From the issue dated July 9, 2004

At Last, We Can Replace Lectures


Educators have a long history of trying to change pedagogy through technology, most recently that of the Internet. Yet in 2004 we seem to be teaching pretty much the same way people did at the turn of the last century. To see the real impact of technology on education, we need to look below the surface.

Each new technology has been added to traditional, lecture-based pedagogy. Examples include the use of movies and videos in the classroom and, more recently, the use of course-specific software, online material for reading assignments, and computers for analyzing complex data. In addition, some technology has replaced aspects of traditional pedagogy. Distance education is an obvious example, with the National Center for Education Statistics reporting that in the 2000-1 academic year, 56 percent of accredited, degree-granting institutions offered distance-education courses.

Even within regular courses like precalculus, computerized instruction can improve learning and reduce costs (for evidence of the results, see the Web site of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Academic Transformation, While students work on online assignments, which replace lectures, their professors are in the same room, ready to answer questions or help solve problems. Technology thus increases personal contact between professor and student, making the professor into a tutor instead of a lecturer.

But those developments are not the end of the story about technology and learning. Using a different frame of reference gives us additional insights into the future uses of technology in teaching.

Consider how higher education developed in the first place. In the early days of the university, in the mid-1400s, books were rare and few people were learned enough to use them. In effect, higher education evolved to make effective use of limited resources. Universities brought scarce books and even scarcer learned people together in a setting where students could join them.

Physical facilities alone were not sufficient, of course. To assemble people into groups to receive instruction from scholars, times had to be set for meeting. With education thus organized around courses, "being educated" became equated with taking a certain number of courses of specified duration. The results -- learning requirements fulfilled through courses taught in classrooms and supported by libraries on physical campuses -- are recognizable today as basic to the university.

So far, contemporary uses of technology in education have all been designed and put into practice within the framework of that long-established educational structure. But is that framework constraining our thinking? An examination of three relatively inconspicuous but important impacts of technology on learning suggests so.

First, technology (including automobiles, airplanes, and telephones as well as computers) has made firsthand learning far easier. When studying Shakespeare, for example, students can view digitized versions of his manuscripts. When developing an understanding of international trade, students can collect information by visiting ports or international trade centers. When learning about the impact of glaciation, students can collect raw data and analyze it, all on the computer. The effectiveness of such firsthand learning -- as opposed to, say, a lecture -- is well documented in the educational literature. Second, our students have grown up with simulations and online collaborations, and they are ready to use them in their courses. So-called serious games -- to use the term of David Rejeski, of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars -- had their beginnings in truly serious activities like war simulations and use real social, political, cultural, psychological, and scientific data to simulate the consequences of a player's decisions. Serious games can be far more effective than conventional approaches to teaching complex concepts about natural, social, and political phenomena. Collaborative learning also has an important place in education, and it comes naturally to today's teenagers, who often have multiple instant-messaging windows open on their computers, conducting real-time dialogues with people who may be in the next building or on the other side of the world. Third, the amount of material that is available online is growing rapidly, thanks in part to organizations like my own -- the Council on Library and Information Resources, a nonprofit organization that works to maintain and improve access to information. For example, the Library of Congress's American Memory project offers historically important books, journals, and other materials in digital form (see, and Project Gutenberg makes available classic books that are no longer in copyright (see Those three technological developments challenge traditional pedagogy because they are based not on a scarcity model for learning, but on an abundance model. That is, they make learning, knowledge, and opportunities for interaction between learners and the learned available at any place and any time. The widespread availability of firsthand learning, collaborations not limited by physical proximity, and online information means that we no longer need to think about education primarily in terms of educational forms -- lectures, reading assignments, laboratories, libraries, fieldwork, or computer-assisted learning. Instead, we can focus on the function of higher education. What purposes, what outcomes are we pursuing? Let us assume that our goal is the traditional one, a liberal-arts education, even though that may seem alien to technology. If you had 20 students and access to all the information in the world, how could you give them a liberal education within four years? One possibility would be to combine the Oxford-style tutorial, the studio-based education used to train architects, and technologically delivered content. The professor might, as tutor and guide instead of lecturer, tell a student to read a specific book, watch a related documentary, search the Internet for primary sources to examine, and interview a relevant person. Students studying Shakespeare, for example, would not be limited to a single version of a play but could view online images of more than one manuscript, with handwritten annotations by a person who apparently saw the plays in Shakespeare's time, and could read a currently accepted version. The professor would meet with small groups of students at various times, either digitally or in person, to explore what they had learned from the assignments. Those group discussions would give students the experience of considering significant issues together with their peers. A librarian, who would know what information and learning tools were available, particularly digitally, would help the professor make individual assignments for each student, based on his or her knowledge and intellectual ability. While another decade of technological improvement will make that fundamentally new, highly personalized kind of education simpler to develop and deliver, it is important to realize that it can be done with today's technology. Technology now allows us to do far more than simply modify current educational models. We need to broaden our horizons and fundamentally rethink both the form and the function of education.

Richard Detweiler is interim president of, and distinguished fellow at, the Council on Library and Information Resources. Section: The Chronicle Review Volume 50, Issue 44, Page B8