Tuesday, May 10, 2005

The Perfect Teaching Device

I was at a presentation (which was very good, by the way) where we were discussing the possibility of making automated instruction. The goal was to create a system that would pretty much do what a teacher does, only better; because it's a computer. Once you have a program that can do what a human can do, you make a lot of these 'computers' put them in front of students, and we all sit back while people learn.

Dave Wiley was in the room and asked a very interesting question. If you have a computer that knows all of this information, why do you need to learn it in the first place? Why not just use that system as a reference?

The answer came in the form of another question (the best kind of answer), “Well, you may have a calculator, but don't you still need to learn how to add?”

This question wasn't answered right away. There was a bit of thought and discussion but eventually the question was, at least in my mind, answered quite satisfactorily. The answer has to do with recency and frequency. You know how to do things that you have either recently done, or those that you do all the time. We add often and frequently, and therefore find it easier to just learn it rather than rely on a calculator all of the time. But we don't memorize the square root of every number between 1 and 100. This information is rarely needed, and so you use a calculator.

So, if I had access to a computer that could teach me anything I wanted to know about anything, I wouldn't spend time trying to learn from it, I would simply want it in my back pocket. If I decide to visit Gettysburg, I don't need to know all of the facts about Gettysburg, I only need to know how to pull the device from my back pocket, and read. It becomes a reference.

I teach several classes at Weber State. I do not force students to take tests in which they have to memorize and regurgitate. What is the point? We live in a Google world where so much information is at the tips of your fingers. I care more that my students can find a right answer, and logically prove to me why it's a right answer, than they can just memorize the right answer I give them.

I don't think we need to come up with the perfect computer based instructor. I think students learn best by themselves. Sure, we can present information, or better yet, experiences, that will get students thinking, but if a person doesn't want to learn, they won't. In my mind, a system that can present information in a logical way, (or in multiple ways?), that stimulates curiosity or thought (which leads to learning), is a much better device than one that professes to teach.

It would be easier to build to boot. Google, Wikipedia, and Cellpedia are already steps in the right direction.


shelleylyn said...

Sometimes I wonder about the point of the field of "Instructional Technology". Is it to make learning as easy as possible for people? Let's make a system that feeds them the stuff we think they need with the least amount of effort on their part as possible. It's like we see the learner as a blob who needs to be enabled to learn. What about the learner's sense of curiosity? Do we build a system to encourage that? I think we need to get out of the learner's way. Stop trying to build systems that anticipate the learner's every move and need. Let's just do our best to create an environment that allows for exploration, connections with other people, and access to information. That's it.

Maria said...

I would die without my calculator. The math department at WSU tried and failed to teach me how to add and I have no qualms admitting that I can't even do basic arithmetic. My left-brain is so atrophied from disuse that I wonder if it still functions. (There's not really a point to this comment, just thought I'd defend the calculator).

Matthew Buckley said...

Long live the calculator. :)