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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Byte-Sized Instruction

In principle, we have nothing against the use of technology in education or the idea of online instruction. Technology has provided people with educational opportunities inconceivable to prior generations. With discipline, perseverance, and a solid internet connection, one can acquire a graduate-level education from the comfort of one's own home. Still, we find something disingenuous about the clamoring from certain quarters (primarily Republican) for the expansion of online instruction as a solution to seemingly intractable problems facing American education.

Proponents feel that online classes can serve more students than traditional classrooms at lower cost. Indeed, one reason many school districts have adopted online curricula is that they can no longer afford to hire enough teachers to comply with class-size maximum laws. Only a churl would point out that money spent on educational software and licensing fees could just as easily go towards paying flesh-and-blood teachers. So call us churlish. But we see their point: Certainly, a greater "absolute" number of students can be "taught" by a computer program than by a teacher. One program could used by as many students as needed, whereas even the most ambitious teacher cannot handle a limitless number of students.

But this gets to the heart of what one means by "teaching." Too many critics of education in general and teachers in specific think that all a teacher does is provide information--facts and figures. If that were the case, then, indeed, software could easily replace teachers. In fact, Google's free search engine could replace most software.

A friend of ours pointed out that, as seen in the most recent "Star Trek" movie, this information-provision model is basically how education works on the planet Vulcan: Students sit in a chair and are bombarded with facts and questions. This might work for Vulcans, but we humans are not yet so advanced.

Proper education--successful education--develops children's ability to think, to reason. Indeed, content almost doesn't matter. The Solipsist is a pretty smart guy, if we do say so ourselves. He did well in school, but he would be hard pressed to tell you many of the "facts" he learned in 9th grade history or 11th grade physics. What he got from high school and other educational endeavours was primarily the ability to read, to think, to reason--and an enthusiasm for those skills. Even if a computer could provide a student with reasoning challenges--and we believe a computer CAN do this--it cannot truly engage a student; it cannot interact with a child to assess that child's thinking process and push that child to the next level--not consistently, anyway, not yet. Maybe someday, but not yet.

What's ironic is that all these advocates of computerized instruction--all those who feel technology provides a better education than that offered by flesh and blood teachers--were themselves taught by these "inferior" providers. That being the case, what makes them think they themselves possess the critical intellectual acumen required to assess the effectiveness of computerized instruction? This conclusion must logically have been arrived at through faulty, substandard reasoning.

Until a computer tells us that computer-based instruction is superior, we'd rather continue to take our chances with the flawed but curiously effective teachers that have gotten the job done so far.

"More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality"

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