From Guild to Gnosis
I've come to realize, belatedly
I admit, that we've been dabbling around the edges of what educational technology
could be. We haven't pursued the arduous. Not that there hasn't been enormous
amounts of effort, energy, and resources invested in technology-based tools
applied to learning. We've done extraordinary things. I'm writing this column
on a laptop with more power than mainframes only a decade ago, or super-minicomputers
of half that age.
Some folks are starting to address some of the difficult problems in learning
science, software infrastructure design, and the dynamics of engaging young
minds. If these are the trends that lie ahead, I hope that much of the "easy"
work has been done. We're now being challenged with moving from a guild of committed
artisans to a science of teaching and learning. Some guideposts are out there.
For instance, the National Academy Press book, How People Learn, has established
a framework that has guided the work of others, a significant characteristic
of a valuable contribution.
One example of such work is the VaNTH project (www.vanth.org).
This is an effort that combines the bi'engineering and learning sciences faculties
of Vanderbilt University, Northwestern University, the University of Texas-Austin,
and the Health Science and Technology Program of Harvard and MIT. They have
organized a center to perform research on bi'engineering educational technologies
that, among other things, is translating the ideas expressed in How People Learn
into teaching and learning activities specific to a particular course of study.
VaNTH adopted the How People Learn (HPL) framework as a guide for developing
and organizing a set of hypotheses about faculty and student learning. This
framework has four overlapping components—often called "lenses"—that can be
used to explore the degree to which learning environments are: (1) Knowledge-centered;
(2) Learner-centered; (3) Assessment-centered; or (4) Community-centered. Effective
instruction requires balancing all four of these lenses simultaneously.
The Knowledge-Centered Lens: Deals with facts and procedures or computational
algorithms. A major question is whether there is an over-emphasis on facts and
under-emphasis on the experiences that help students learn. Re-examining courses
to identify the relationships among key ideas of their disciplinary domains
is a major part of the VaNTH project.
The Learning-Centered Lens: Focuses attention on the observation that
organized knowledge is often tacit. This causes domain experts to leave out
critical information that could be useful to novice learners. Information that
is rote to the expert may be a crucial bridge to understanding for someone who
is just learning a disciplinary domain. VaNTH researchers are pursuing formative
assessment strategies to discover at an early stage the preconception students
have and to determine the progression of learning. The expectation is that timely,
informed feedback can be used to alter the teaching process, improving the learning
Another learning activity is the use of challenge-based problem presentation.
Rather than lecturing to present concepts and then following up with problem
sets to exercise and test understanding of the material, students are presented
with challenges and asked to articulate their thinking. This gives the teacher
the chance to tailor learning to the students' level of knowledge.
The Assessment-Centered Lens: Suggests assessments that are themselves
more authentic or situated in the professional work setting are more likely
to measure the kind of open-ended expertise that real work requires.
The Community-Centered Lens: Students have been conditioned to perform
and learn in a particular manner throughout their formal years of schooling.
Students who find the rules have changed often meet the new teaching process
with resistance. Students need an explanation for why they are confronting new
teaching methods, and to better understand the world of work for which they
are being prepared.
The approach to teaching promoted by Bransford, et al is not for the passive.
It's hard work. As dense and information-packed as lectures and quizzes might
be, they are not often complex, pedagogically rich challenges to student thinking.
On the other side of the podium, students taught with HPL methods demand much
more feedback and individualized progress recording than is typically afforded
by traditional homework assignments.
The current generation of learning management system tools is of little use
when a faculty member seeks to use team-based assignments or projects. Building
multimedia portfolios is possible only when considering a portfolio in its most
generic sense—a file containing material selected by the student. A directory
can contain any digital file—so I suppose you could consider any PC as having
the capability of recording a research project, portfolio, or the next Pulitzer
prize winning novel, all by saying it has a file system. That is an extreme
generalization, but true. Ask a system like this to do a conditional presentation
of homework assignments based on assessment criteria and you'll look long and
hard in vain.
Similarly, tools for authoring pedagogically guided content are lacking. Generic
composition tools, either text-based (e.g., word processors), presentation-based
(e.g., Web page/HTML editors), or content-based (e.g., XML editors), do not
help when the goal is to guide students through a structured exercise, construct
arguments based on a logical model, or give interactive complex feedback or
We have models that offer some encouragement. In the past, writing text on
a computer or terminal required intimate knowledge of the ASCII character set.
Later, writing tools introduced a modicum of presentation control by associating
control code sequences with different rendering actions (any WordStar users
still out there?). Then we were treated to the WYSIWYG (What You See Is What
You Get) writing tools.
We're in the pre-WordStar era of pedagogical teaching tools. Efforts like those
underway in VaNTH are generating valuable data. Others are needed before we're
out of the dark ages of pedagogically informed computer-aided instruction. With
flashlight in hand, we're illuminating parts of our cave. Who knows, we might
even find a way into the light.
John Bransford, ed., (2002) How People Learn: brain, mind, experience,
and school, John D. Bransford, et. al., Committee on Developments
in the Science of Learning and Committee on Learning Research and Educational
Practices, commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education,
National Research Council, ISBN 0-309-07036-8 (pbk.).
J.E. Greenberg, N.T. Smith, and J.H. Newman, "Instructional Module in
Fourier Spectral Analysis, Based on Principles of 'How People Learn,'"
accepted for publication in the Journal of Engineering Education
Harris, T.R., Bransford, J.D. and Brophy, S.P. (in press). "Roles for
Learning Sciences and Learning Technologies in Biomedical Engineering
Education: A Review of Recent Advances." Annual Review of Biomedical