In the past year, the Idaho State Legislature held hearings on the implementation of a number of reforms for Idaho education (http://www.idahostatesman.com/2011/02/20/1535065/a-reform-plan-a-long-time-in-the.html). High on that list of proposed reforms was a new provision to require students take online courses as a condition of graduation from highschool. To say that this proposal was met with skepticism is a gross understatement. Teachers, parents, and administrators were riotous; requiring students to take online courses was viewed as replacing teachers with computers. Many argued that an online course couldn’t possibly result in the equivalent learning experience that would be achieved in face-to-face instruction. Richard Clark’s works on media comparison studies should have been required reading for everyone. I must admit, I have been lulled into the seduction of the simplistic media comparison study more than once…”Why, yes. It makes perfect sense that student achievement in mathematics would increase when they use computers for practice drills!” What we have ALL missed were the hidden meanings behind those results. Clark (1994) states that different forms of technology do not increase learning. Learning is only affected by the methods in which those media attributes are used in instruction (Clark, 1994). In this previous example of math drills, a comparison study was conducted that compared student math knowledge gained from performing math drills on the computer to having a teacher assist with the math drills in the classroom. The effect was…there was NO EFFECT! Students performed similarly on math assessments. The difference that is highlighted by this study is the efficiency by which those skills can be mastered. It can be more time efficient and economical to have students use math software to gain fluency in math, than it is for a teacher to dedicate the necessary resources to achieve the same goal. Clark’s (1994) assertions are substantiated by Wilbur Schramm (1977), “who claimed that learning is influenced more by the content and instructional strategy in a medium than by the type of medium.”
“Gavriel Salomon and others (Salomon, 1979) had argued that it was not the medium which influenced learning but instead certain attributes of media that can be modeled by learners and can shape the development of unique ‘cognitive processes.'” (Clark, 1994)
Computers can never “replace” teachers because the media attributes are only as good as the method used to deploy them. The concern that teachers would be replaced by technology seems to be a common fear; as each new technology brings novelty, fears begin to surface. A sword is only as good as the swordsman, after all.
Clark, R. E. (1994). Media and method. Educational Technology Research & Development, 42(3), 21-30.