ASEE today

Making Computer-Enhanced Education Work

By Wallace Fowler

Wally Fowler Computer technology is changing education. The process, however, is anything but orderly. Equipment can be obsolete before it is taken out of the box. New software products appear and old products become outdated at an astounding rate. Determining which software/hardware/pedagogy combinations will improve learning and which ones won't is a problem of immense proportions. If we knew which combinations would succeed, we could spend wisely and maximize the impact of our limited funds. As it is, we can only try to avoid expending resources (monetary and human) on education-enhancing technologies with low probabilities of success.

The problems of implementing new computer technologies in an educational system are complex. Some of the more important are: (1) the speed at which new hardware/software is being developed; (2) the lack of coordination of software and hardware acquisitions at many institutions; (3) the lack of training and time for faculty members to learn about the new computer technologies; (4) the nature of today's tenured faculty, many of whom are older and not comfortable using technology; (5) younger educators who could help, but need to focus in other directions to move up the career ladder; and (6) computer technology that hinders learning.

Computer hardware and software are among the fastest-evolving products on the market today. The number of packages available to "facilitate learning" is so large that if a potential user were to take the time to make an informed decision about which to use, no time would be left for teaching. Many of us remember when we thought that all faculty members needed to learn was to use Mosaic (a predecessor of Netscape). We must find an efficient way to evaluate these products.

Training is essential. When industry installs new equipment, it makes the investment in dollars and time to train their staff members in its use. But academia does not work this way. Faculty members are often given inexpensive access to high-tech equipment and software, but no training, and are expected to master the new technologies on their own. The frequent result is under-utilization of the new technology along with an over-expenditure of faculty time. Perhaps the problem is an erroneous perception that if the technology does not cost much, learning to use it effectively should be easy and cheap.

As a result, many faculty members choose to use what they already know rather than risk changing to "better" equipment and processes. The reason may be that faculty members are expected to be experts in everything involved with learning. If we expect frequent updates of computer-enhanced learning systems in our institutions, we are expecting faculty members to repeatedly become "instant experts" on new systems. This is unrealistic; the nature of the faculty itself is part of the problem.

While older faculty members work well with computers, as a whole, they are less computer literate than younger members and their students. Older faculty members know the most about the curricula and the least about the computer enhancements available to enhance the delivery of those curricula, while for younger faculty members it is the reverse. An obvious solution would be to team younger and older faculty members together. However, at many institutions, young untenured educators are already carrying a full workload, and they may not have the time. Most schools are under-funded, and young faculty members are a necessary source of future funding for the institution.

Finally, there are the problems that have resulted from the success of computer technology. Through the World Wide Web, both students and faculty members have unprecedented access to information. Students can easily locate old term papers and reports written by someone else and turn them in as their own. There are no easy solutions to dealing with the information explosion and Web-related student plagiarism is spreading rapidly. What can we do? We must embrace new technologies despite their problems, and develop efficient ways to share knowledge about the hardware/software combinations that work, and the ones that don't. Software providers should consider providing low-cost training to educators with the idea that it would increase the probability of having their products used. Institutions should consider developing mechanisms to encourage the use of new learning technologies. Since students are usually more adept at using new equipment and software, the creation of "learning teams" in which the students and faculty members learn from each other might be a good start.

The solutions I am proposing are not the only ways to address the problems associated with computer-enhanced education. They are merely to get you thinking about them. Starting the discussion is the first step. Now let's work on some solutions.


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