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Lectures 16 and 17.doc

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Natural Science
NATS 1700
Robert Levine

LECTURES 16 and 17 NEW TECHNOLOGY AND EDUCATION THE MORE CONTROVERSIAL USES OF NEW TECHNOLOGY The debate, indeed, often the argument, relating to the use of computers in education revolves around the degree to which computers should be relied on to impart information to students. Put simply, the question becomes whether or not and to what degree, if any, should computers become instructors, to be relied on to educate the novice. Perhaps the answer lies in what we consider the role of a teacher to be. In order to consider what, exactly, the role of a teacher is supposed to be, it might be beneficial to go back to look at some definitions. In the Gage Canadian Dictionary, "teacher" is defined as: "a person trained to teach, especially one who teaches in a school or college." In Webster's Dictionary, "teacher" is defined as: "one who teaches or instructs; a preceptor; a tutor; one who occupation is to instruct others." The only thing that can be gleaned from either of these definitions is that a teacher is regarded as a human being and that a teacher, "teaches" or "instructs". Thus, the definition of "teacher", by itself, is of no use to us, without some understanding of what "teaching" is. Returning to the Gage Canadian Dictionary, we find "teach" to mean: "show or explain how to do";.... make understand or know about;...give lessons in;...give instruction". While Webster's defines "teach" as: 1. to show how to do something; to give instructions to; to train;... 2. to give lessons to (a student or pupil); to guide the study of; to instruct. 3. to give lessons in (a subject); to hold classes in. 4. to provide with knowledge, insight, etc...; Given these definitions, it may be said that a teacher is "a person trained [to show or instruct]" or "give instructions [or lessons to] someone or "provide [someone] with knowledge, insight etc..." To confound the issue a bit more, immediately following the Gage definition of "teach", is its comparison to the synonym "instruct". Teach, instruct = give or convey knowledge or information to someone. Teach emphasizes causing or enabling a person to learn something by giving information, explanation, and training, by showing how as well as what to learn and by guiding the learner's studies....Instruct emphasizes providing in a systematic way, the necessary information or knowledge about a subject...." Then there is Webster's, which states that the synonyms for "teach" are: "impart, direct, instruct, inform, counsel, admonish, educate, inculcate, enlighten, advise, indoctrinate, train." What becomes evident is that, except for the implication that "teaching" is done by a "teacher" who is a person - a human being, if you will - the meanings of the words "teach" and "teacher" are not carved in stone. That is: they are not unchangeable and apparently, they are flexible enough to allow for a number of situations. In turn, this suggests that there is no one definition which is appropriate to each and every situation. Rather, it appears likely that what we mean by "teach" and "teacher" is governed, to a larger or smaller degree, by what we or others perceive or have experienced. It is precisely for this reason that there has never been a consensus on how to "teach", at any given time. While one group offers one position as to teaching, another group disclaims it and offers its own. Stated in more simple terms, the act of teaching is akin to employing methodologies in trial and error fashion, and then seeing if what has been employed works. I might add that this appears to be supported by the myriad of psychological and other studies performed, none of which reach a consensus on how to teach or convey information to another. This said, we return to our original question as to the role or roles our new technology device, the computer, should play as an instructor, in the field of Education, and in particular, the education of young children? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer, since any answer must be predicated on both an understanding of what the computer is, and an understanding of those things that we refer to as insight and imagination. As to what the computer is, it might be appropriate to recall that the computer was invented to be used as a tool or aid. In fact, it might be argued that this was and is its sole purpose. It would also be appropriate to recall that, as marvellous as the computer is, it does nothing more than what we, by way of something called a program, tell it to do. It does not yet have, nor may it ever have the ability for creative and imaginative thought - it is not a sentient being. It merely does what it is told to do. Nothing more. Nothing less. In turn, this suggests that any question posed concerning the computer as an instructor, requires us to look at the type or kind of program that can be fashioned and how, and to what extent, that program can be used to impart information to a human being, so as to teach or instruct that human being and/or create a basis for the further acquisition of information by that human being. Since this is not a course in computer programming or program design, I think we may begin with the assumption that there are excellent programmers, who are fully capable of creating excellent programs. If this be so, then it follows that such programmers should be able to create programs designed to instruct or teach. But can they, particularly when it comes to young children or someone who is a novice or uneducated in the area of instruction? For example, take a child of tender years who has no real understanding of mathematics. Can a computer program be designed to teach a child who has no background in mathematics and who lacks any basis for understanding mathematics. To put it another way, consider the following question- construct: If you sit a three year old child (who does not know what mathematics is and has no background in mathematics) down, in front of a computer loaded with a game program which is designed to "teach" basic addition, will the child learn basic addition by playing the game (and thus, using the program). This example requires you to ask a number of other questions such as: what language, if any, does the child speak? Is the computer program/game in the same language? Does the computer program/game give instruction in the same language? Is the child familiar with the components of a computer and, more specifically, a key board or a mouse? Does the child know how to manipulate the program/game with the keyboard or mouse? The totality of these questions suggests that, in order for the computer to instruct or teach, it is necessary that something must have happened to the child so as to enable the child to play the program/game and be instructed or taught. That is: unless the child has already had some form of instruction, the child will encounter problems in playing the program/game, thereby negativing the purpose of the program/game which is to teach or instruct. Yet, it might be argued that simple tutorials with pictures of the computer, the monitor, and the mouse, which demonstrate how they are used and how the program/game can be played and which are constantly put before the child will, in time, permit the child to familiarize himself or herself with the computer and its components, eventually permitting the child to play the game, thereby allowing the program/game to serve its purpose and teach or instruct the child. This is true enough, given the nature of a child and leaving such things as attention span, bathroom breaks and learning disabilities aside. However, even in the best case scenario, the time in which a child may become familiar enough with the tutorial to begin the game will depend on the child. Some will catch on quickly, while others may take more time and still others may not catch on at all. Thus, it stands to reason that in order that there be some kind of uniformity in teaching time, some other element is necessary, and I would suggest to you that the missing element is a human being, who can instruct the child, in a given amount of time, in the basics of computers, so as to enable to the child to play the program/game. Which leads to a second question or construct: Assuming the child is now playing the program/game and, whether slowly or quickly, performs the basic addition tasks again and again by playing the program/game, is the computer program teaching or instructing anything? What is actually happening here? That is: what is the program/game doing? Is it teaching or instructing the child in basic mathematics or is it doing something less than teaching or instructing. In addressing this second construct and the questions that arise out of it, I would submit that we have to return to the definition of teaching. Since the definition is somewhat flexible, it may be argued that, indeed, the program/game is teaching or instructing the child in the basics of addition. However, it might also be argued that the program/game is simply preparing the child, through reinforcement (i.e. playing the game over and over again) to learn, and that this process is less than teaching or instructing. It all boils down to one's view of teaching or instructing. In consequence, it is now open to argue that the computer is a teacher. However, let us extend the construct a little more: The same child of tender years wants to know what the game is for and so asks the computer the question: why do I have to play the game? Now I think we can continue our assumption about programs to envisage a program that can provide an answer to the child. However, what happens if the child does not understand the answer or is not satisfied with it. Then too, what if the child loses interest in playing the program/game? I do not intend to answer the last few questions, since I think the answers are self evident. However, I will say that perhaps the program contains enough of a variety of games so as to continue the instruction in another program/game form which might deal with the above situation, but perhaps also, the child will tire of all of the games. Which leads us to a third construct: The child is now 10 or 11 years of age. He or she is familiar with computers and their components. Classroom instruction is performed by a computer. No human teacher is present in the classroom. We will assume that each child in the class has learned not to socialize with his or her peers and is fully focused on the exercise to be performed. The subject is still mathematics, but the questions are not presented in games. They are now presented with an explanation of the subject to be learned, followed by problems in mathematical form. As each problem is answered, it is followed by another slightly more difficult problem which follows logically from it. The exercise is composed of 30 problems and the time allotted to complete the exercise is specific. The computer program is designed to signal an alert on the monitor in the event that 10 or more problems are not answered properly or a student cannot get beyond the first ten problems. In this scenario, the computer is, to all intent and purpose, the teacher. Yet, it is patently obvious that the computer's function as a teacher is limited, particularly where a child is having problems with mastering the exercise being taught. Some other essential element is missing. That element is a human being who is going to have to deal with the computer's evaluation of the performance of each student, since evaluation, by itself, is easy enough. Only those children whose computer's have signalled an alert will need help. The human being can immediately begin to address the needs of such students, leaving the other students to continue working on the same subject or some other subject. Here there appears to be a true benefit to the use of computers in the classroom. But is there? It is well known that an individual can memorize facts or data. Think of the person with a photographic memory. However, memorizing facts or data does not necessarily enable an individual to apply the facts or data memorized. Thus, if the program is not designed to measure the degree to which the facts or data learned can be applied, the degree to which something has been learned is speculative at best. So much will depend on the nature of the program and the manner in which the human being referred to above participates in the program. In light of the foregoing, it appears likely that, leaving aside such matters as attention span, understanding concepts, learning disabilities and like problems, and so long as the teaching program is limited to imparting or instructing simple steps which are derived logically from, or logically follow previous steps or imparting information which requires nothing more than constant repetition (i.e. memorization), computers can be used to teach or instruct in the classroom and the presence of a human being may not be mandatory. However, let us change our construct as follows: Now the thing being taught to is a subject such as statistics, philosophy, psychology or physics - all areas in which the information to be learned is not based on the instruction of simple steps which are derived logically from previous steps requires something more than constant repetition or memorization. Will the computer, without the intervention of a human being, suffice as the sole teacher or instructor in such situations? Here the answer is not as straight forward. The subjects outlined in the construct (statistics, philosophy, psychology and physics) are subjects that require more than a simple background or basis in such subject. They contain concepts, terminology and formulae which are not always logical. They also require the ability of the student to determine answers based on intuition, that is: answers which intuitively follow from the totality of information acquired to some point in the subject. Often these subjects require the student to evaluate the information and apply it to concepts and conceptualizations, which themselves are somewhat less than perfectly defined. In such cases, it is highly questionable whether a computer program can be designed to instruct or teach these subjects, since subjects of this nature give rise to a multitude of questions and problems that students require help with. Even were we to assume that a computer program could be developed to address theses questions and problems, the question is would the program by itself be enough? Based on the comments of my own Internet students and based also on discussion of this matter with my in-class students, the answer would appear to be that, while computers can and are a substantial aid to the teaching process, a human teacher is the preferred and, often, the necessary method of teaching the subject and addressing the multitude of questions and concerns of students. If there are any conclusions to be drawn about the debate that is now being waged concerning the computer as an instructor, leaving aside the matters of attention span, bathroom breaks, learning disabilities and the like, as well as the issue of whether computers stimulate the imagination, the conclusions would appear to be: 1. whether a computer can "teach" depends on what it is that one means by "teaching", although the definitions of "teach" and "teacher" are flexible enough to accommodate a computer as a "teacher". 2. computer programs alone, without the intervention of a human teacher, can be used to teach certain subjects or certain levels of a subject, where the learning process is limited to imparting or instructing simple steps which are derived logically from, or which logically follow previous steps or imparting information which requires nothing more than constant repetition (i.e. memorization). Subjects such as basic mathematics or spelling are good examples. 3. whether computer programs alone, without the intervention of human teachers, can be used to teach subjects which do not fall into the category in 2, subjects such as statistics, philosophy, psychology and physics etc..., is speculative at best, because even assuming that such programs could be developed, these subjects and others like them contain concepts, terminology and formulae which are not always logical; require the student to determine answers based on intuition; and require the student to evaluate the information and apply it to concepts and conceptualizations which themselves are somewhat less than perfectly defined. 4. It is highly likely that the role of a human teacher in relation numbers 2 and 3 above will be dependent on those matters that we put aside, so as to derive those conclusions, namely: attention span, bathroom breaks, development of social skills, learning disabilities and the like, as well as the question of whether computers stimulate the imagination. Taking these other factors into consideration, it can be suggested that the debate about the use of computers to teach will focus on the following three areas: (i) the computer as tool to be used as a teaching aid by a human teacher; (ii) the computer as an instructor, with a human teacher present in the classroom to oversee the instruction; and (iii) the computer as an instructor, without a human teacher in the classroom, the function or role of the human teacher being limited solely to monitoring, from a position outside the classroom, the progress of the students and intervening only when absolutely necessary. I leave it to you, to decide which of the three areas is more preferable. END OF LECTURE 16 **************************************************************************** SUMMARY OF LECTURE 17 PART 3 - COMPUTER LITERACY: A FOURTH BASIC SKILL? The question of whether and to what extent computer literacy has become a fourth basic skill and, if so, its effect on the other three basic skills was discussed in class. The consensus of classes in other years has been that, indeed, computer literacy is a fourth basic skill, after reading, writing and arithmetic, which are the three normal or core basic skills which educators have been teaching for years. This also appears to be the consensus of this class. This is because some form of computer literacy is a necessity whether it be in education or the work place and it now appears to apply to all age groups from public school up. Consider that children in public school are required to learn computing skills and in particular, word processing and math skills. This is readily seen where teachers give their students assignments/homework which involves anything from creating a cover page to writing something such as a short paragraph. Moreover, the use of a calculator as early as grade three is now a curriculum requirement in Ontario. Unfortunate as it may be, throughout all levels of e
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