Teaching and the New Technology: A Pedagogical Viewpoint


  • John Dearn


Teaching, especially in large first year classes, is still conducted overwhelmingly by students sitting in lecture theatres transcribing notes while they listen to a one-way monologue from the front. Their role, it seems, is to copy down as much as they can, memorise as much as they can and hope that they can recall about half of it accurately a few weeks later in an exam. This is not to suggest that all higher education is conducted in this way, but it is still the way most of our students are expected to learn. It is not that faculty are strangers to IT. In the mid 1980s we saw the first wave of the IT revolution in the form of microcomputers. Before long we were word processing our manuscripts, producing fancy overheads on our desktop machines and introducing multimedia programs as interesting add-ons to the standard laboratory class. However, most faculty kept teaching in much the same way as before. Now, in the mid 1990s, we are experiencing the second phase of the IT revolution with a shift of emphasis to the desktop computer as a communication tool and a way of accessing a vast array of data, images and text. It is hard to believe the WWW is only a few years old and its growth in that time has left even the most hardened technophiles bewildered. From the comfort of my home I can now search a library catalogue in New York, check the latest pictures being downloaded from Mars, read this weeks research news in Nature and send some data to a colleague in the UK. All of this must have major implications for how we teach, what we will expect students to do, and indeed how we define learning itself. Yet, till now, the way higher education has been practiced has remained remarkably impervious to technological change and is still defined by classroom hours of instruction. What is not clear, however, is how we should use the new technologies in teaching. That question is currently exercising the minds of academics all over the world. Two strong themes appear to be emerging. The first is concerned with improving the efficiency of, or access to, higher education. It is hoped that IT will enable the delivery of education to a wider more diverse student population, allowing students to decrease the time they take to complete their courses or allow the same number of students to be taught with fewer resources. The second theme is concerned with teaching and learning with the hope that IT will allow students to engage more actively, more collaboratively and more meaningfully with the curriculum and achieve enhanced learning outcomes.