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The Match Game

By Scott Page, Director, University of Michigan

The Match GameScott Page, Director, University of Michigan

“I feel like there’s a red pill and a blue pill, and you can take the blue pill and go back to your classroom and lecture your twenty students. But I’ve taken the red pill, and I’ve seen Wonderland.” –Sebastion Thrun

In 1801, James Pillans, a geography teacher and the headmaster at The Old High School in Edinburgh, Scotland introduced a break through educational technology, the slate blackboard. The blackboard has had a lasting effect on how we teach. It remains one of, if not the most widely used technology across primary and secondary schools as well as the academy.

The blackboard has not gone the way of the horse because it works. According to a 1981 UNESCO report the blackboard can “stimulate, instruct by visual means, reinforce the spoken word, and summarize.” On a blackboard, an instructor can move effortlessly between modalities: written words, mathematical expressions, and conceptual figures. She can even change fonts without having to pull down a menu.

Proficiency at the blackboard requires skill. Here is a sampling of the blackboard advice offered by the United States Department of Transportation: Keep the chalkboard clean. Erase all irrelevant material. Keep chalk, erasers, cleaning cloths, rulers, and other aids readily available to avoid interruption of the presentation. Write or draw large enough for everyone in the group to see. Do not overcrowd the chalkboard. Present material simply and briefly. If necessary, use the ruler, compass, or other devices in making drawings. Use colored chalk for emphasis. Such explicit rules for success are complemented by any number of individual tacit learnings.

Sebastion Thrun and other technology advocates position the blackboard as the blue pill and would like to replace it. The blackboard is certainly old school. When I began my professional career as an assistant professor at Caltech in 1993, the blackboard was my go to technology. While I had access to transparencies and overhead projectors, I found transparencies time consuming to produce, difficult to correct on the fly, and hard to manage physically. Attempts to use transparencies in lectures inevitably ended with a disorganized pile of sheets that produced a veritable field of static electricity.

Thus, I was a blackboarder. And, my singular goal was to become good at it, to master the technology. Now, twenty-five years later, I find myself staring not at a single red pill but at aCrayola of choices: a garnet pill, a scarlet pill, a candy apple red pill, and a burgundy pill.

These technological options include course web pages on CTOOLS or Canvas, PowerPoint slides, Prezi’s, videos, gamification, in class multiple choice clickers, pre-class surveys, supplementary MOOCs. Rather than lecture I can have students work in teams to create Pecha Kuchasor interface with an interactive web page that includes self-grading problems.

The abundance of choices creates two problems. First, how can I master so many technologies? If it took me a decade to become a passable blackboard instructor, how long will it take to masker gamification? And when, in addition to publishing, serving, and (at my institution) doing outreach, will I find the time to achieve that mastery?

Second, and I see this as the more troubling problem, which technology do I use when? When do we game, when do they click, when do I orate, and when do we all sit back and watch TED?

A simple exercise in combinatorics reveals the scope of the matching problem: if I have five types of knowledge I want to convey about say the Bias-Variance Decomposition: the concept, the formula, how to apply it, common applications, and weaknesses in the theorem; and if I have six possible technologies, then I have a total of 65 or 7,776, possible matches of types of knowledge to technologies.

Choosing the wrong technology can sow confusion, even disaster. For an example of the latter, see Peter Norvig’s hilarious “The Gettysburg PowerPoint Presentation” in which “dedicate, consecrate, and hallow” appear as bullet points.

So, as an instructor, I cannot but wonder “is gamifying the fundamental theorem of calculus” an educational breakthrough or Norvigian hilarity? The answer probably depends on how well one constructs the game. And that depends on mastery.

So, to ask in large white chalky font against a black background: what is to be done?

I’ll toss out three speculative ideas. First, we need a deeper understanding of when to use each technology. Some answers appear straightforward. Equations seem best learned through interactive homework assignments, strategic behavior through games, and history through reading and watching. Other answers may require more research. How do we best teach hypothesis testing or mitosis? In doing this research, we must keep in mind that the best technology may differ by both user and receiver.

Second, rather than present faculty with menu of breakthrough technologies, we should flip the interface and ask faculty questions about the nature of what they want to convey. We can then offer them technologies that will work– provided that we know when those technologies work. In short, we should solve the matching problem for them.

Last, as it says on any shampoo bottle, after lathering, we should rinse and repeat. We should gather more evidence for what is working and why, and then we should repeat the exercise. We should engage in continuous improvement. When we do, I venture to guess that we will not have a red pill replacing a blue pill, but something much closer to personalized medicine, where each faculty member mixes an individual technology ensemble to best serve her students’ needs.

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