Thoughts on Computers in Education

Over at the World Conference on Computers in Education people are tweeting about change, innovation and transformation. David Putnam is saying things like

Should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we’re trying to ‘protect’ could find that their entire future has been scuttled by our timidity.”

Strong words indeed but fundamentally alarmist and not really based on any evidence. Indeed, I never quite understood the argument that pedagogy should continuously adapt to changes in technology simply because the technology is ‘there’.

For me, there are two main reasons why digital technology should be embraced in education.

Firstly, digital technology should be used when it is quite obvious that technology enhances learning. For example, it makes far more sense for me to explain how a centrifugal pump works by showing my students one of the many excellent animations on YouTube, rather than trying to do so by drawing diagrams on the blackboard.

Secondly,  new technologies should be embraced when those technologies have had a substantive impact on our discipline. For example, many of the (graphical) computational techniques that I was taught as a chemical engineering student are now obsolete because calculations can be done far more quickly and accurately using modern software. Therefore it makes sense for me to encourage my students to bring their laptops into my lectures and solve problems with me whether it is with Excel or WolframAlpha or simple simulation packages like Berkeley Madonna.

But – and while it is important that we constantly strive to improve learning – it strikes me that the world of education is fixated on novelty and finding solutions to ill-defined, or even undefined, problems. For example, although we can safely assume that traditional, teacher-led education played a significant role in the truly extraordinary advances that were made in the 20th century, many education theorists seemed to be convinced that the traditional approach is beset with problems, problems that make it unfit for purpose in the 21st century. This is an extraordinary claim and as Carl Sagan said, it really needs to be supported by extraordinary evidence. Does that evidence exist? I don’t think so because in my experience, change in education is driven by little more than plausibility and given the stakes, that is unacceptable.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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