heavy focus on unique, specific case studies or examples, with little or no attempt to draw general conclusions which might apply elsewhere (and so be of some value to the audience).

One example: one presenter described an attempt in a computing class to improve students' understanding and motivation by requiring them to create quiz items on the subject of the day's lecture (in fact, 4-item, multiple-choice quiz problems). The presenter made no attempt to draw some general conclusions or principles from his success. He might have mentioned the old adage that the best way to learn something is to teach it. He might also have mentioned the *Socratic Method. So, to replicate this success we would need to.... assign 4-item, multiple-choice quiz problems on computer networks? Or come up with activities that require students to reformulate in some manner what they have just heard/read/seen, or perhaps to compare and contrast or apply their knowledge to solve a problem?

This presenter was typical.

And while I'm at it, I lost count of the number of times a presenter said "Erm, sorry, the text is a little small..." None of them have read Seth Godin, or Guy Kawasaki. Text, all text, WHICH THEY THEN READ. At breakneck speed because they only had 13 minutes!!

The smarter ones highlighted the key text on each slide in red. The other used laser pointers, so if you blinked, you missed where the key part was. And when they did use graphics, it was something like the plan for Buckingham Palace on 1 slide. To fit, everything had to be kinda small.... When they actually brought these images up, it became obvious that they would be hard to see by the people further back than the front 5 rows.... AARRRGGGHGG!!

*The first schools in Western cultural tradition were those of classical and early post classical Greece. Those schools were not for the purpose of benefiting students--and even to promulgate a particular "school of thought" was secondary. Their main purpose was to provide quality audiences to whom the leading thinkers and perceivers could describe their perceptions, in order to develop further those perceptions. Some of the "nicer guys" among these, the Sophists especially and Socrates in particular, would return the favor and draw out their listeners in turn. Their doing so, and the various ways they did so, became known as "Socratic Method."(Win Wenger)

(Photo credit: dnel83 on Flickr)

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