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Technology Mirage
January 11, 2010 - 8:12pm

Contrary to our popular image, those of us who work in technology are often skeptical about its potential. We know, from long experience, all the ways that technology can underperform and fail. We understand that those pushing technologies are often out to sell something, a product or an agenda, and it is our role to be skeptical.

A quick diversion to the world of security technology. Did you see the article this weekend in the L.A. Times about the future of airport security?

The article talks about emerging security technologies, such as the WeCU "we see you" sensor system designed to pick up non-voluntary signals of malicious intent through the measurement of eye movement, increased heartbeat, changed berating etc. Other technologies undergoing testing include rapid lie detection systems (based on pupil dilation or other physical signals), what Homeland Security is calling Future Attribute Screening Technology (FAST).

These technologies are contrasted with the Israeli model, one that relies on highly trained screeners conducting in-depth screening sessions combined with profiling. The Israeli model has proven successful (El Al is the world's most secure airline), but many are concerned about the high cost in time, logistics and training that this model would impose. Everyone agrees that the Israeli model is the gold standard of security, but the realities of airline timetables, passenger loads, and expense make it impossible to enact this standard throughout our airline security system.

Airport security is much like education.The gold standard of teaching and learning is an oval table, a professor, and 12 or so students. The reality of our higher education system is that all of our classes cannot look like the seminar I just described. It would be too expensive to make every lecture class a seminar. Therefore, we try to use technology to leverage our existing resources (inputs), in order to make larger lecture classes feel and act more like smaller seminar courses.

Technology, when combined and motivated by best practices in course design and learning theory, can be very effective in increasing the efficacy (and enjoyment) of courses. Some basic examples include the practice of developing a narrative course structure, including learning outcomes and activities, within a learning management system. Effective course design can also include opportunities for student collaboration and creation, moving the learning experience from passive to active. Frequent, low-stakes assessments (closely tied to learning activities), can reinforce learning. Media can be utilized to reach diverse learning styles. Students can become active participants in creating knowledge through blogs, wikis, and discussion boards. Presentation capture systems can free students from the need to be scribes and encourage active listening for comprehension. All of these tools, when paired with effective pedagogies, can help large classes act and feel more like small classes.

But as much as our technologies evolve, and as much as our theory and practice grow to underpin the usage of these learning technologies, a lecture class will never be as effective as a seminar. Given the choice, I'd agree to instantly wipe away every learning technology in exchange for all classes being taught around an oval table with 12 participants. We can work towards a gold standard (the seminar), and it is helpful to have this image in mind, but technology will never get us all the way there. That is the technology mirage.

Same thing in airport security. I'm not against advanced screening and other "malicious intent detection" technologies. I just know that they are no substitute for the Israeli model.

It is up to those of us who work in learning technology to be the first ones to point to technologies shortcomings and limitations.

Is the "seminar" also your model of an ideal course? Has anyone done the math about what it would cost to turn every college course into a seminar? (And what would be save on all the learning technologies if we replaced them with oval tables?). Are we doing a good enough job talking about the limitations, as well as the potential, of learning technologies in higher ed?


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