The purpose of teaching is to enable learning and, over time, mastery. Classrooms and computers – smart boards, workstations, laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc. – are enablers of learning. The most important enabler is student engagement. This can be a challenge as ubiquitous digital devices often lead to significant student multi-tasking, much of it irrelevant to the topic at hand.
There is abundant potential variety in terms of modes of delivery that might enhance engagement. However, “Didactic teaching remains the pedagogical mainstay of many traditional classrooms and traditional teachers. It is the pedagogy of instruction and immutable facts, of authority and telling, and of right and wrong answers – it is teacher-centered and values learners who sit still and listen quietly and attentively, passively accepting the teacher as the knower and expert, both the source of knowledge and judge-jury of knowing.” (New Learning, 2016).
I have found in large undergraduate courses (60-80 students) that traditional didactic teaching can prompt disengagement, especially when lecture notes or slides are provided and the lecture closely follows these notes or slides. What seems to work better is the addition of real-world examples and stories (not on the notes or slides) that illustrate the use or misuse of the material being presented. In a recent experiment, we announced at the beginning of the lecture that there would a quiz on the lecture at the end of the class, i.e., 45 minutes later. Students’ digital devices were little used during those 45 minutes.
In graduate courses, typically much smaller (8-12 students), my experience is that engagement increases if the students do more of the talking. In three cases, I designed the course and compiled the course materials, but had the students give the lectures. The students found this very rewarding. Rather serendipitously, I learned to always have one of the better students lecture first as this sets the benchmark for the rest of the students. By “better” I mean motivated, organized, and articulate, as well as with a sense of humor, rather than the student with the highest grade point average.
Table 1 contrasts didactic and Socratic teaching in terms of passive versus active learning. Of course, there are more than two choices; there is a continuum. The experiences mentioned above suggest that I have achieved greater student engagement when classes are more towards the Socratic end on the continuum. How can the use of smart boards, workstations, laptops, tablets, smart phones, etc. enhance this approach?
The most ubiquitous use of computer technology is computer-projected PowerPoint slides. This saves the lecturer having to write notes on a whiteboard or, in rare cases, a blackboard. This means that the lecturer spends more time looking at the class rather than the board. This enables much quicker detection of student disengagement.
|1. Teacher centered: based on the assumption that the teacher is the primary agent in learning.
||1. Problem centered: based on the assumption that the student is the primary agent in learning.
|2. Teacher’s role: to impart the results of experience, personal study, and reflection.
||2. Teacher’s role: to uncover the question that the answer hides. To be a co-learner.
|3. Primarily deductive: the usual methods are lecture, story telling, use of analogy, and aphorism.
||3. Primarily inductive: the usual methods discussion, dialogue, and problem solving.
|4. Test of truth: authority and experience.
||4. Test of truth: reason and evidence.
|5. Learning is the reception of ideas.
||5. Learning is a conflict of ideas: a thesis, antithesis, and a synthesis that results in new knowledge (Hegel).
|6. Student’s role: to be passive, open, receptive, trusting, and unquestioning.
||6. Student’s role: to be active, questioning, critical, and discriminating–learning to trust one’s own judgment (independent thinking).
|7. Evaluation is factual recall of data–commonly in the form of objective tests–right and wrong answers.
||7. Evaluation is application of understanding interpretation of data–commonly in an essay, speech, journal, or a review.
|8. Ultimate goal: wisdom viewed as the internalization of truths and beliefs.
||8. Ultimate goal: wisdom viewed as an informed ignorance (knowing what one does not know–the Socratic paradox).
Table 1. Didactic vs. Socratic Teaching (College English, 2016)
The downsides of PowerPoint, or equivalent, includes tendencies to express all ideas as bullet points, cram too much text into slides, and use colors combinations that are unreadable, e.g., dark blue lettering on a black background. In general, PowerPoint helps the speaker more than the audience. The best illustration of this is when speakers literally read their slides. In general, most PowerPoint presentations represent little more than computer-aided didactic teaching.
Hands-on interactive demonstrations can help to engage students, particularly when the students are the creators of the demonstrations. Conservations about real-life experiences can also be engaging. Teachers’ expositions of real-life applications of the material being discussed in class usually cause greater student attention, particularly when they can ask questions about the experiences, and especially when they can discuss their related experiences. Students’ shared demonstrations and experiences are often of great value to other students.
How is this different for online versus face-to-face classrooms? To address this question, we need to differentiate between synchronous online courses — where faculty members and students are online together at the same time — versus courses where people’s presence is asynchronous. There are several commercial platforms that can support synchronous classes to enable sharing of materials and discussions where people can see each other.
Asynchronous courses, almost by definition, have to be more scripted or canned. This raises the question of the extent to which asynchronous courses can be fully interactive and reflect good educational practices. Chickering and Gamson (1987) discuss seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education:
- Encourages contacts between student and faculty
- Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
- Uses active learning techniques
- Gives prompt feedback
- Emphasizes time on task
- Communicates high expectations
- Respects diverse talents and ways of learning
Roblyer and Ekhami (2000) have developed a rubric for assessing interaction in distance learning. The rubric focuses on five aspects of distance learning:
- Social/rapport building
- Instructional design
- Interactivity of technology
- Learner engagement
- Instructor engagement
They provide scales for each of these aspects where the assessment can provide up to five points per aspect and 25 points overall.
Wagner (1997) discusses interactions in terms of those between students and instructors, students and other students, and students and content. She argues that interactions must change learners and move leaners toward an action state of goal attainment. Interactions can increase participation, enable communication, provide feedback, enhance elaboration and retention, support leaner control/self-regulation, increase motivation, negotiate understanding, and enhance team building. Interactions should be designed, or at least enabled, to support one or more of these purposes.
Expressed in these terms, technology is an enabler, a means rather than an end, for interactions that support learning and mastery. Weidemann and Pollack (2016) argue that technology has become so ubiquitous that it is effectively disappearing. Online tools from course management systems, to email list services, to web-based demonstrations are pervasively used in a large percentage of courses. Thus, almost all education has online components.
It seems to me that we know what high quality education looks like, and we have some inkling of how to achieve quality for online offerings. We also know that PowerPoint based didactic teaching does not pass muster. To move beyond this, we need larger numbers of college instructors to embrace the principles and findings discussed here.
Chickering, A.W., & Gamson, Z.F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, 3, 3-7.
College English (2016). http://www.collegeenglishbooks.com/two-models-of-teaching-learning.html, Accessed March 12, 2016
New Learning (2016). http://newlearningonline.com/learning-by-design/glossary/didactic, Accessed March 12, 2016.
Roblyer, M.D., & Ekhami, D. (2000). How interactive are YOUR distance courses? A rubric for assessing interaction in distance learning. Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 3 (2).
Wagner, E.D. (1997). Interactivity: From agents to outcomes. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 71, 19-26.
Weidemann, C., & Pollack, K. (2016). The death of “online” learning in higher ed: As technologies become ubiquitous, familiar labels will vanish. University Business Magazine, March.