I recently delivered the keynote speech at a teaching conference for medical school faculty. The theme of the conference was Technology in Teaching, and the organizers asked that my keynote serve as a motivational pitch to get faculty members interested in using technology in their teaching. This means that I needed to explain why they should use technology rather than the traditional blackboard.
The request made me realize that I had never asked the fundamental question of why technology is beneficial in learning. Most of my talks are at educational technology conferences, where the value of technology is already accepted. But it is a legitimate question, and we should all ask ourselves if we can come up with a simple answer for why technology should be used in teaching.
Is the purpose of educational technology to replace teachers? This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. Much of technology is designed to replace labor. Robots on car assembly lines replace human workers. But I don't think this answer will fly with educators.
Eventually, I came to the realization that the purpose of educational technology is to add interactivity to the educational experience. The fundamental flaw with the traditional lecture is that it violates a fact about neurology. It assumes that information can be transferred from the head of the teacher to the head of the student verbally like data transferring between databases. But learning is not like that. Knowledge is produced by learners in their brains by developing and strengthening neuro connections. The learner interprets a variety of inputs—visual, auditory, tactile—in terms of what he or she already knows and builds upon that prior body of knowledge.
Importantly, creating this new knowledge requires moving the immediate information stored in working memory to long-term memory. That is an active process that requires reflection on the information. Working memory can hold up to only four discrete items. Beyond it, new information needs to push out old information. The learner, thus, must move some of the working memory information to long-term memory to retain it and allow for new information to enter. The traditional lecture does not allow for this, as it simply motors through information without stopping. That is why retention is so incredibly low from traditional lectures.
Faculty members try to overcome this one-way model by asking periodic questions during a class. But those are often met with silence. Faculty members assume that the silence is due to apathy or lack of preparation, but often it is due to fear of getting the answer wrong in front of one's peers. Plus, always answering the instructor's questions can make the student look like a “brownnoser.”
A better way to inject activity into learning is through in-class quizzing, surveys, and polls. They allow students to respond anonymously, thus eliminating the fear of public failure. I have found that students are very interested in using audience-response systems in classes, such as Poll Everywhere and Kahoot.
One option is to motivate the students' learning by asking a pre-lecture question. For instance, few people would say they have an innate interest in the thermodynamics of gas flow. But imagine that your physics instructor started his or her lecture by asking the following question: “Assume that I inflate a balloon with helium and put it inside a car with the windows shut. It floats stationary in the middle of the car. Now I accelerate. Will the balloon stay in the same place, go backward, or go forward?” The instructor then asks the students to vote on it through their cell phones. You render a guess. Afterward, the instructor tells you the balloon will go forward. Like most students, you probably guessed wrong, which is what the instructor wanted, and now you are interested in learning why you were wrong. You have just become interested in the thermodynamics of gas flow.
Another option is to ask questions during a lecture. They can be simple recall questions, such as “What are the number of genes in the human genome?” or can involve the application of concepts, such as “Which type of bridge would be ideal in X situation?” A student who gets it wrong will have his or her understanding corrected on the spot, and the instructor can determine how many of the students misunderstand a concept.
Finally, faculty can ask exit questions at the end of a lecture. Once again, these questions can inform the faculty member of how well students understood the material to return to it in the next class if necessary, but they also show students what they missed and need to exam again on their own. Importantly, this type of assessment needs to include information on how to correct misunderstanding, such as places where the concepts are covered in the class material. Too often, faculty members tell students only that they got something wrong, not how to correct their misunderstanding. Faculty members complain about students' obsession with grades, but students are anxious only when they do not see a path to improving their grades. Allowing students to return to the material to relearn it and take an assessment again not only improves learning but also reduces faculty members' headaches over students' lobbying for higher grades.
Rather than replacing the teacher, faculty should focus on how technology can be used to get students to spend less time texting and more time engaging with the material. That is the real reason for technology in the classroom.