Sunday, July 11, 2010

Computer-Assisted Learning

A news story in the New York Times summarizes a recent study that challenges the accepted wisdom of the past two decades. It shows that computers in the home cause students’ grades to go down, not up. The belief had been that internet use—with all the information of the world just one Google-search away—would be an instructional boon. But proponents of the transformational power of computers forgot a couple of things.

First, they forgot history. As I man in my forties, I remember the audio-visual revolution of the 1970s. Yes, audio-visual technology was touted as innovative for educators, much like the more recent hype about computers. But I experienced “filmstrip days” as a child, not as an educator. I remember that sense of relief I felt whenever I walked into the classroom and saw the machinery—here was a day I wouldn’t be working (read: learning). Computer-assisted education isn’t really any different.

And this leads to the second major element that the proponents of computers forgot: the teacher. Tools are just that—tools. They are meant to enhance the education process. But in the rush to get the latest technology into the classroom, no one stopped to think how it would get integrated into a broader plan of education. Instead, in the case of “filmstrip days,” the program for a unit was stopped and an extraneous element—the technology—was thrust into the classroom. No one knew what to do with it, neither the students nor the teachers.

But in my opinion, the real problem with technology is human nature. As a professional teacher of Italian, I’m always fielding questions about which computer program is best for teaching a language. The truth is, none of them. Don’t get me wrong, the programmers can put together good explanations, and accompany them with well thought out activities. But in years as a language-instructor, I’ve never seen them work. Simply put, they fundamentally misunderstand what it means to educate.

“To teach” is a dative verb that requires an indirect object: a person teaches something to someone. This linguistic point underscores a deep truth about education. Students learn from teachers who motivate them. A fundamental component of the educational process is the human element: the interaction between one person with another. In the case of language learning, you learn a language to communicate with other human beings. It makes sense, then, that you’d learn a language from human beings, and not from a machine—after all, you’ll need to practice talking to people in that language from the start!

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