A Little Classroom Magic

Jack Child interview

By Educom Review staff


Sequence: Volume 29, Number 1
Release Date: January/February 1994

What made Jack Child develop computer courseware to use in his American
University courses in Latin American culture?

"Maybe it lies in my background. I was trained in undergraduate
school as an engineer and served twenty years in the Army, so I'm not
your traditional college professor. My colleagues in roughly my age
group have been in the academic business for twenty-five or thirty years
and have developed extensive and impressive track records, so what I've
done to try to catch up is to take something that's already common
knowledge and simply package it in a different and useful way.

"What I teach are basic introductory courses, and I've found that
the undergraduates really appreciate the way the computer has been
integrated into the learning process. I haven't written innovative
software. Writing software's a good thing to do, but it's not what I'm
personally interested in. I want to know what one can do to really make
a difference working with real, live students.

"That's what I thought was great about the Wyatt Challenge, in
which some of my work was recognized. The people who did the evaluation
for the Wyatt Challenge didn't want you to send in software; they didn't
even want to look at the software. They just wanted to know, basically,
what you had done and how you actually used it in the classroom to make
the teaching and learning interaction more effective." Child views the
computer as a useful and motivational tutorial tool for summarizing the
large and diverse body of materials in his undergraduate general
education survey course called Latin America: History, Art, and
Literature. The interdisciplinary course is taught in English by the
Department of Language and Foreign Studies. There is an additional
Spanish-language component in the form of an "Introduction to Latin
American Geography" hypercard stack, which can be run in either English
or Spanish.

Child sees a generational barrier's working against the wider use
of computers in today's college and university classrooms.

"It's kind of sad," he says. "Most of my colleagues use computers,
but only as word processors and maybe also for spreadsheets. They rarely
try to use the power of the computer to help students learn. And the
main reason is simply that they didn't grow up with it, so it represents
a totally new field for them--a somewhat intimidating field. In fact, in
some ways, what I have done on this campus has been counterproductive,
because my colleagues look at what I've done and get scared off; they
tell me they could never do anything like that, could never put the time
and effort into such a thing. I keep insisting that it's not that
difficult and that if you just want to do a small chunk, say, a little
minilesson, a couple of hours is really all you need. But they have a
psychological barrier that I think is very hard to overcome. It's not a
technical barrier; it's in the brains of my generation of teachers. Of
course, the good news is that the younger people coming up now through
the M.A. and Ph.D. programs are much more comfortable with the
technology."

Child was asked why individual instructors had to write their own
courseware; shouldn't this be done by teams of experts? After all, he
doesn't write dictionaries, does he?

"No, but I've written textbooks," he replies, "and I think that may
be the difference, basically because what's out there is good in some
ways and certainly satisfies part of what I want to do, but to really
satisfy all that I want to do, I need to have a textbook that meets my
particular needs and syllabus. Or, if not one textbook, a combination of
four or five. I also need to have video that meets my requirements. I
need to have slides. I need to have a computer program that's in sync
with what I'm trying to do. Sure, it's conceivable that you could go out
there and buy this stuff, but I suspect that college-level instructors
who really individualize what they do are not going to find a ready-made
package; they're going to have to modify something."

Is that just the current state of affairs, or does Child think it's
the very nature of things?

"I suspect it's the latter, because I believe that for instruction
to be really meaningful, it has to be personalized: you've got to give
it your own touch. Of course, that's not to say you can't use a package
here and there. In fact, I do use commercially available software. But I
pick this and that and put it together in ways that correspond with what
I want to do.

Can he envision a time X number of months or years from now when
he'll have a commercially developed CD-ROM that has anything and
everything he would want for Latin American studies?

"I can envision that a package would have most of what I want, but
I don't think I would ever really be satisfied with a product right off
the shelf. And maybe that's my perverse nature, that I want to make it
mine in some way. I could envision the time, for example, that, say,
National Geographic puts all of its articles on Latin America on CD-ROM
or laser disc, with all the pictures. I could see that satisfying maybe
60-70 percent of my visual requirements--and that would be neat to have.
But would I ever envision a time when everything would be satisfied on a
CD-ROM or laser disc? No, I don't think so, because I think that the
teaching process--what I do in class--is much more creative than a tape.

"The analogy, I think, is the textbook. There are literally
thousands of textbooks out there dealing with Latin American studies,
yet there is no single one that satisfies everything I want to do. There
are several, but then you've got to ask the student to buy four or five
books at thirty or forty bucks a whack. That's a little unreasonable,
too. So I self-publish my own, designed specifically for my own
students. A student buys it for twenty bucks, and every word that's in
that book is relevant, because the book evolved from the actual courses
I taught, the lectures I gave, and the readings I assigned. So that's
one way of tailoring the materials for the students.

"Another important factor is that, as a teacher, you don't want to
teach the same thing every semester. I've used that text now for three
consecutive semesters; I guess about five is the max, and then I want to
revise it--simply because maybe this piece over here doesn't fit in
anymore, or I want to replace that anthology item and plug in this one.
Of course, the basic stuff isn't going to change, which is why I was
willing to invest several hundred hours of my time into developing the
geography stack I did. With that level of investment, I'd like to do
something that isn't going to change tomorrow--like current events do.
You figure geography is more or less a constant as opposed to political
developments. So I would have expected that more of this kind of stuff
would be showing up in courseware for the basic humanities, but so far
that really hasn't happened."

And so--what does Child see for the future?

"CD-ROM, and the linking of the hypercard flexibility to color, to
greater resolution, to being able to take my own photographs and put
them on CD-ROM. That's now beginning to happen, but it's still a very
slow, very expensive, and not very satisfactory process. Quicktime, I
think, is a terribly crude first step that will surely improve in the
next few years. The trick will be to keep it technologically simple
enough so that at my level I can pick and choose, put the package
together, and yet make it sophisticated enough to allow me to work high-
resolution video into what I'm doing. For example, in the stacks for
Latin American history, it would be marvelous to have a little button
that the student could click and see, let's say, a film clip of
Columbus's arrival.

"There's no end to the kind of resources that creative courseware
publishers could provide. But to be really successful, technology has to
be adaptable to specific teaching situations, and it has to be
personalized for what the instructor wants to do. Maybe if I taught at a
different level, say, at the high school level, and had really no time
at all to prepare my own materials, then I would like to be able to take
something off the shelf. But I believe that at the college level, your
students expect that what you teach is something that is yours in
addition to what might be in a textbook, and in that sense technology
has to remain flexible."

Does he foresee a time when the classroom setting will no longer be
the predominant mode of instruction?

"You could certainly do a lot that way, but there is something very
magical that happens at the human level, leaving all technology aside,
when you've got a bunch of students in a room with a good teacher and
the students care about the subject and can open up to discuss things
and throw ideas around. I don't think the need for that kind of magic
will ever go away. The human component has to be part of the teaching
process; I think the notion of long-distance teaching or of doing it
entirely on an interactive video basis loses that human spark, that
quality.

"Maybe I say that because I'm a language teacher, and language
teachers have traditionally worked very hard at getting the students to
participate and speak as much as possible. Technology can help and
assist and provide materials, but it can never really replace the human
element. There are obviously special situations, such as somebody in an
isolated area who needs to work on a telephone link or a video link, and
certainly you can do a lot with that, but ultimately, the basic
classroom, I think, will always involve people, real people, with a lot
of technological tools that enrich and provide those people with new
ways of creating and managing that classroom magic. That's my real hope
for technology."




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