Computers in the Classroom Can Be Boring

Lynn ZimmermannBy Lynn Zimmerman
Editor, Teacher Education

The headline of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week caught my attention: “‘Teach Naked’ Effort Strips Computers from Classrooms.” The article, posted on July 20, 2009, is written by Jeffrey Young and is actually called “When Computers Leave the Classroom, So Does Boredom.”

Young writes that, according to studies, students think lectures and labs depending on computer technology are less interesting than those relying on discussion and interaction. PowerPoint presentations (one of the main areas of complaint), for example, are often used as a replacement for transparencies shown on an overhead projector and make no substantive difference in lesson delivery. An effective use of video technology should be to spark discussion and not be a replacement for a lecture.

Young says students also complain that these interactive classes require more effort than lectures. He says that students who are used to the lecture model are often resistant to this type of participatory learning. I can attest to this from my own computer lab with 1990's computers round a central tableexperience. I teach my face-to-face classes seminar-style with small group and large group activities and discussion. I will never forget one student telling me, “Instead of all this group stuff, why don’t you just tell us what you want us to know.” (Unfortunately, that student is now a teacher who probably lectures to his students.)

Despite its title, the article is not insisting that all technology and all computers should be thrown out of the classroom. It is making the point that the way technology is used in the classroom needs to be reassessed and changed so that it is not just being used to replicate the traditional modes of delivery.

Many of the authors in this journal have advocated just such changes (most recently, Judith Sotir in Two Steps Forward . . . Several Back and Judith McDaniel in What Students Want and How to Design for It: A Reflection on Online Teaching). As McDaniel pointed out, we need to “design for a structure that challenges and rewards.”

I agree that this attention to design is important not only in the online environment McDaniel was referring to but also in the face-to-face classroom with or without technology. As Young says, with stiff competition from online courses, face-to-face courses need to engage students so that they see a reason for being in the classroom.

6 Responses

  1. Excellent and straightforward article. Puts the onus on the technologists. Yes, transparencies are just as good as computer slide-generating software and may be better. Unless you have a smart-board, you can’t scribble on your computer slides, for example.

    Speaking of smart-boards, has anyone really quantified the cost/benefit ratio for these computerized white boards? Do they really help learning? If so, how much training is required before they do? How many teachers use them creatively versus the number who use them as glorified slide projectors?

    In an example in my field, how much benefit does “probeware” really bring to the science classroom? You have to bring a computer (or PDA these days) to the lab where it’s subjected to corrosive vapors and possible chemical spills. What’s wrong with using a simple meter instead of a complex of probes and computers? Why not use a thermometer instead of a temperature probe attached to a computer. Students benefit in learning science by taking data themselves. Sure, scientists use these fancy gadgets that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Having students use cheap $100 versions doesn’t help them learn science. They’re seeing stuff for the first time. The teacher, who’s seen it hundreds of times may not realize the difference.

    I really appreciate the direct way this article points out that adding technology to a classroom may not only be unhelpful but may even be deleterious. Why add cost without gaining benefits? In the best of all possible, adding technology would reduce rather than add cost and would also improve educational outcomes.

  2. What Lynn is confirming, I think, is that blended learning is largely an illusion.

    The “campus” is a collection of spaces designed to feature a standing and speaking “instructor” and a sitting and silent “student.”

    The “lecture hall” is designed for lecturing, not for computers.

    Again, the “classroom” is designed for a standing instructor speaking to sitting students.

    Despite all attempts to to mute or end the lecture, it continues to be–overwhelmingly–the favored mode of instruction in our elite colleges. And it should be: why pay distinguished scholars to teach and not listen to them?

    Perhaps it is time to consider the possibility that the classroom and the computer are oil and water.

  3. Perhaps the resistance to use of meaningful computing in the classroom has generated an outreach to the use of technology in informal environments.

    The lack of technology support, and sharing, the aging infusion of old technologies and vendor driven initiatives are factors that help to create a problem. If we are to move to new ways of teaching and learning lecturing by talking is certainly an antique and only skillfully done by a few. No one ever talks about the students we lose out of boredom and ineffecient teaching methodologies. Professors, and K-12 should think hard about not creating engaging methods of teaching, perhaps using T-Pack as a model.

    Bonnie Bracey Sutton

  4. Actually the title should be teaching with the book , lecture method can be boring if the teacher practicing this “skill” is not exceptional.

  5. Bonnie, is there any formal evidence that the new computer ways of instruction produce more learning than the old conversational ways?

    Are you yourself quite comfortable that the new computer ways are superior?


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