Educational Technology

It seems to me…

The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth.”  ~ John F. Kennedy.

There has been relatively little change in teaching methodology since the introduction of the blackboard in 1801.  Teachers lecture and occasionally administer a test, students attend classes, take notes, and do homework.  When still teaching prior to retirement, though I talked about the need for change, for the most part, I also adhered to this model.  This was what was expected, it was how every other professor taught, and there was discouragement from being too innovative.  While we disparaged the “sage on the stage” and preferred to be the “guide on the side”, change proves difficult.

Undergraduate college students, especially those in lower division classes, tend to expend the least amount of effort possible.  Only 5-10 percent of students actually engage in class-related discussion either in class or during office hours.  I made class material available on-line and asked students to review it prior to class but they ignored it.  I made all my lecture notes available over the Web but they likewise were not accessed.  Students quickly realized they would not be penalized so only expended the minimum effort necessary (and for many, not even that).

While advances in information technology have had little overall impact on education, it often is considered as a way to rebuild public confidence in education by reducing costs, expanding access, improving completion rates, and increasing financial transparency[i].  As schools and universities come under increasing pressure and enrollments climb while budgets decrease, needed staff cannot be hired, and standards and expectation are raised, educational institutions have little choice other than to adopt new methodologies now being developed.

Unfortunately, technology is not a panacea for low quality teachers.  While educators do not like to admit it, there is substantial truth in the old adage “those who can do; those who can’t teach” – especially in the U.S. where only 23 percent of new teachers scored in the top one-third on SAT/ACT tests[ii].  Regardless of President Obama’s recommendation for increased emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subject areas, only 4 percent of elementary school science teachers have an undergraduate degree in science or science education and 49 percent of K-8 teachers have not taken either a science course or a course on how to teach science since 1990[iii].

Another problem with current educational methodologies is they remain based on the 19th-century Prussian factory model; regardless of the number or ability of those enrolled in a class, everyone is expected to progress at the same rate with little human interaction.  If a student is having a problem understanding some concept, the class still must move on to more advanced concepts.

Perhaps in response to the rapidly escalating costs of education, many universities are offering MOOCs (massive open online courses).  MOOCs are Internet-based teaching programs designed to handle thousands of students simultaneously.

Studies have shown students learn best by actually doing things and getting frequent feedback; ideally lectures should be short lasting only 2-6 minutes sandwiched between exercises covering the lecture material.  Some problems should require application of the lecture material, other exercises should be open-ended questions where students have an opportunity to consider the question and then discuss their ideas in online discussion forums.

While there are several variants as to how MOOCs actually are offered, some classes use tactics similar to social-networking websites.  To supplement video lectures, much of the learning comes from online comments, questions, and discussions.

Adaptive learning techniques might completely change the way we learn subject material.  Using a computer interface, students access videos, text, quizzes and practice problems at their own pace while predictive algorithms compare their individual stats with data from other students to determine what the student was learning or where they had problems as well as deciding what they should learn next and how they should learn it.

Virtual tools currently being developed are supporting this methodology.  Online lectures allow class time to be available for discussion, peer tutoring, or instructor-led exploration.  By removing lectures from classes, on-demand adaptive exercises and diagnostics support differentiated instruction where students can progress at their own pace and continue learning even following completion of the formal course[iv].

Testing, disliked by all teachers, also will move online.  Adaptive testing, where question difficulty will change during the course of an exam based on student answers, will provide a better assessment of a student’s understanding and preparation for advancement.

Online instruction and testing also allows the possibility for creation of electronic transcripts continually updated as students advance through school indicating their personal learning preferences, motivations, and accomplishments in addition to achievements further increasing the benefits of differentiated instruction.  Some parents of under-performing students consider this proposal controversial though these are the students who possibly could be the primary beneficiaries of adaptive instruction.

Some faculty also feel threatened by these new methodologies.  I was told by several instructors that the lecture method of educating students was the way they had been taught when they were in school, it was the way they had taught without any objection for their entire career, and they were not about to change.  Well, to use another analogy, that car has run out of gas – times have changed and we need a new vehicle.  Teachers are not in any danger of replacement, we only need to slightly modify how material is conveyed to the student.  Technology can enable teachers to use their time and abilities more effectively and to personalize the learning experience to the needs and interests of individual students.

The conversion will not be entirely smooth.  The technology is new and much remains to be learned.  But we have run out of options.  Let’s get on with it.

That’s what I think, what about you?

[i] DeMillo, Richard A.  Viewpoint: Keeping Technology Promises, Communications of the ACM, 11/2012, Vol. 55, No.11, pp37-39.

[ii] Teacher Quality, Science and Engineering Indicators,

[iii] Status of Elementary School Science Teaching, Horizon Research, Inc., December 2002,

[iv] Khan, Salman.  No More Lockstep Learning, Scientific American, August 2013, p57.

About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
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8 Responses to Educational Technology

  1. auntyuta says:

    “The goal of education is the advancement of knowledge and the dissemination of truth.” ~ John F. Kennedy
    This is a great introduction to this blog. ” . . . ideally lectures should be short lasting only 2-6 minutes . . . .” I think this is an excellent idea! I very much agree that the “guide on the side” is needed.
    More and more technology is available at less and less cost. This should free funds for extensive teacher training. I would imagine that the introduction of technology into schools would accelerate changes in teacher training and different methods of teaching.
    You say: “Only 5-10 percent of students actually engage in class-related discussion either in class or during office hours.”
    Why is it that older students seem to lose interest in learning. Isn’t this very different for very young children?


    • lewbornmann says:

      As a professor, I wish I could say I practiced what I preached. It is difficult to change though I did try a number of different approaches — none of which seemed to make that much difference in material retention. What now is apparent is that a number of factors, especially funding decreases, will result in either mandatory changes in methodology or a significant reduction in educational quality. Quality already has suffered; lets hope that trend can be reversed.
      I’m not sure why students lose interest in learning. Personally, I had a series of very poor teachers in grades 2, 4, and 5 and again in my first and second year of high school and I completely lost interest until following four years of military service. I much preferred teaching upper division courses as the remaining students had an interest in the subjects within their chosen major.


  2. berlioz1935 says:

    What Kennedy was talking about is very much encapsulated in the German word “Bildung” (an all rounded, formative education). This indeed is important but today’s children, nor students, do not get. If they ever did.

    When I read your blog I was reminded of the excellent book “Teacher Man” (ISBN 0-00-777726-4) by the Irish-American writer Frank McCourt. He was a teacher in New York teaching essay writing to very underprivileged students in the Bronx. It takes him a long, long time before he finds a way to get the student’s attention.He too had trouble with the other teaching staff who could not understand why he made such an effort to get through to those kids. He gave up lecturing them and they started to participate.


    • lewbornmann says:

      Bildung obviously means much more than simply education. (I wish I remembered more of my German but have forgotten most of it through lack of use.) I am not familiar with Frank McCourt but will try to review the book you recommend. Thank you.

      This has been a very busy summer for us. While you have had your own problems with fires, the longest stretch of time we had at home since late June was only two weeks. Twice we only had one day to wash and repack prior to heading out again for several weeks. Now that our fire season hopefully is over for this year, I am trying to catch up on all the tasks necessarily postponed.


  3. chwilowki says:

    I like the helpful info you provide in your articles. Ill bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I am quite certain I will learn many new stuff right here! Good luck for the next!


  4. chirkup says:

    Another quotation, and one that I prefer:
    Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.
    — Malcolm S. Forbes

    The reason for my preference is that ‘truth’ is often a moving target, frequently colored by beliefs, attitudes and perceptions. This happens more often in the liberal arts but it also occurs in the sciences by way of selective statistics used to promote a particular view. The term ‘truthiness’ is frequently appropriate; i.e. the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like. Unfortunately there is a growing trend of truthiness as opposed to truth.

    Lew, I agree whole-heartedly with the major thrust of your article — we need to change the way we teach to better match the ways in which the entire spectrum of students learn. But learning is hard work, no matter how skillfully and appropriately the subject material is presented. What I would like to see more of is a real desire for knowledge. I suspect that to sustain this desire one must also develop personalized internal processes in the way that knowledge is effectively acquired and organized. How do we accomplish this last?

    Another quotation:
    Let us train our minds to desire what the situation demands.
    — Seneca

    And of course this is hard work too.


    • lewbornmann says:

      I completely agree with you. It is difficult to match the learning style of every student in your classes; I always was aware that about one-quarter of my student’s learning styles did not match my basic teaching style and though I tried to compensate, frequently was less successful than desired. While I too would like to see more of a real desire for knowledge, too many students enter college poorly prepared and too immature. I was one of them.

      I was invited not to return following my freshman year in college. After four years in the Air Force, I returned to college earning my PhD with high academic grades while working to put myself through. Unfortunately, only with additional maturity did I gain that “desire for knowledge”.


      • berlioz1935 says:

        That is the point, isn’t it? How to instill a “desire for knowledge”?
        Some are born with it, in some it can be instilled by good teachers and in the majority this “desire for knowledge” will never be awaken.


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