Changing the Gold Standard for Instruction

An education scholar’s view of teaching, learning, and technology change on campus.

Chris Dede

TEACHING AND LEARNING scholar
Chris Dede: "If I can’t compete with a
laptop, I shouldn’t be teaching."

As the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University’s (MA) Graduate School of Education, Chris Dede is at the forefront of change in technology for teaching and learning. His scholarship spans emerging technologies, policy, and leadership. Here, Dede reflects on the changes many hope for—and those that we can all expect to see—in technology adoption and change for higher education.

You’ve talked before about instruction that incorporates face-to-face learning and virtual interactions across time and distance. What are the current technologies you use? I teach a class every fall at Harvard with seven different kinds of technology for mediated interaction, plus some face-to-face. As examples, we use asynchronous threaded discussion, Internet-based videoconferencing, and synchronous interactions in a multi-user virtual environment—which is like a virtual place where people interact together with digital avatars, agents, and artifacts. We also use a form of groupware, so people can do application sharing and work together on documents, images, or other types of design.

Those technologies all seem fairly readily available—so these are not extremely exotic, terribly high-end technologies that are hard for institutions to get a hold of, are they? That’s exactly right. I could, teaching at Harvard, offer a course that uses a lot of exotic technologies. But there would be no point: What would the students do when they left and couldn’t use any of the technologies that we had experienced together in class? What makes this field so exciting now is that, just by having access to the Internet, so many different kinds of mediated interaction are possible without spending more money in order to get those capabilities.

There’s a tremendous range of types of mediated interaction; both in workplace settings and in their personal lives, we see people using a lot of media, not just one or two, to accomplish and learn things. Along with the Internet come threaded discussions, synchronous conversations in a virtual place, and even Internet-based videoconferencing—all pretty much “for free,” bundled with the connectivity itself.

How do these technologies change teaching and learning? Some people find their voice in mediated interaction. There is a widespread misconception that, for everyone, face-to-face is the “gold standard” in education, and any kind of mediated interaction is second-best. But we know from research, that’s not true. Face-to-face may be best for most faculty; many faculty chose their profession because they are very comfortable and adept, face-to-face. However, we know that many students who are silent in classroom discussions find their voice and participate actively in different flavors of mediated interaction.

What will influence the adoption of technologies that change teaching and learning? What are the drivers for these changes on college and university campuses? One big driver is going to be changes in student learning preferences. Today’s incoming students of all ages generally prefer to use a lot of media in learning and are discouraged when they are placed in situations where they don’t have access to those media. Here at Harvard, there is a controversy about whether students should be allowed to use laptops in classes, because professors are worried about the students sending e-mail or surfing the Web instead of listening. My own point of view is, if I can’t compete with a laptop, I shouldn’t be teaching. So more and more, even faculty who are resistant are going to have to face that the student population expects them to be fluent in technology, and expects learning activities and courses to involve modern media.

Another driver is that, as students graduate and apply for jobs, fluency in information technology is going to become mandatory. In fact, it’s ironic that faculty jobs are among the few types of positions left where fluency in IT isn’t stressed. But students certainly inform us that employers want them to be adept in using applications, even if the occupation is not a technical one. Overall, the combination of alumni and employers wanting graduates fluent in interactive media, and incoming students wanting to use technology in learning, is going to put a lot of pressure on the academy.

Another driver we’ll soon see is a demographic shift. Right now, the US is experiencing a lot of economic difficulties, in part, because we lose so much human talent. Many students don’t even graduate from high school, let alone get to college and do well there. So, people like myself are working very hard to try to help pre-college education do much better. If we succeed, there will be a new wave of students coming to college who have different learning styles and strengths than the population that has historically gone to college. That’s going to be a force for change in college settings.

There is a widespread misconception that, for everyone, face-to-face is the ‘gold standard’ in education, and any kind of mediated interaction is second-best.

What do you envision as the “next big thing” that might cause a real shift in that “gold standard” for instruction? I believe the next really big thing is going to be learning anyplace, anytime, through smart cell phones. People now think of learning as something that takes place largely in chunks of 45 minutes to an hour or longer. So, that means you’re sitting in class for a substantial period of time. Or, maybe you’re sitting down at night with your Web browser to work on some kind of online learning experience for a significant amount of time. What wireless mobile devices are opening up is the chance—while you’re waiting for a subway train or for your dinner to come in a restaurant, or while you’re on a bus—to choose to learn something in a much shorter chunk of time. Of course, many things can’t be learned in one little chunk of time. And it isn’t that all learning can take place in 15-minute intervals. But a lot of the things that take an hour or more are really made up of smaller pieces that can, in fact, be learned separately from one another. That’s possible if they are not so richly interconnected that you absolutely must sit down and learn them all at once.

What we might see—not tomorrow morning, not in five years, but maybe in 15 years—is a different pattern of learning, where, while they’re doing other things in their lives, people learn small pieces that provide a foundation. When they’re ready, when they have the foundational parts, that’s when they’ll take a longer period of time at their workstations interacting through media or sitting in a classroom with a group of people, putting those pieces together. And, over time, that will be seen as a very big shift.

Editor’s Note: Chris Dede will give the opening keynote, “Get Ready for a Sea-Change in Education: Immersive Learning Technologies Across Cyberspace,” on August 1, at the Campus Technology 2006 conference in Boston. For additional information, click here.

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