Learning lost

Letters to the Portland Editor, September 10, 2010
By PORTLAND PHOENIX LETTERS  |  September 9, 2010


I read Deirdre Fulton's recent article in the Phoenix about the impact of technology and "learner-centered" education on the college experience (see "Learn Here," August 27) with a mixture of admiration, because I think she got most things correct, and dread, because I think she got most things correct. I recently retired after 40 years of teaching large classes in biology at the University of Rhode Island (my student nickname in later years was "Dr. Death," perhaps reflecting the fact that I was one of the few remaining URI profs who graded on the basis of performance, not "effort").

I have seen dramatic changes in incoming students over the last ten years. They are far less independent than students used to be. When they are thumbing away on their Droids, more often than not it is to mommy or daddy. They also hate to read textbooks. Unfortunately, they are not very good at using the net for serious purposes. Last fall, I tried an experiment. My class was coming up to a unit on the kidney. I divided the lecture class in half, left and right. The left-hand students I ordered to study the kidney from their textbook, and promised them an unnamed but dreadful fate if they typed "kidney" into their computers. The right-hand side I forbade from reading the text, and directed them to find out about the kidney any way they wanted from the Web.

A couple of weeks later, they had an exam on the kidney. I drew the questions not from the book, which wouldn't have been fair, but asked them thought questions, like "would you expect the kidney of a freshwater fish to be larger or smaller than the kidney of a saltwater fish of the same size?" The students who had reluctantly and resentfully studied from the text did about 40 percent better than the students who had learned from the net. How come?

I went to the net myself to find out. What's the first thing you do? Google "kidney." What's the first hit? Wikipedia. Now, I love Wikipedia, and use it all the time. But its two priorities are accuracy and completeness. Clarity is down on the bottom of the list. I'm a professional biologist, but I was confused about the kidney after about the fourth paragraph, because I'm not a kidney specialist. Technical words are not defined, but connected to links, and the usage of the word in the link may not be the same as the primary page. In a textbook, on the other hand, clarity is of utmost importance, and texts are edited to hell for this quality. Also, the external references on medical topics in Wikipedia frequently lead you to commercial Web pages of questionable veracity — and freshmen, God love 'em, just don't have the experience to tell the difference between brilliant and bogus.

So, when you turn people loose on their own, every student is going to come up with different answers, and will probably leave the opencourseware course with a fairly substantial supply of spurious information. Is that good or bad? I don't know, but as you pointed out, it's the wave of the future, and I guess we're going to find out pretty soon.

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