A critical view to technology-based instruction

Chong Ho Yu, Ph.D.

Recently I attended the 18th annual Microcomputer in Education Conference in Arizona. Dr. Michael Johnson, a researcher on application of technology to education in Apple Computer Inc., was a major speaker. In his session Dr. Johnson asked the audience to break into small groups and discuss what we expected to learn from his lecture. I expressed my opinion,

"I would like to see a concrete proof that technology can help to enhance learning. American schools have the best technological resources on earth. However, quite a few cross-cultural comparisons indicate that across many grade levels American students are behind their oversees counterparts in many subjects. Even though American students compare themselves against their older generation, the result is not encouraging. In a conference held by American Statistical Association, there was a general consent that today college students are less prepared for academic training than learners twenty or thirty years ago. I would like to see the promised return of the investment on technology."

I keep asking the same question to many instructors who endorse computer-assisted training and Web-based instruction. One of the typical answers is: "There are many other social and economic factors affecting student performance. They may undermine the improvement contributed by computer technology."

True. Last year in the Conference of Arizona Association of Institutional Analysis, a participant emphasized that an educational institution is not a straight input-output system. Instructors have no control of what students do outside of school." A US government report revealed that in 1997 violent crimes occur in one of ten American public schools. ABC's "20/20" reported that about 40 percent of American college students consume alcohol heavily. In Fraternities the rate is even over 80%. And there are high teenage pregnancy rate, high drug abuse rate and many other social ills. If these are the detrimental factors canceling out the positive effects of technology-oriented instruction, should we deploy our resources to counterattack these problems first? If I were in charge of the budget, I would like to re-distribute some money from building websites to hiring more social workers, counselors and campus securities.

Another common answer to my challenge is: "The comparison is unfair. There are many flaws in those cross-cultural studies such as comparing the general student population in the US with the elites in Asia. Actually performance of American and that of oversea students do not differ significantly." I grant them this arugment. Let's assume that ALL those studies are flawed and the two groups are more or less equal in performance. However, if the non-American group spends much less money in technology but can achieve the same result, why shouldn't we adopt a more efficient appoach?

Second, technology cannot run itself. It takes well-trained researchers and educators to design and implement it. But there is a shortage of them. When I came to America eleven years ago, several people told me that US industry attracts most skillful workers, on the other hand American schools cannot retain very competent people. Many years later I keep hearing the same complain over and over. I was very shocked and fell on the floor when I learned about the salary range of American professors and teachers. In Hong Kong even an assistant professor can receive more pay than an associate professor in America! If this problem is not addressed, high turnover rate, low morale, and incompetence will still be major hindrances to effective computer-based instruction. If I were in charge of the budget, I would raise the pay of faculty and staff rather than buying more Web servers.

I will continue to ask the same question until I see a balance between the efforts devoted to both technological and human factors of education.


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