When Johnson's findings were reported in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the article touched off a flame war between techno-pushers and techno-teetotalers that should be required reading for technologists contemplating any new initiatives. If you read through the comments -- and I do recommend it -- you will probably notice immediately that there are four basic explanations for why grade sheets are automated and pedagogy isn't:
-- Wicked faculty won't give innovative technology a chance because they don't want the world to make progress.
-- Wicked IT staff have taken massive bribes from outside consultants who are trying to force colleges to spend their budgets on useless software instead of actual instruction.
-- Stupid faculty don't want to learn new ways.
-- Stupid IT people don't care about learning (which they call "content") but only about the technique of delivery.
[ For more on IT's undefined role in education, see Classroom Technology Faces Skeptics At Research Universities. ]
As a humanities scholar contemplating several millennia of the human record, I see the attraction of stupidity and wickedness as explanations. But isn't it just as interesting that IT was adopted for classroom logistics very nearly as soon as it was available, with virtually no resistance and enthusiastic cooperation between faculty and staff?
If we reason from that logistical success instead of from the pedagogical failure, perhaps the explanation need not involve wickedness or stupidity.
First of all, running a classroom is an administrative task, much like running a small business. A grade book is not terribly different from a ledger; a handout about options for a term paper is similar to an announcement of a special sale; and the same sort of email announces an emergency. So for logistics, the software was already built, because administrative problems were well understood and easily standardized. For instruction, however, much more needed to be invented from scratch.
Teaching faculty and IT staff were also united because they agreed that administrative/logistical issues were important but not vital. Although people wanted classes to run smoothly, they weren't strongly committed to any one way for them to run. Very few people became either teachers or technicians because they are passionate about filling out forms and maintaining records. Lightening that load by the quickest, most efficient available method was in everyone's interest.
IT quickly took over school logistics because it was already well understood, easily standardized, important enough to do well, and without much agenda for how it was done.
Classroom teaching is none of those things. Though a large number of things are known not to work (staring at the floor and mumbling, for example) and a small number of things are known to work for some people, there's a huge component of pure art about it even now, and much of what experienced successful teachers know is contradicted by other experienced successful teachers. Clear understanding and standardization simply isn't there yet.
Then too, any quick scan of committee, foundation, or legislative debates about education will reveal that people disagree deeply about what education is for (job training? indoctrination? keeping people off the labor market?) and for that matter, about what it means to know a subject. (A Civil War re-enactor, a West Point military instructor, and a literary historian researching a study of Lincoln biographies all know a great deal about the Civil War. How do you compare or rank it?) Worse, though there's little agreement about what is important, there's intense agreement that it is important.
Should we all just give up on the idea of instructional technology?
Well, consider the fact that classroom discussion, as we know it today, restarted in Western universities with Abelard, sometime around 1110 CE, or that the first real textbook for classroom use was a simple Latin primer, the Abecedarium, probably printed in the Netherlands in the generation just after Gutenberg. And yet anyone who teaches can tell you that classroom discussions and textbooks have not yet reached the point of perfection, despite widespread adoption.
Perhaps if we just acknowledge that teaching and learning are hard but vital, and therefore all methods are imperfect -- the exact opposite of logistics, which are easy but tedious, so that perfect methods abound -- we could see developing instructional IT as a very long-term work in progress, and admit we're all just getting started.
This column was originally published on the UBM's Educational IT site.