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Technology is Not a Replacement for Face-to-Face Instruction

Steve Cooper

A couple of days ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education had an interesting article about Salman Khan, a fellow who quit his job as a financial analyst to start creating curricular materials on the web in various K-12 areas. (See http://chronicle.com/article/A-Self-Appointed-Teacher-Runs/65793/ for more details.) Unfortunately, he doesn't have any CS materials on the web, but he does have several STEM content areas, and the couple of math videos I looked at seemed reasonable enough. His website is:


I first came across him when it was announced he had won a Tech award in 2009

In an era of technology, it is interesting to explore its possible impact in education. (See, for example Allan Collins' new book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology: The Digital Revolution and the Schools. While I disagree with nearly all of his conclusions, he makes an intriguing case for challenges to secondary schools in the US in the Information Age, and the role technology can play.) I am a fan of MIT's open courseware project and the availability of actual videotaped lectures seems to be a natural extension. Khan keeps his lectures quite short (the few I saw were under 10 minutes), and has a chatty and informal approach I think might appeal to lots of students.

Forgetting about the difficulty of trying to consider how to teach programming in an environment which is not interactive (and programming seems to be one of those skills that is best developed by doing rather than by watching somebody else do), I am still concerned that the Chronicle article seems to imply that this is the wave of the future, to someday replace college (and potentially high school) with purely on-line versions, through technology. Certainly, there are currently many on-line courses available, as well as a few degree programs. Perhaps I am a Luddite, but I'm not sure I'm ready to give up face to face instruction, performed (at least at the K-12 level) by instructors trained in pedagogy in addition to the content area (something Mr. Kahn readily admits he is not). I think that such materials as produced by Kahn are a potentially wonderful augmentation to traditional face-to-face instruction, but not a replacement for it.

Steve Cooper
CSTA Vice President


I have done several online courses, and I've administered one or two as well, and I believe that some fundamental differences will prove troublesome to anyone who thinks that we can willy-nilly replace classroom instruction.

First off, you mention the OCW (The MIT online courses): I use these within the context of classroom instruction---both as a planning aide, and as actual content. I also use them for my personal education---albeit I use different courses. (I use them so often that I contribute every year to keep them healthy.)

Online courses work well with students who have already mastered the fundamentals, but are less than helpful in developing that foundation. In addition, I find that disciplined students definitely fare better with these courses. Unfortunately, few secondary students (or it has been my experience) have this kind of focus and discipline. Those that do, by the way, really don't need us.

Preparation and management of online courses is more difficult from the instructor's viewpoint, too. In addition to the challenges attendant to location, we have to deal with perceptions, and this is especially true among parents. Many parents feel that these courses are de facto inferior or less rigorous than their classroom counterparts. And this last point is particularly deadly for Computer Science (which, by the way is more than teaching "programming," but doubtless you know this), which is already relegated to elective status in most schools. Worse, I suspect that moving these courses to an online or an online-only basis will only hasten their complete removal from the secondary classroom---a trend that will only accelerate.

FWIW, I fear that the embrace of "online" anything is more symptomatic of a misunderstanding of pedagogy, technology, and human factors. Americans, for deep historical reasons, are always looking for simple, quick solutions to complex problems, and I suspect that "online" or "e" is just another symptom of the same cultural disorder.


The lure of being able to "reach out and touch" tens of thousands of students thru a wire will keep educational inventors busy from this point on. But, I think Steve has it right. The human element in a learning situation plays a valuable role. I've seen Khan's lessons and they're canned presentations using a digital drawing pad. Almost no contextual linkage or motivational development (these parts of education require human intelligence at the point of delivery). What Khan is offering are context-free lessons, which shows he is good with using internet technology, but a bit out of touch with current thinking in education, or is, but is willing to make compromises most others wouldn't.

Clearly, the combination of live humans and computers in a learning situation will outperform either alone. People are free to settle for less, and have to in many cases because of economics or not getting admitted to the college program they desire.

I cringe at the cold, impersonal, detached aura computer science presents to the uninitiated when you eliminate the human element. To me, this is the last place we want to be going if we are serious of recruiting more young men and women into the field. Just the opposite, we need to infuse CS education with inspiration, laughter, comraderie, and lasting relationships to soften the hard edge of dealing with bits and bytes.

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