New technologies are leading us toward an old trap, but there may still be
time to avoid it.
Leaders in higher education today face a Triple Challenge-how can they
improve certain unsatisfactory educational outcomes, extend access to an
older and more diverse set of learners, and control spiraling costs, all at
the same time?
To meet that Triple Challenge, colleges and universities need to develop
better educational strategies-new ways of organizing teaching and learning.
If they delay, something inevitably will suffer: quality, enrollment, a
balanced budget, or all three.
To meet this challenge many institutions are striving to enroll and retain
more adult learners who must study at home or at work; and in some states
the need to extend access is reaching crisis proportions. Educators are also
working to help each learner tap more powerful resources-libraries, experts,
laboratories-from around the planet, rather than restricting those learners
to only those resources that the institution can buy and maintain on-campus.
In each of these strategies, computers, video and telecommunications play an
That's encouraging. But a few educators and their benefactors see technology
itself as a savior: buy the hardware and save the college! Most of us
realize that it's not that simple. We know that what matters most is how you
use the technology.
But I think the issue is even trickier than that. New technology could get
us into even worse trouble than we're in now. That's because of a largely
hidden problem that has dogged higher education for a very long time, a
problem that could be made even worse by new forms of technology-based
distance learning. It's a problem that technophiles cannot fix, at least not
by themselves . . . .
What is this bad option for our future? You can see it clearly in "A Private
Universe," an award-winning video program about education. As the tape
begins, the bell is tolling in Harvard Yard for the Class of 1987.
Twenty-three randomly selected seniors, faculty and alumni are asked one of
two questions: "Why is it warmer in summer than in winter?" or "Why does the
moon seem to have a different shape each night?" Only two answered their
question correctly. Yet they have been taught these ideas repeatedly while
in school. For some, the material was also covered in their Harvard
educations. Their teachers "covered" it, but they never learned it. Why not?
The scene then shifts to a good high school nearby. Ninth graders, it turns
out, believe many of the same things as graduating Harvard seniors. We see
the kids being interviewed before they are taught this material. Their
beliefs about summer and seasons are often mistaken and sometimes rather
surprising. Then we watch as they are taught this material. The teaching
looks pretty good, but the questions are canned, and so are the students'
answers. The instructor never tries to understand what each student already
believes about these phenomena. She probably assumes that once students hear
the truth, their prior beliefs (if they have any) will disappear.
Afterward the students are interviewed again. At first their answers sound
as though they understood the ideas. They'd probably get an "A" on the test.
But as the interviewer follows up, it is obvious that their original beliefs
are still there, virtually untouched. In some cases students have actually
been further confused by the teaching. That's because they had used their
hidden preconceptions to (mis)interpret what the teacher was saying. The
students were never forced to confront their prior beliefs, let alone to
test them against new ideas.
The result is what an artist might call "pentimento"-a layer of "learning"
is painted over pre-existing belief, but, after a time, the original belief
about the content reemerges, mostly untouched.
"A Private Universe" is one of many studies showing that students often get
A's without truly understanding the material or being able to apply it. And
these are good teachers, dedicated to their students' learning, skilled at
teaching in the ways that they themselves were taught. But they (and their
students) are being fooled. The students look like they understand and
believe they understand. They even score well on tests. But faculty who get
the students next see the problem. Cursing the failures of their
predecessors, they teach the material again, in the same way it was first
taught. It's a form of teaching by broadcast, even though students are in
the same room. That's because the information flow is almost entirely from
the faculty member outward to the students; very little fresh information
flows from the students to the faculty member (or to each other). This kind
of broadcast instruction may happen several times before graduation.
And-surprise!-after graduation it turns out that the ideas are still not
Let's accept the charge that this kind of broadcast teaching can be
inefficient, and even ineffectual, because instructors currently don't
discover what each of their students already thinks. The video has shown
this happening when the instructor and students are in the same room. What
happens when instructors try to teach students they can't even see? Teaching
over video and computer networks presents this challenge.
Those networks will force us to choose between the Bad Option and the Good
Two Different Roads to the Future
Bad Option: we will have chosen this avenue if we continue to teach over
computer and video networks just as we have in traditional
classrooms-"unquestioningly." Some administrators even encourage this
("You'll love this new technology; you can just teach the way you always
have!") If institutions do broadcast their instruction out into the void
beyond the campus, outcomes are likely to deteriorate still further. If
today's best graduates are symbolized by those Harvard graduates, what will
the average graduate of tomorrow be like?
Good Option: we will have chosen the Good Option if most faculty members
begin to reexamine their teaching and their courses: These faculty members
could ask more probing questions in class (whether the students are in the
same room or a hundred miles away).
They could devise assignments that force students to confront their beliefs
and test their skills. These new questions and assignments could help both
faculty and students understand the deep structure of ideas, not just their
Electronic mail and computer conferencing could give students safer and more
thoughtful means of discourse, whether students are on campus or studying at
home; students may reveal more than they do when facing the faculty member
behind the lectern.
Students could get more and better feedback than ever before, from their
peers and from distant experts as well as from the instructor. More
dependent on other students, they could begin to bond and to take more
responsibility for their own learning. A healthier academic community could
develop, even among people who rarely see each other.
And by the time they graduate, more seniors might understand why it's warmer
in the summer.
I favor the Good Option.
Am I optimistic about achieving it? Yes, but I am an extremely optimistic
person. The upgrading of courses (and faculty skills) is going to cost long
hours and big bucks. Unfortunately, I see little indication that many of our
colleagues in higher education realize the need, let alone that they are
willing to pay that price.
When I say "our colleagues" I don't just mean faculty who teach courses at a
distance (only about 5-10 percent of all faculty do, even at most
institutions using technology to extend access.) That's too small a base to
reorganize our syllabi and curricula. What learners off-campus will get is
what learners on-campus get, by and large.
But I don't see much dialogue among the various little groups interested in
reform. Instead of thinking together to select some priorities about which
they all can agree, they each are turned inward, looking only at their own
agendas-computers, critical thinking, internationalizing the curriculum,
writing across the curriculum, TQM and CQI, updating calculus,
college-school partnerships, classroom research, education for diversity . .
None of these movements has much money. Nonetheless, these various reformers
rarely share what resources they do have. In fact, they don't even talk to
each other much, even when they work for the same institution. Nowhere is
the gulf deeper than between reformers who care about technology and those
Collaboration Is Key
The good news is that these different movements do share many of the same
goals, including helping faculty members learn to assess how their own
students think. Almost all of them believe that some learning should be done
collaboratively. Almost all want to engage students and academic resources
that otherwise would not be found on the traditional campus. In those shared
goals lies some hope for all learners.
The bad news is that, while we're failing to think together, some decision
makers want to use the Information Superhighway to "beam" cheap education to
everyone's tele-computers. They think it's a great idea. A master teacher
will lecture 10,000 learners! Economies of scale! Given the great unmet
needs for education and the shortage of funds, these are attractive hopes
but also perilous. Done poorly, this sort of beamed education can separate
learners completely from faculty and from each other. These unfortunate
learners could remain locked in the grip of their prior conceptions, while
being convinced that they are getting a "Harvard" education.
That would be the tragedy of the Bad Option-chosen merely because too many
policy makers and learners don't know the difference and because too many
educators and educational institutions won't pay the price of reexamining
Our reformers, including technophiles and technophobes, must get their
shared act together. We must create a Grand Coalition (to steal a phrase
from Winston Churchill). We need to think together and sacrifice together if
we are to advance the cause of inquiry, collaboration, community and active
Creating such a Grand Coalition won't be easy. It calls for leadership
without ownership ("This is my coalition!"), and some determined thinking
about what the various groups have in common without being distracted by
what makes each group special and different ("How many of us have been
trying to help faculty learn what students think, and how they think? OK,
how might we pool our efforts to go further and faster in that direction?")
Shifting venues from World War II to the Revolution (American, not
Computer), I'll close with Benjamin Franklin. He once remarked, "We must all
hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."
Bad Option or Good Option?
For information about "A Private Universe" and about uses of technology for
students studying off- and on-campus, call 1-800-LEARNER or check out the
Project's Web page /">http://www.cpb.org/annenberg/ highered/home.html.
Stephen C. Ehrmann is manager of the Annenberg/CPB Projects' Educational
� 1995 Educom.
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