Even Harvard Realizes the Problems of Education Technology

If, as Woody Allen once said, eight percent of life is showing up, then learning computer science at Harvard is not much like life. Last year, David J. Malan, the Gordon McKay Professor of the Practice of Computer Science, told the several hundred students enrolled in CS50, his introductory computer science course, that they didn’t need to come to class. They could simply watch his lectures on video at any time they found convenient.

He wrote an essay explaining the new policy on the website Medium: “Sitting in Sanders Theater, beautiful though it may be, has never been a particularly effective way to learn complex material,” Malan noted. “Indeed, insofar as the material within a lecture tends to be cumulative, whereby example i assumes an understanding of example i-1, it’s all too easy for a student to miss or misunderstand some detail, the result of which is a suboptimal experience in that lecture thereafter.’

It appears that Malan has changed his mind. Though he assured Inside Higher Ed that the change does not come as a result of lower student performance in the course, he says, “Enough former students reported that something was missing, not just the students themselves but the energy of an audience, that we decided to bring [encouraging students to attend] live lectures back this fall,” Malan said.

What an odd rationale, particularly for someone trying to teach computer science. These are lectures, not class discussions. So it’s not as if Malan is waiting for students to answer questions or offer their opinions. But evidently there is something about simply being in the same room with other people trying to learn that is apparently worthwhile. For a university that has contributed tens of millions of dollars to edX, an online learning platform, it might be useful to note that the experience of listening to lectures in person is significantly different from watching them online.

Malan initially thought that students could benefit from being able to pause presentations if they didn’t understand something or go back and listen to them again. But apparently student’s scores did not improve as a result of watching the videos from the comfort of their own dorm rooms. Technology’s effect on learning is still an open question, something too many educators acknowledge, thus people continue to be surprised that it does not always bring positive results.

Consider the popular notion that computers would transform learning. A few weeks ago, NPR reported on Maine’s one-to-one iPad program. Launched fifteen years ago, the program guaranteed every student in Maine his or her own tablet computer. How has that turned out for students in the state? Maine’s governor, Paul LePage, has called the program a “massive failure.” As NPR noted, “at a cost of about $12 million annually (around one percent of the state’s education budget), Maine has yet to see any measurable increases on statewide standardized test scores.”

How could this be? In 2000, the last governor, Angus King said, “Go into history class and the teacher says, ‘Open your computer. We’re going to go to rome.com and we’re going to watch an archaeologist explore the Catacombs this morning in real time.’ What a learning tool that is!”

Yes. In principle it is. But the use of tablets has had all sorts of unintended effects. Last year, I wrote about Nicholson Baker’s book, Substitute, in which he chronicles his time teaching in Maine’s classrooms. As Baker found, the chaos that ensues from the use of these devices, the fact that many of the kids are using them for purposes besides the actual assignment, and the reality that they are regularly not working for one reason or another—all of these make teaching and learning harder not easier.

Predicting the impact of new technology is always a difficult exercise. But at least Malan’s experiment at Harvard lasted only a year and the harmful effects seemed relatively minor. For the state of Maine, by contrast, it’s more than $100 million down the drain and who knows how many missed opportunities to actually teach kids.

Image: Sanders Theater, Harvard – By chensiyuan (chensiyuan) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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