Blogs, Technology

Professor or Computer?

As technology becomes more readily available and generally understood, computers have been finding and ever increasing presence in the classroom.  In Would you like paper or electronic? we discussed within the context of books, but computer homework systems are now regularly included with texts that are used in class.  These systems can determine accuracy and give feedback based on the work of students, and can be extremely helpful.  However, will there be some point where the professor becomes obsolete and the computer can do both the instruction and the grading?

This is in fact an ongoing question where I teach, Virginia Commonwealth University.  One class that has seen a particular push to use computer software as an instructional tool is our pre-calculus class.  In fact, over the last two years the school has simultaneously been running two versions of pre-calculus.  In one version, there is an instructor lead large lecture where students come to class as they would for any other class.  The professor then leads a lecture and assigns homework online.  In the other version, students come to class (or stay at home) and work on the computer using the ALEKS software (an ‘artificially intelligent assessment and learning system,’ from McGraw Hill) in order to master the required topics.  In order to determine the efficacy of such a system, there was indeed a research project conducted comparing the results in the two types of classes.

This project has in fact concluded; however, the results of it are still in the process of being published by Dr. Aimee Ellington.  When they are published, I will be sure to share the results with you.  For now, however, I wanted to discuss what are the potential advantages and disadvantages of such a system.  In both versions of the course, there was a professor in charge of the course and a graduate and two undergraduate TAs were made available to the students.

Professor lead instruction

As an instructor, I would like to believe the the benefits of having an instructor lead the class would be abundantly clear.  However, I should make a note that we are comparing large lectures to using the ALEKS software, so we need to point out the benefits of this case.  I did in fact teach one of these large lectures during this study period, and I would say that the following were the benefits of this format.

  1. The instructor provides a structuring of material.  That is,
    • topics are laid out for the students in a logically progressive manner,
    • important relationships are highlighted between topics,
    • emphasis can be placed on things according to relative importance.
  2. The instructor can provide a timeline for progress.
    • Due dates of assignments are made in such a way to promote continual work from the students,
    • students will be expected to keep up with lectures and will be provided more motivation to study at times other than just before the test.
  3. The instructor and teaching assistants were on the same page and could provide a uniform explanation of topics.

However, I feel that in this large lecture setting you are missing out on a lot of the benefits associated with having an instructor.  For example,

  1. Students weren’t always able to ask questions in class.  If I am able to answer questions as I go, it helps the student understand the rest of the lecture, instead of having them get lost and not know what is going on.  However, in such a large lecture, there wasn’t enough time to answer every question that students had.  I made an attempt to answer these, but had to limit the number of such questions in order to ensure I could still get through the material.
  2. Having a professor available to answer questions and explain material outside of class is also extremely helpful.  However, this was available in both versions from both the instructor and teaching assistants.

What I saw from my experience, is that I normally feel the benefit of having a professor teach the class would be the ability of the professor to individualize the instruction for the students in a particular class.  Being able to slow down and answer questions and interact with students goes a long way in helping them to learn.  However, with such a large class, these benefits were greatly diminished.  Therefore, the major benefit seemed to be in the placing of at timetable on the students to let them know how far they should be.

Computer lead class

The benefits for the computer lead class, really seem to be the opposite of the benefits of the instructor lead class.

  1. While using the computer software, students are able to progress at their own speed.  If they are having difficulty with a subject they could spend more time on it.  If they understood the topic, they could move on to more challenging topics.
  2. In both classes, feedback was given on homework through a computer aided system; in the ALEKS version, however, the feedback was was much more specifically tailored for a student.  That is, when they got things incorrect, the system didn’t just let them move on to the next topic and take a lower score, instead it made them continue with similar problems until they could show mastery.
  3. If students were unable to make it at a scheduled time, they could keep up since they could work from home.

In addition to the computer system, the ALEKS versions of the class also provided a mini-lecture given by the instructor.  This allowed those students that needed the extra instruction to spend time in a lecture environment.  In this case, students that needed the structure of a class, had such a structure made available to them if they chose.   However, they did have to choose to take advantage of this.  As such, this version seemed to offer more flexibility than the professor lead class.

Which is better

Note that both versions of the class offered something for the prospective student.  I believe, that trying to say one or the other was better, wasn’t something you could do in general, but rather you would need to look at this based on the student planning on taking the course.  When I initially heard of the offering, I thought that there would be little reason to take a course using a computer software program, and I couldn’t imagine that students would perform well in this situation.

I have since changed my mind.  In particular, if I were to take pre-calculus, I would much prefer to be able to go through the topics at my own pace and on my own time.  I should note that, I do enjoy the process of teaching myself new things.  If I could have the computer give me an initial overview, I feel it would be an enjoyable experience for me.  When I am teaching, my goal is to get students to the point where they can learn on their own.  Therefore, if they can experience this early on, wouldn’t that be helpful?

While I am not unique, I believe most students would prefer not to have to teach themselves the material.  They, rightly, feel that they are at school and should be taught the material.  They should have the opportunity to be taught, but if they are provided the opportunity to attend mini-lectures, is this enough that they could use the software at other times?

As I conclude this post, I feel I should have some profound statement as to which version of the class would actually be better.  However, I haven’t reached such a conclusion, nor have I reached the conclusion that both are just fine.  If I had to pick something, I would say that small lectures are the way to go, but that wasn’t really an option here.  Instead, I will leave it as an open question, what do you think would work better for students?  If you had to take the class, which version would you take?  If you could change either one, what would you do, provided you keep the overall structure the same?

Let me know in the comments below.  If you know anyone else that would have some input, or at least find this interesting, let them know to check out the post by sharing on Social Media.

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