The Jury Is In!

By David G. Brown


            I speak about computers to a lot of college and university audiences.  Body language usually provides an early alert.  Whether it’s a seminar with 200 faculty on “how to enhance teaching through computers” or a private sessions with the university’s president, from every audience comes the inevitable question: “What proof do you have that all this money spent on technology increases student learning?”


            My first answers convinced no one.  I cited how grades in basic chemistry increased at the University of Virginia, how failure rates declined at Virginia Tech, how end-of-course test scores jumped at the University of Central Florida, and how much higher rates of approval Wake Forest students gave to computer enhanced versions of similar courses.  But, for every study I cited the interrogator-searching-for-an-answer would reference a counter-conclusion from the “no significant difference” movement.  Few, if any, minds were changed!


            I guess I would have the same skepticism about studies “proving” that blackboards & chalk, or five-color textbooks, or million volume libraries, or newly purchased electron microscopes, or the implementation of Bloom’s taxonomy was the single factor among many that increased learning.   Classrooms are not sterile laboratories.  Students are not guinea pigs.  Rigorous studies tracing the change of a single variable are not possible.


            On almost every campus, opinion surveys of both faculty and students involved in face-to-face courses reveal that they think computer enhancements increase learning.   They know they prefer such courses.   Professors who have once incorporated computer enhancements, keep them.  Students who have once enrolled in a computer enhanced course tend to seek out another one.   But, the skeptics argue, both students and faculty have something of a vested interest and are therefore not fully rational.   Opinion polls are not enough.


            Recently I’ve approached the inevitable question in another way.   It seems to work.  Some minds have been changed.  The new approach is more logic than empiricism. 


From studies that have nothing to do with technology we know that learning increases when---

(1)   there is more interaction and quicker feedback between students and their professors, between parents and their children;

(2)   students (and siblings) help each other learn (collaborative learning); and

(3)   students are redundantly provided the same material in multiple formats (different strokes for different folks).


We also have hard evidence that in computer enhanced courses---

(1)   communications between faculty and students is more frequent and timely,

(2)   more collaboration occurs among students, and

(3)   students have access to a broader range of materials and people.


Computers enable more interaction, collaboration, and customization.  As a result, there is more learning.   The jury is in, on the benefit side!


Feeling somewhat cornered, the skeptics, who have not yet changed body language, ask:  “Wouldn’t the same money be better spent on more professors?  Wouldn’t the effort be better invested in learning grammar and the theory of relativity?”


Perhaps!  Let’s think a moment, however, about the cost.  By a computer enhanced course we mean a course taught on the assumption that all students have appropriate access to the Internet and sufficient knowledge to use the access.  Now that students learn how to use a computer in order to play games, listen to rock concerts, buy t-shirts, and routinely exchange emails with friends; the additional cost of using the computer for school purposes is nil!  Students are learning to use web browsers on their own time, not study time!  Access is first sought for “.com” purposes.  The add on or marginal cost of using computers for their studies is insignificant!


High benefit.  Low cost.  The jury is in! Computer enhanced instruction leads toward increased learning!  Is it possible that the body language will change?