Friday, June 02, 2006
The Transference Problem.
Here's a great article by George Mason law professor Thomas Hazlett that encapsulates the objections that opponents have to teaching with computers. His is not the raving of a Luddite. Many people have good, reasoned objections to machine-based learning. Hazlett cites studies where students working on computers actually performed more poorly on standardized tests than students who worked traditionally. He's afraid that technology-enabled learning does little more than teach computer skills. He's on to something.
At Carnegie Learning, we called this the "transference" problem. We saw a lot of it in schools: students would perform well on our software, but then fail offline tests. The learnings they had made on the software didn’t “transfer” to a novel situation. This is a meta-cognitive problem for education generally. It’s difficult to teach in the controlled environment of the classroom such that the students have problem-solving capacity with novel situations in the world outside the classroom. For computer-based education, this is a particularly acute problem because the interactive environment of the computer interface is by necessity limited and controlled. If the interface is built the wrong way, the student can only solve problems with the computer scaffolding built in—they cannot solve problems offline, in novel situations. You might think of the transference problem as the difference between a student researching a paper online and then writing it on his word processor, and a student who simply assembles a paper by clicking and pasting material he has gathered online. One child learns; the other doesn’t.
It's hard to build an interface and human-computer interaction scheme that actually incorporates the student's cognition into the design. It's much easier to simply build around the student interaction. Most software, for example, simply tells students whether they got something right or wrong. This is practically useless from a teaching standpoint: the student needs to figure out what they did wrong in order to learn the things they need to do right. If your interface design doesn’t provide the space for students to do that, they will not learn.