Of mice and mentors

Interactive tools help students most by allowing lecturers to offer them more personal attention, says Jochen Runde

March 13, 2008

Universities are a primary source of technological innovation. So why have they been so slow to embrace e-learning tools? The problem does not lie with students, who come from classrooms bristling with computers and may have their own laptops or PCs with broadband access. Much of their spare time is spent on computer games and interactive media on the web. Yet when they arrive at university, many of these young, e-savvy people find that their main sources of information are the traditional textbook and formal lectures. In many subjects, the use of PowerPoint may have been the only significant technological change in university teaching over the past 100 years.

This problem is particularly acute in the more theoretical disciplines. Take my own subject, economics. It is a subject heavy in theory, much of it mathematical, but where the main benefit to students lies is in its practical application. For example, it is useful in answering questions about what is likely to happen to share prices if the exchange rate continues to appreciate. There are undoubtedly answers in the textbook and the lectures based on them. But while they provide a crucial source of concepts and tools, many students find them dry and unenticing.

There may be some light at the end of this technological tunnel, as e-learning tools begin to find their way into the market. A number of my colleagues and I have developed LiveEcon, an interactive learning tool for macro and microeconomics. Rather than simply exposing students to text, mathematical formulae and static graphical presentations, LiveEcon integrates dynamic diagrammatic expositions within the text, and then provides students with the means to manipulate fully specified versions of the economic models they are studying. With it, students are able to see dynamic diagrammatic renditions of the effects of any variable changes they might impose in a way that makes the underlying mathematics much easier to understand. And when they have finished and want to make sure it's all made sense, they can test themselves with quizzes.

While the advantages of tools of this kind may seem obvious, the question is whether degree students will be given the opportunity to benefit fully from them. The difficulty here is that lecturers are often reluctant to change their teaching materials and the way their subject is communicated. So long as such tools aren't integrated into courses and don't appear on essential reading lists, they are likely to be seen as merely a handy extra. Part of the problem is that publishing in an electronic resource, or contributing to podcasting or an online forum, does not yet have the imprimatur of quality and seriousness of publishing in a book or journal. So while publishers are happy to bundle electronic materials as add-ons to textbooks, they are reluctant to move towards self-standing electronic learning tools for fear of eroding their highly profitable markets in paper texts.

Nevertheless, lecturers would benefit from exploring e-learning. There are clear advantages to electronic media in improving student understanding of quantitative disciplines such as economics, but now that the language of learning up to the age of 18 is basically digital and interactive, they could bring similar benefits to other disciplines.

There are other advantages too. Interactive e-learning tools can be a cost-effective substitute for some small-group teaching, which could be a real benefit to many universities - not least those in developing countries, where small university departments often have to cope with excessively large student numbers. They are also ideal for delivery via online course management systems, which facilitate monitoring of student progress through records of their access and use of materials, provide easy ways to stay in touch with tutorial groups, and provide a structure for organising programme materials and tools. Indeed, perhaps the greatest advantage of e-learning tools and electronic delivery of materials is that they can free time for faculty to give students face-to-face attention and personal feedback. Even with all the new technology now available, there still isn't any more useful form of interaction than that.

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