New Technologies Make Bad Teaching Slightly Worse

Okay, I know Al already linked to this piece in the Chronicle about “online learning,” but I thought I’d follow up on it. In case you missed it, there’s an article on the Chronicle of Higher Education website, titled “Video Lectures May Slightly Hurt Student Performance,” which reports on a published study that apparently compares learning outcomes between students who attended live lectures against those who watched the same lectures online. That study was titled “Is it Live or is it Internet? Experimental Estimate of the Effects of Online Instruction on Student Learning,” which may explain why the Chronicle originally titled its write-up “Online Learning May Slightly Hurt Student Performance.”

Why did they change the title? Perhaps it has to do with all the subsequent reader comments to the Chronicle article pointing out the rather obvious fact that comparing outcomes associated with live lectures and video lectures has almost nothing whatsoever to do with “online learning” (I highly recommend reading the comments, which are quite entertaining). What the original study’s authors have “proven” (too generous a term without the scare quotes) is that students who watch lectures online don’t seem to get as much out of them as those who come to face-to-face lectures. Forgive me if, at this point, I can only say “well, duh.”

All this wouldn’t be a big deal if the study’s authors — along with the Chronicle — weren’t so obviously baiting the exact kind of moral panic over technology I alluded to in an earlier post. It’s more technological determinism, as if the medium of lecture delivery were the most salient factor. I might read the results differently. Perhaps the stultifying effects of having to listen passively to a lecture are merely amplified by having to listen to that lecture online. Or perhaps those who had to listen to the lectures online did what any of us might have done, which is open up Facebook and read our friends’ status updates while the lecture droned on in the background.

My point is that bad pedagogy is bad pedagogy, and we may find that certain kinds of bad pedagogy are exacerbated by migration into an online environment. Lecture has its place in the instructional toolbox, but it’s problematic as a primary mode of instruction, especially if it’s underwritten by an obsession with “content coverage.” Good online teaching looks like any kind of good teaching, in that it follows a few basic principles. In some ways, it may sometimes be a challenge to follow those principles as we adopt new technologies, but it may also present an opportunity to abandon outdated pedagogies and embrace more effective ones.

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3 comments on “New Technologies Make Bad Teaching Slightly Worse

  1. So that’s what was going on. I saw them post that edited title, and thought it sounded familiar…

    That whole thread, going from both studies to that actual article to the responses, seem a bit of a joke to me. The government analysis by the Board of Education, whose results favour online learning over face-to-face instruction (really??), seems obviously coloured by the current dire need to save money–why else would this study of education be published by… the National Bureau of Economic Research?!

    And then we’ve got the Northwestern U research that neglects class.

    It doesn’t seem like everyone’s on the same page. And, as with many Chronicle articles, it seems that the readership knows much more than the editorial team and writer.

    • Perhaps the worst reason to move toward online learning is to save money. Because it probably won’t. Whatever we dispense with in terms of physical infrastructure (i.e., classrooms) will just get spent on technical support, or salaries for more career administrators to sit and watch while faculty do all the work.

      I think you’re right, that not everyone is on the same page. There are lots of competing motivations. The Northwestern researchers could be commended for at least seeming to care about learning outcomes (rather than budgets). Maybe they think of themselves as looking critically at the effects of a set of practices they see as being forced upon instructors. I wouldn’t buy that kind of characterization, but I can see where it’s coming from.

      As for the Chronicle editors: maybe. In truth, they got the two of us (and lots of other folks I know) to spend lots of time looking at a web page with advertising on it, and they’ve gotten us to link to that page and mention it in blog posts. From their point of view, that piece is probably a rousing success. There’s money to be made in poking people with a stick.

  2. Pingback: Reading DIY U « Teaching Writing in a Digital Age

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