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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 ( 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 outcome.

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 coaching.

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 (2003).

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 Engineering.

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