The evolution of the machine: from content dispenser to learning response system

In Chapter 4 of Teachers and Machines, Cuban examines the teaching profession and the myriad of tasks the teacher is expected to accomplish in a relatively small amount of time. One of those tasks is the evaluation, selection and adaptation of appropriate technologies into  the teaching routine. The teacher must perceive that the technology has sufficient value to warrant the personal energy cost  of implementation (p. 66).

The technologies of film, radio and television failed be perceived this way for various reasons:

  1. A lack of efficiency and flexibility (unlike the chalkboard and textbook) (p. 65)
  2. Difficulty in fitting the technology to the specifics of the curriculum (p. 70)
  3. Inability of the technologies to match levels of instruction to differences among students (p. 57)
  4. Perceived erosion of classroom authority by extensive use of the technology (p. 70)

These are themes that continue from the previous three chapters. The bottom line is that teaching is a very personalized task. How we teach is determined by many factors including our own style, the learning styles of our students, and the levels of readiness of our students. Machines such as film projectors, radio and television, with their “one size fits all” solution via a large group presentation do not accommodate learners.  The program may be a more novel way to present some information, but then it must present the information prescribed by the curriculum to be useful. Even then, it takes considerable energy for teachers to locate this content, review the content and integrate it into the existing teaching repertoire.

The computer may have been perceived this way in its infancy. Without appropriate software or applications, the computer itself is not particularly useful. However, we have now entered an age where a myriad of applications are available for free. Many teachers have developed content for a large number of courses and through the world wide web, the computer can easily be used as a tool to match levels of instruction to students. The computer does not fit into the same category as these other machines… it is flexible, adaptable and efficient.

So, the question in my mind is… will computer-based courses delivered online be replacements for some classroom teachers?  I think the answer to that is a resounding YES. Will online courses replace ALL teachers… definitely not. For students in some content areas, an online delivered course that accommodates the learner is a better solution than sitting in a classroom of 30 students taught as a unit with worksheets. And with the ability of this machine to incorporate multimedia, simulate real world events, adapt the content to learner performance and provide instantaneous learner feedback it can be a better teacher than some I have seen. However, the potential of the computer as teacher in this manner has yet to be realized. It will take experienced teachers who are experts in specific content knowledge, technology applications and pedagogical principles to develop this software or applications that can realize the full potential of the computer.  Ironic, isn’t it?

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