1: Issues   3: Grades   5: Financing   7: History 
 2: Lectures   6: Myths   Contents 


The Technology Solution: Computer-Assisted Instruction

You say you want a revolution. Well, you know, we all want to change the world … You say you got a real solution. Well, you know, we’d all love to see the plan.

– John Lennon & Paul McCartney

The six fundamental flaws have persisted for centuries. During that time, millions of teachers and billions of students have operated within these constraints. Educators tried new things but always returned to the same formula, which begs the question, “If there is a better way, why hasn’t it surfaced by now?” The obvious conclusion is that education works as best it can. However, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When all you have is a chalkboard, lecturing looks like an effective strategy. We have not been able to solve the fundamental flaws because of the tools we use.

Imagine what would happen if we had different tools. Imagine walking into a class, but instead of rows of desks, there are computers – one for each student. Imagine everyone working at their own pace on personalized lessons or in small groups around a computer. Imagine students returning to school after several days of illness and starting where they left off rather than in the middle of unfamiliar content. Imagine students choosing among different versions of lessons – all of which are entertaining, offer immediate feedback, and lead to mastery. Imagine teachers offering guidance and support rather than lecturing, grading, and disciplining students. None of this is possible with the tools we now use; all of it is possible with technology.


Technology 101

My first experience with technology in the classroom was using a lowly overhead projector. I liked it better than the chalkboard because my writing was clearer, I could face students as I wrote, and I was able to prepare transparencies before class. After my first semester, I was ready for more technology. I decided to use PowerPoint. I put a computer in my classroom and connected it to two televisions – one on either side of the room. At first, my slides were mostly text. Eventually, I added pictures, animations, sounds, and videos. Soon I had a graphics tablet and a webcam. The graphics tablet allowed me to scribble circles and arrows over slides. The camera let me capture images and zoom in on chemical reactions to display them larger than life. I was enamored with this setup. Keeping all my files on one CD was more convenient than storing transparencies in big, bulky binders. Updating PowerPoint files was faster than rewriting transparencies and the slides looked more professional.

Three years passed before I reached the limits of what was possible with PowerPoint. During that time, I presented information better than I could have using a chalkboard or overhead projector. But my lectures still suffered from the same limitations that all lectures do – they progressed at a single pace, were ephemeral, and did not allow students choice or independence. I knew these limitations were inherent to lectures and could never be overcome by my system. The only option was radical change. I needed to up the technological ante.

I spent a full year planning for my next big challenge: teaching all lessons with computers. I arranged for forty secondhand computers to be donated to the school. When they arrived, I began installing software and upgrading hardware. When I wasn’t teaching or fixing computers at school, I was creating content at home. I designed a web page to deliver lessons, studied programming languages, and bought a camcorder, a tripod, and a green screen for special effects. When the summer came, I replaced desks with tables, set up the computers, and networked them to a high-speed Internet connection. It took me ten months just to prepare for teaching with computers. I spent hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars. As the start of the semester began to loom, it became increasingly apparent that I had bitten off more than I could chew.

Despite a year of careful planning, my first semester with computers was a disaster. From the start, I struggled to create enough content to keep students busy. My second semester was no better. I spent many sleepless nights trying to iron out problems. The features I had envisioned were taking longer to deliver than I had hoped. Often, I was forced to revert to my old PowerPoint lectures, leaving the computers unused and blocking the view of students. When summertime mercifully arrived again, I was able to catch my breath and survey the damage. Looking back, one incident stands out as the defining moment of my year.

It was during the second semester that I had to teach a vocational class how to balance chemical equations. Some people think “vocational” means “practical” or “hands-on”. Really it means “watered-down”. Students in vocational classes often cannot pass advanced classes; they have trouble with literacy and math, poor attendance, and often end up dropping out of high school. Balancing equations was going to be difficult for this group. In past years, I had tried various strategies: lectures, seatwork, group work, and games. Whatever I tried, the concept eluded most students and eventually I had to give up and move on. It was a frustrating experience for everyone. With computers in place, I decided this semester was going to be different.

I used my camcorder to record answers for ten questions. The videos consisted of little more than a piece of paper in frame, on which I wrote step-by-step solutions, along with a running narrative explaining each step. When the taping was done, I imported the video into my computer, edited it, and exported clips suitable for streaming over the Internet. Finally, I designed a special web page for the lesson. The whole process took twelve hours.

When students came to class the next day, I told them to go online and follow the instructions. As directed, students put on headphones, listened to an introductory video, and solved the remaining questions as an assignment. If anyone got confused, I reminded them to watch the videotaped answers. Upon finishing, students handed me their assignment for marking and then completed a second assignment, for which videotaped answers were not available.

Something amazing happened. By the end of the period, everyone got it. What had taken two periods to explain in lecture in past years now took only one period on computer. Instead of students feeling lost and frustrated, they were excited by their mastery of this difficult material. Instead of spending the entire period lecturing, I spent all of my time interacting with students and giving them individual feedback. Instead of having a pile of marking at the end of class, I had none because I had marked assignments in front of students as they finished. One student remarked, “We should do all of our lessons like this.”

I was glad that students had done well, but I was also upset. This was the most rudimentary computer lesson I could design: there was no feedback, the quality of the video was poor, and marking was not done automatically by software. Originally, I had envisioned lessons that were interactive and offered individual feedback. But I did not have time. My barebones lesson took twelve hours to create. Reaching my goal would have taken hundreds of hours more. Plus, this was only one of three courses on my timetable. Creating fantastic content for all courses was out of the question. One teacher working alone does not have time to produce adequate computer lessons. However, when somebody else designs the software, there is ample evidence that computers are better than traditional instruction.


Just the Facts

Hundreds of studies have compared computers to traditional classroom instruction. Since most studies use their own unique software, it is only necessary to get a few positive results to show that computers can be beneficial. In other words, one negative result proves only that a particular piece of software does not work – it says nothing about computers in general. Fortunately, nagging doubts due to a small number of positive results is a nonissue. The majority of research is in agreement. In fact, all meta-analyses agree that computers are more effective than traditional instruction.

A meta-analysis is a type of statistical review that conducts no original research. Instead, it pools data from other studies. Meta-analyses often exclude studies that 1) are poorly designed, 2) lack sufficient control groups, 3) are not published in peer-reviewed journals, 4) rely on questionnaires rather than direct measurements, 5) do not randomly assign participants, and 6) are otherwise unscientific. They help to reveal general patterns and minimize anomalous results.

It is unusual to find more than a few meta-analyses on any topic. In the case of computers, there are many because of the large volume of original research and because of rapid changes in technology over the last forty years. By 1991, more than a dozen meta-analyses existed, all of which concluded that learning from computers was better than traditional instruction. Recent reviews have simply confirmed earlier findings. One of the largest meta-analysis ever published examined 254 studies; computers improved test scores in 81% of studies (94% of statistically significant studies). Computers were better at every level: elementary, secondary, college, and adult education. Improvements were seen in reading, math, science, history, psychology, accounting, foreign languages, vocational training, etc. And in studies that looked beyond test scores, there were other benefits. Computers took 30% less time, and student attitudes improved in 79% of studies. In other words, students learned more in less time on computers and felt better about it afterward – precisely what I had discovered in my own classroom.


next: Financing Change


This is an excerpt from Chalkbored. Order the book here to learn more about ...

- How technology can solve each of the fundamental flaws
- Cheating in schools: frequency and solutions
- How computers make classes more personal, social, and complex
- Examining the current use of technology in schools