Wednesday, September 09, 2009

E. Save Time: Transform Learning

Saving time can be key to using technology to create a pervasive lasting improvement in teaching and learning. No need to wait for new technology in order to achieve such benefits. Consider this example from over twenty years ago.

In 1987 Ray Lewis and I were studying how faculty could take advantage of computing to improve teaching and learning. We spent a day interviewing faculty and staff at Reed College, a superlative private college in Portland Oregon. Current seniors had had Macintoshes since freshman year.

During our day on campus, we interviewed a small number of faculty members scattered across eight departments. They had been selected because they believed that student use of computers was a real asset for their courses. We wanted to know why they thought so: what they had learned about teaching and learning with technology.

It quickly became apparent that each instructor had taken advantage of students' use of computers in very different ways. But, as the interviews unfolded, we discovered that there was one thing that all of them had done. As two of them put it, 'I'm no longer embarrassed to ask the student to do it over again.' 

Back in the day of the typewriter, writing was akin to sculpting in stone. Faculty would make an assignment, students would often type one draft, perhaps use 'whiteout' to correct words here and there, and turn it in. Now, with word processing, Reed students and faculty were discovering that they could revise a word, sentence, paragraph and paper more quickly and easily. Initially it was a time-saver. But, as revising became more common, prolonged, and deep, writing became like sculpting in clay: you could try an argument, look at what you'd done, think about it, hear what others thought, and reshape it. The screen became a mirror to the mind, helping thought grow.

So these faculty saw the promise and had gradually changed their syllabi: assignments were now made in stages: plan, feedback, draft, peer critique, another draft, final version. None of the faculty mentioned any dramatic redesign of their courses: instead, over the years, they had tweaked their syllabi and their techniques. By now, the change in the rhythm of assignments had become substantial.

That day, I asked a couple of seniors if their abilities had been influenced by their use of computers over their four years at Reed. One of them replied that he'd learned that it's not one's first draft or thought that matters, but only the final version. When I asked from which course he’d learned that lesson, he replied, “I don’t think I could have learned that from just one course. But, over the years, it gradually sank in.” Apparently this change in the shape of courses at Reed had been widespread, enough so that this student had seen this kind of teaching again and again over his four years.

By early afternoon it was clear that we were seeing a pattern. So I started asking if this change in teaching was having an impact on the skills of graduating seniors. The three remaining interviewees replied the same way: Reed's senior theses had improved. (At Reed, a senior thesis is the product of two semesters of research.) ‘Part of that is simply because it’s easier to revise a long paper when you’re using a computer,’ said the director of the writing program, ‘but I think our students have gradually learned more about how to assemble and refine a complex intellectual argument.’

At the end of that day of interviews, Ray and I sat down with several senior faculty and administrators. We told them pretty much the same story I’ve just recounted. They were surprised. There had been no centralized push, no faculty workshops, no inspiring leader urging colleagues to build revision into the curriculum. Apparently large numbers of students and faculty, seeing similar opportunities to save time and improve their work, had responded in similar ways.

Years later, I read Walter Ong’s classic Orality and Literacy. Ong suggested that reading and writing enable people to gradually develop a complex arguments, a way of thinking quite different from that found in preliterate cultures. 

Similarly, when Reed began using word processing as a lever to enable more critique and more revision, students might well advance to a new level of critical thinking. And critical thinking is one of the most important goals of education.

Remember the backdrop of this story. It had always been possible to revise a draft, and some students must have gone through several drafts before submitting a paper, even when using pen or typewriter. But word processing saves time when revising, enough time so that revision could begin to play a very different kind of role in helping students learn to think.

This time-saving use of word processing for revision led to what I'd call a “transformation” of education at Reed, i.e., a pervasive, lasting change in academic work that probably led to important improvements in how Reed graduates could think.

What does this story about saving time suggest how to transform teaching and learning with technology in the future? Here are the lessons I learned:
  • The activity: Select a routine activity that is important in studying and in life. At Reed. the activity was revising a paper. For an engineering program, the activity might be some aspect of design or analysis. In a humanities field, the activity might be using and discussing source materials in several different media. The activity should be something that students and faculty do frequently, across the course of study.
  • The technology: Then find ways in which some technology now enables students and faculty to save time while carrying out that activity. The technology is probably so familiar that the technology pioneers in your program don't even think of it as 'technology' anymore. But the technology should be popular, inexpensive, and easy to use. When someone learns applies this technology to the activity, they should quickly get a thrill: initially because the activity is now much quicker and easier, and later because in some way the activity is also better when done this way.
  • Avalanche about to happen: In the first bullet above, I said to “select one or more routine activities,” but perhaps a better verb would have been “discover.” Look for people who are already saving time by using this technology in this way, and getting such a charge out of that change that they're already telling a few colleagues about it. If you're on the right track – the right activity, the right use of technology – you'll have discovered an avalanche that is about to happen. Your role: help to trigger it, so that your program can progress this way more quickly and easily, and perhaps before your competitors do.
  • Cumulative impact: You're looking for a changed activity whose benefits can add up, course after course, to some significant improvements in how graduating students think, what they know, what they can do, what they appreciate...
  • Evaluation: That's what was missing at Reed. If my inferences at the end of that day in 1987 were correct, Reed had made important progress. But the leadership didn't even know the change had occurred. So they hadn't applauded it, guided it, or funded it. They had no evidence to share with faculty, students, or potential benefactors. They didn't know where progress had been usually rapid, or unusually slow, or whether to pay attention to either. The smaller the steps toward improvement, and the more pervasive and bottom-up that progress, the more important it is to use programmatic research to help the faculty as a whole see what they're doing so that they can discuss and decide what to do next. I'll discuss how to do this kind of research in a future post.
This strategy may be counter-intuitive: no hot new technology, for example, and not necessarily any need for a big grant. But I suspect this bottom-up, time-saving strategy may often be the best way to alter who can learn, what they learn, and how they learn. It's an example of what my colleague, Steve Gilbert, has called 'frugal innovation.' ***** PS. We're now half way through this series of posts, the last five weeks on goals for using technology and the next five weeks on strategies to reach those five goals. This table includes links to each past post, and my evolving plans for coming posts. Print References Ong, Walter (1982), Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, London and New York: Routledge.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Steve. I was trying to think of a similar example, and the advent of Wolfram|Alpha came to mind. This free, easy-to-use online tool can handle most of the calculations one would find in most non-major and some major math courses. This tool can save students lots of time on calculations. Sure, calculators and software programs have been around a while that handle these same calculations. But Wolfram|Alpha is free, widely available (just need a Web browser), and relatively easy to use.

    However, there's a big difference between Wolfram|Alpha, which allows students to avoid learning computational skills, and your example about word processing, which didn't remove any steps from the learning process. Word processing sped up some of the steps without changing their nature, which meant students still went through those steps, but also had time for more steps, steps they wouldn't have been able to engage in without word processing.

    What's similar in our two examples, however, is the use of technology to speed up or skip the application of certain skills as a way to make more time available for higher order skills. In your example, it was making time available for the revision process. With Wolfram|Alpha, there's the potential for more time spent on concepts and applications. In both cases, the technology makes deeper learning more accessible.


What do you think?