Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Where Are Plato's Children?

In some respects this is a sequel to an earlier post, Some regrets about learning management systems.  When you have a bug of an idea in your head it is hard to let go.  So I'm writing another one.  But unlike that post my focus here will be all technology where "presentation content" is rendered.  For example, there is now something of a craze about eReaders and the possibilities they engender.  Many other learning technologists see with that technology the class currently half full, with a possibility of a full glass in the not too distant future.  In contrast, I see it as less than half full, with little chance of that changing.  Here's why.

For narrative content eReaders are great.  I've greatly enjoyed the ones I've used - the original Kindle and the first iPad. This is for reading done in a comfortable lounge chair, where the reading becomes a totality into itself.  I know a year or two ago I read a review somewhere about eReaders used for instruction but sorry, I don't have the reference at the ready, so the gist of that piece will be given by recall only.   In that review the students wanted to provide annotations for what they read, and the input capabilities of the eReaders were quite limited, so the students gave the eReaders low marks as a result.  I thought at the time that the students really wanted a laptop and do their reading on that.  To modify that conjecture a bit, perhaps what they want is laptop functionality but with a wireless keyboard and touchscreen capability, so they can use it in "slate" form while in the lounge chair and then use it in usual laptop mode when inputting the annotations.

I have a wireless keyboard for the iPad.  I rarely use it however.  Mostly, I use the built in keyboard and do hunt and peck input with that.  I never use it to make annotations.  I use it to send email.  I have on occasion written a draft of a blog post in it and then emailed that to Blogger.  But it is difficult, if not impossible, to put in hyperlinks to other online content that way.  So it is limited for this function.

Perhaps the eReaders will improve for how they process the narrative content.  I said there is little chance for improvement, but there is some, and this is what I was referring to.  Here there is a question of how much the larger eReader market, which I take will continue to grow, wants this sort of functionality.  It is hard for academic use to generate functionality it wants if the larger market doesn't care.  We should learn from prior experiences that there are substantial benefits in using technology that appeals much more broadly, even if it means the technology must be taken "as is."

* * * * *

I want to make a distinction between the narrative content I've described above and the analytic content, which is my focus here and was the focus of my previous post.  The correct way to read analytic content is quite different.  Prior to the personal computer, the place to read analytic content required a table or other flat surface as well as a chair.  A pencil and a pad of ruled paper were needed to accompany the readings.  At regular junctures, the student would draw diagrams on the paper or write down and solve equations.  This written work would come out of the readings.  The activity with pencil and paper was there as a way for the student to gain understanding of what they were reading.  In this sense it was different than writing notes about the reading, which were intended to be looked at later, perhaps when preparing for an exam.  The diagrams and the equations were for the present, then and there.   You don't learn analytic results simply by reading them as you would read a narrative.  You learn them by reproducing the results from first principles.  If you can reproduce the results, then you know them. The pencil and paper are there for reproducing the results.

Over the years as students would come to me in office hours not understanding the economics, I came to learn that many also didn't understand this about processing analytic content.  They would try to process it as if it were narrative content.  Their tool of choice was the yellow highlighter.  Their textbooks would be highly marked up and they seemed to approach the subject by trying to memorize it.  They didn't know how, or didn't think to try, to process the results by reproducing them.  So they couldn't work problems that required such processing.  For analytic content, I believe the eReaders are somewhat pernicious in that they have a built in highlighter tool and that encourages the students to treat the content as narrative, whether doing so is appropriate or not.

For the learning technologist, then, there is this question with analytic content:  Should the student still rely on pencil and paper and develop learning to learn habits from that sort of processing or, instead, should the experience be done totally within the communications and computing device?  I can see arguments for this both ways, but to make the point simply I will distinguish work done in the major from work done to satisfy general education or distribution requirements. In the major, I believe some pencil and paper skills are necessary, even if there is sophisticated computing software that professionals in the field use to solve the problems.  Sometimes it is still important for deep understanding to draw diagrams or write down equations.  Professionals need to have that ability.  Non-professionals, in my view, don't require those skills and if their major field doesn't emphasize them then they needn't develop that set of skills at all.  But they still need to be able to process the content in those required courses.  And since their pencil and paper skills are not so well honed, it really would be better for them to experience the processing part of the subject while working at their computers. 

This notion that computers should aid students by helping them with the processing of the content has a long and honored tradition.  It goes by the name - computer assisted instruction.  The people who work in this field are called computer assisted instruction specialists.  When I ran the campus Center for Educational Technologies, many of my staff held the title CAIS.  Yet it now is a title that seems dated, with a preferred alternative title, eLearning specialist.  Instead of incorporating computer assisted instruction into our bag of tricks, relying on it where appropriate, we seem to be ignoring our history entirely, except in a few dark outposts.

That history may have been strongest at Illinois, where the Plato system was initially developed.  I never used Plato myself.  In the 1980s there were some bargaining experiments that relied on Plato.  While I was quite friendly with the authors, I never got involved directly with those.  I learned the little I know about Plato via a different route.

When I succeeded Burks Oakley in running the SCALE project, there were then some programmers working for the central campus computing organization who had previously worked on Plato.  From them I heard complaints about using the Internet for instruction - it wasn't nearly as good as Plato.  The interactions were too slow.  On the World Wide Web full screen refreshes were necessary and that took a while, especially given the bandwidth and processing limitations of the time.  Plato could refresh only small parts of the screen leaving the rest intact.  It was built with interaction in mind.

I learned much more about Plato from conversations with Stan Smith, a Professor of Chemistry, and an early leader on campus in the effective use of computer assisted instruction.  At the time I met him Stan was engaged in a multiyear project do deliver via the Web what he was previously able to deliver in Plato.  He eventually achieved a tolerable integration of his own created content with WebCT.  In my earlier post on learning management systems, I discussed random number generators in assessment questions.  It was Stan who got Murray Goldberg to put a random number generator into an early version of WebCT.  But Stan wasn't just about technical functionality of the software.  He had very strong ideas regarding pedagogic practice.  I picked up many of those and have since written about them in a piece praising some of my forerunners with learning technology, entitled Homage to Jerry Uhl.   (See pages 12 - 16 for the bit about Stan.)

At various conferences I've had several old time learning technology folks not at Illinois, but who knew about the Plato system and had some experience with it, tell me what a wonderful system it was.  So the knowledge of Plato was diffuse and perhaps still is diffuse.  Yet Plato's influence on the present seems very weak, at best.  It may be that the teaching of analytic content in the way I'm discussing here is more a job for K-12 than it is for Higher Ed, though there are college courses such as intermediate microeconomics, where the subject still has a substantial analytic component.   If this is right, then what we seem to be experiencing is a problem that's fallen through the cracks.  Effective use of technology to help students process analytic content would first develop at the college level and then filter down to the high schools, and maybe further down than that.  But I don't think that's happening and if it is happening, it's invisible to me.  My second son is a high school senior.  For math and science homework he's been assigned throughout high school, it's all been out of a textbook or a xerox copy of and assignment from another source.  Ditto for my older son, who graduated a couple of years ago.

The students themselves seem to understand that technology should be used this way and are disappointed that it isn't happening.  Not quite five years ago, in January 2007, I wrote a blog post that reviewed the ELI conference.  The segment quoted below is from that post. It confirms the need.
Let me switch gears. I attended two presentations where students were the presenters and a third presentation, the opening plenary, where the technology behavior of students was the object of study. The opening plenary was given by Julie Evans who presented evidence about K-12 student technology use and needs. It was a very good talk and I’m sure others will comment about it more extensively. So here I want to pick on only one point that came out of the presentation. Students want to see their course content use more technology --- particularly in math. I agree with the students. This should be done.
As I mentioned, there are outposts where Plato's legacy can be seen even if the users are not aware of the connection.  A partial list includes the Online Learning Initiative from Carnegie Mellon, LON-CAPA, and some publisher run systems also blend interactive simulation, presentation, and assessment.  Some of these, however, are too cookbook.  Plato provided a framework where the student had substantial freedom in exploring, while have a clear goal to attain.  There is a huge design difference between the Plato approach and a cookbook approach, although much of that difference must also be attributed to the authors of the lessons, which brings me to my conclusion. 

Authors who learn about their audience tend to write differently from those authors who write only for themselves.  Invariably when online instructional content is created and its deployment is evaluated, the evaluators will ask about stumbling blocks for the students in using the content to learn.  The evaluation will reveal whether the students process the content effectively and if not will unearth the impediments that block doing so.  The conscientious content author who participates in the evaluation will then become sensitized to the question: what makes students process effectively?  Answering that question becomes the driver in further content creation. With much of the analytic content we use there is only narrow authorship.  Most instructors divorce themselves from online content creation.  And what they do create, still mainly PowerPoint presentations, don't really facilitate student processing at all.  All of us who teach analytic subject matter should be an offspring of the Plato system.

I wish I knew how to get there from here.

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