Sunday, December 06, 2009

Summary of what I now Suggest

What I Now Believe about Transforming Teaching and Learning (with Technology)
Stephen C. Ehrmann, December 6, 2009

This brief essay summarizes several of the most important and controversial arguments made in a series of blog posts entitled "Ten Things I (no longer) Believe about Transforming Teaching and Learning with Technology." ( That original set of things I now believe are lettered in the original essays. I'ved used those letters below as references [in brackets], so that this summary can easily be used as a print handout. The original essays provide more detailed arguments, plus examples to illustrate each point I've tried to make, as well as covering other components of the argument not included in this brief summary. I'd like to acknowledge and thank my colleague, Steven W. Gilbert; the thoughts that follow are at least as much his as mine. However, I take sole responsibility for how they're expressed.

This summary is in two parts. Part I may be of greater interest for faculty and others who are responsible for what students learn. Part II may be of greater interest to those staff who have responsibility the facilities and services that faculty and students use to achieve such goals.


What students should learn: Obviously in a digital age, students need to use computers and the Web in order to prepare for the world of work.

Equally important: technology often gives people choices (as workers, citizens, and individuals), if they have the wit, skill and wisdom to take advantage of selected possibilities.

Academic programs ought to use similar technologies to prepare students to make such choices and to cope with the dangers that such choices can create. One way to do that is to take advantage of technology to enlarge various forms of active learning: student research, learning by designing and composing, field work, considering how prior experiences provide evidence of changing skills,... [B]

How Students Should Learn: To support that kind of emphasis on active learning, students ought to learn to use digital tools and resources that can then be employed frequently, in college and afterward. Pay particular attention to technologies that can potentially save time on the mechanics of thought and action. Word processing, for example, was initially appealing because it saved a lot of time in making simple revisions. As revision and other elements of writing became easier and quicker, writing became more like sculpting in clay (rather than in stone); many students learned to refine their thinking by refining their writing. When computing makes the mechanics easier, the attention of faculty and students can turn to more sophisticated skills and more complex phenomena. This is just one of several reasons why these suggestions for improving teaching and learning so often mention the motive of saving time for students and faculty.[E]

Assessing and evaluating what students learn: When technology is used to diversify learning, assessment and evaluation can't merely be organized around preset goals for what all students must learn (the “uniform impact” perspective). The complementary approach to assessment and evaluation (“unique uses”) focuses on what each person actually did do with their opportunities, and why. This kind of unique uses assessment is especially important, for example, in helping faculty respond to differences among their students, in order to help all students learn. [L] (For more on how faculty can use technology to respond to student differences, see

The interdependence of what, how and who: This approach to education requires both students and faculty to reach out outside the classroom, and outside traditional classroom hours of teaching, for fresh resources and new options for active learning. The technology used to bridge space and time for those purposes can also be used to help current students carry heavier loads and engage other students who wouldn't otherwise have had the motivation or means to learn. The goal of improving what is learned and how it's learned should be inseparable from the goal of improving who can learn. [C]


It's not possible to achieve this constellation of improvements through great leaps forward. A three year grant to redesign each course in the curriculum won't do the trick. Staff are already too busy to spare the time, or take the risks of dropping balls already in the air. That's because, in any non-profit organization with committed staff, staff's work will already have expanded to fill available time and budget (Parkinson's Law and the Revenue Theory of Costs). Furthermore, courses that don't continually evolve will soon become outdated and then abandoned.

Therefore a promising way to foster continual improvement is for all, or most, faculty to take a large number of small, safe steps: enough of them to that staff can gradually and cumulatively improve practice and results without jeopardizing either their sanity or their institution's budget.

For this strategy to work, it's also important for the program to set one, or a few, overall directions for improvement that can be advanced through such steps.

For example, staff and stakeholders in an engineering program might agree on a ten year campaign to help students to understand climate and sustainability issues well enough so that, by the time they graduate, the students will have each learned to respond to those issues in a manner of their own choosing. Such an ambitious goal can't possibly be achieved either by a) a one time curriculum reform or b) devoting just one course to that outcome. A better way to achieve the goal is for many program faculty to gradually improvise, changing their courses bit by bit over the years so that, ultimately, students graduate with sophisticated skills and experience in this area.

It's not easy to maintain focus for the five-ten years needed to achieve visible, meaningful improvements in program outcomes. Higher education has always suffered from attention deficit disorder. And unpredictable changes in technology use in the disciplines, and in the world, makes it even harder to maintain attention on one or two directions for cumulative change. Sustained attention on a particular vision worth working toward requires:
  1. a broad base of faculty and staff with a history of believing this particular goal is crucial for the program and meaningful for them personally;
  2. stable, patient, dogged leadership;
  3. continual scrounging around the world for the next set of small steps that each faculty member and staff member may want to try or adapt [I];
  4. developing relationships with other organizations needed to operate and sustain the program (for example, the OneMBA and iLabs examples described in [C];
  5. an unusual degree of collaboration and information sharing [F];
  6. as opportunities become available, hiring and retaining staff who have the motivation and skills to make lasting contributions to the program (which will almost inevitably include an inclination to work collaboratively with other faculty and staff); and
  7. a program of continual evaluation that helps faculty and staff detect quickly whether their small steps are adding up or not (and, if not, why not). some of this evaluation will be done in teams, some by individuals. [H]

A pluralistic approach to formative evaluation: One of the skills that almost everyone will need to learn over time is inquiry: assessment and evaluation. The most important function of evaluation is to help each person see what he or she is doing, and the best way to get such information is to look for yourself. So the institution must (via small steps) help each staff member with the training, tools, and support to ask the right questions about his or her own practice. This kind of inquiry will usually be carried out by individuals working alone and in small groups (e.g., faculty learning communities). [K]

Taking advantage of these improvements: It inevitably takes years for a program to gradually, cumulatively reorganize its work, the skills of its people, and its relationships with other organizations in the world. The good news: it also takes years for competing programs to catch up, if they ever do. And, especially if the program has been using evaluation to guide and document improvement, its achievements and strengths can be used to increase the program's visibility, help it attract the staff and students it wants, and also attract support from benefactors, grants and other sources. [A]

No comments:

Post a Comment

What do you think?