Friday, July 04, 2008

Computers Don't Teach -- People Teach

I wrote this paper in 1998. The internet was exploding. Many schools, including mine, where throwing themselves into online education. It was a time of revolution. But, at the same time I saw a dark side and a great opportunity. Today, looking at it again - it still rings true. -Americ

Computers Don't Teach -- People Teach:
The Socrates Online Method
By Americ Azevedo


When movies first came into existence, producers created motion pictures that duplicated the look of live theater. They failed to see the possibilities inherent in the new medium of film. Likewise, faced with the revolutionary possibilities of online education, many educators still think in terms of converting their lectures into static web pages and relegating their own teaching rule to grading online quizzes and taking online attendance.
Meanwhile students are eager to embrace online education. Not having to commute and having a flexible schedule are such powerful motivators that investors like Michael Milken are crawling over themselves to corner an online education market which promises to be extremely lucrative. Financially stressed administrators, businessmen/educators, and excited investors are lured by the prospects. Online education has been hyped as a way of reaching a worldwide pool of students, paying fewer teachers, having relatively lower overhead, and tapping into the concept of "cradle-to-grave" learning.

The financial and marketing advantages are obvious. Unfortunately the spirit of online education has often been reduced to page after page of linked web materials that the instructor has put together - constituting about the most boring "slide show" you can possibly imagine. Some of these online lecture sites have as many as 40 pages of content. Perhaps that's impressive to people who aren't taking the course. But imagine a student sitting in front of the monitor reading all that. Since reading from a monitor is harder on the eyes than reading from a printed page students often print these pages out to read them . As one of my students told me, "I used up a lot of ink jet cartridges printing out those so-called lectures!"

This canned type of approach is often used to represent what online learning is all about, but I think it has nothing to do with a true teaching experience. Interactive textbooks on the web are valuable, but they have distinct limitations. For instance, there are no human beings on the other end to interact with, no one to explain a difficult concept or engage a student's interest and creativity. Let's remember that without interaction institutions that take up the banner of online education are really only championing a poor variety of correspondence course. A March 1998 article in the New York Times chastised the University of Phoenix for the "drive-thru" flavor of its online curriculum. The concept of online education is here to stay, but in order to sustain its momentum we need to examine the quality interaction between a student, a teacher , and course material - not just technological innovation.
There are some very expensive distance education systems out there that run on pure technological power -- teachers hardly have to check in on their classes. Quizzes are graded and stored automatically. Students respond with less attention because they are getting no attention from living teachers or from each other. Many of these quick-fix systems seem to provide conferences and chat features as an after thought. The primary focus being on creating large amounts of text materials to simulate a lecture. Even when translated into beautiful multimedia web pages, you can't disguise the fact that something is missing. In fact, the more multimedia bells and whistles that are added, the further the shift away from teacher interaction.
The rules in cyberspace are the same as real life. Its easy to fall asleep when you are being lectured at. No one pays much attention. However, when a teacher and other students can engage you online, or in person, there is a creative tension that makes you think and grow intellectually.


Education means, "to draw out." Socrates, in his great dialogues, worked with the idea of drawing out the knowledge that people had within them. Computers don't necessarily do this. A talented teacher, coaching and guiding a student, is the essence of real education.
The Internet and Web have created new environments for talented teachers to thrive. Dialogue, research results, information, and resources are vast. Once I believed that I wanted to rid myself of the books. A paperless classroom, so to speak. I just wanted to post content on the web and link to online resources. But, I've experienced a turnaround. Books are great, few classes should be without them. Books give the class depth, and a common footing. In addition to a class book the addition of Internet resources make for a very rich and accessible environment. Other instructors have told me that web-savvy students in their classes have contributed a great deal to their fellow students. Those students that can immediately find leads to deeper sources are quick to share their tips. The web encourages them and they eagerly communicate that enthusiasm. That is using the medium for what it really is.
I've developed a method that I call the Socrates Online Method to help harness student enthusiasm in a virtual classroom. My technique is not software dependent like many other distance learning systems. Rather, the heart of the teaching method is an ancient, time-honored, and deceptively simple technique: dialogue. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, recognized dialogue as the best way to maximize the learning process.
One-on-one communication between student and teacher is emphasized in this method. Socrates Online is NOT a means of quickly throwing up web pages and canned materials onto the Internet. The shortsightedness of the "convert all your text materials into web pages" approach misses the whole dynamism of online learning, it fails to see this exciting medium as something completely new. Students who simply read lectures and assignments from a screen are not actively and personally engaged by their teachers. Students in this stultified environment will quickly tire of reading dated materials from a computer terminal and long for the social interplay of a traditional classroom.
This method fosters a rich exchange between student and teacher, between student and student, and between the online class and the vast resources of the Internet which are immediately on hand.

Asynchronous dialogue allows students and their teachers to manage their own learning times. Students who previously could not take classes due to busy career and family schedules are now freed to enrich themselves and their careers. And, unlike traditional classrooms, where students may be hesitant to participate or are hampered by one or two outspoken students online conferencing allows all students to provide input.
Another advantage to online communication is that it allows all students equal time to express themselves. No one interrupts another; postings in this dialogue format can be simultaneous. Responses and questions can be written thoughtfully, since the student is able to take his or her time. Since online conversations are, at present, text-based this medium increases the development of writing skills.


The World Wide Web can be a medium for conversational teaching software that benefits both students and teachers. Teaching dialogues can also occur asynchronously around the world and around the clock since people do not have to be on at the same time zone or on the same schedule. The skills and education necessary to succeed come within the reach of busy working adults and parents. And with the second-by-second advances in job-critical technologies, learning to stay competitive will be an ongoing process for an ever-growing group of people.

In online learning sessions, which are structured around dialogue, the computers don't eliminate teachers. Talented teachers are needed more than before. For example, with classes in Tax Law at Golden Gate University, we found that online students with a good teacher actually performed better than their counterparts in traditional classes.
Attractive, easy to read and navigate web pages are extremely important entryways into the virtual classroom, but once you are in the class, the web-based conferencing is the heart of the online classroom. Good online teaching means person to person interaction. Just like real life. Human attention is the currency of quality.


Doc said...

To put it another way, "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." Online learning, per se, is not better or worse than traditional four-wall F2F courses. But when it exploits its capabilities, including interactive asynchronous communication between students and teacher and among the students, then online learning can be as good or superior to F2F. However, as always with student-teacher situations, the teaching method rises or falls on the strength of the instructor. A good instructor will effectuate a positive learning experience no matter the instructional milieu.

DrBob said...

This was an extremely forward looking paper. Very impressive. I've seen your teaching style on the Berkeley podcasts and it is an approach that I think has tremendous value.

Ten years on, although the UK is a little behind the States on e-learning I have growing concerns.

I have many colleagues in my university who just don't "buy it". Some of these staff are concerned about their falling attendance, unit grades and their student feedback. A generation of students is becoming more disconnected from classic delivery techniques and some staff are lost...I only see this gulf getting bigger.

Two days ago I had an intense debate with a senior member of staff about the use of forums. Whilst I use them as a core method of connecting students to each other and a playground for ideas, he saw them as Pandora's box. I dismay as this guy is senior and influential.

Rarely in my endeavors at a University has my work polarized people so much. Some are seeing these tools as a threat and are disengaging big time. Some are opposing with venom. Interestingly it's the students who are applying the force for change. It seems we are witnessing a true revolution in the classroom which may transcend the student activities of the 1960's..