Oct 01 2021

Active Learning Is Best

Published by under Education
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There is pretty broad agreement that the pandemic was a net negative for learning among children. Schools are an obvious breeding ground for viruses, with hundreds or thousands of students crammed into the same building, moving to different groups in different classes, and with teachers being systematically exposed to many different students while they spray them with their possibly virus-laden droplets.  Wearing masks, social distancing, and using plexiglass barriers reduces the spread, but not enough if we are in the middle of a pandemic surge. Only vaccines will make schools truly safe.

So it was reasonable, especially in the early days of the pandemic, to convert schooling to online classes until the pandemic was under control. The problem was – most schools were simply not ready for this transition. The worst problem were those student who did not have access to a computer and the internet from home. The pandemic helped expose and exacerbate the digital divide. But even for students with good access, the experience was generally not good. Many teachers were not prepared to adapt their classes for online learning. Many parents did not have ability to stay at home with their kids to monitor them. And many children were simply bored and not learning.

This is a classic infrastructure problem. Many technologies do not function well in a vacuum. You can’t have cars without roads, traffic control, licensing, safety regulations, and fueling stations. Mass online learning also requires significant infrastructure that we simply didn’t have.

This is also a classic failure of futurism. Many futurists imagined that with computers would naturally come at-home schooling. Computer technology allows for the possibility of at-home schooling, but they underestimated the rest of the infrastructure that would be needed. Our society is largely organized around the availability of public schools to serve as baby-sitters for households where both parents work (about 60% of households with children have both parents working, and 23% of children in the US live in single-parent homes). Prior to the 1960s the notion that mothers would not be automatically at home to monitor their children was not even considered. And of course, the availability of broadband especially in poor areas is an issue.

But there is a more subtle infrastructure problem here, and that is the technology to adequately (let alone optimally) leverage computer-based, multimedia, or remote learning. This is, in fact, one of my personal biggest technology disappointments. I first encountered computer-based learning in the 1970s, when I was in high school. It was very limited (not entire classes), involving specific programs designed to teach specific skills. But my experience was very positive. I remember learning chemical nomenclature in an afternoon spent in front of a PET computer. The program was interactive, much like any computer game, provided instant feedback, and a steady learning curve. It was pretty basic (entirely text-based), but it worked. I never would have imagined that more that 40 years later the penetration of computer-based learning would remain so low.

I’m still not sure why this is the case. I suspect it’s just the generally sclerotic nature of institutions, and perhaps there isn’t a clear market, and therefore little incentive to invest in developing the applications. I am also not talking about completely replacing teachers with computers, but there is no technological reason right now that computer-based learning should not be supplementing just about every K-12 class and beyond. Especially for technical subjects, like math, grammar, and any science, basic skills can be mastered with an interactive program that individualizes the pace of learning and assessment of progress. Entire curricula could be automated, with teachers putting it all together with workshop and more interactive-based learning.

I know these programs exist. That’s part of my point – they exist, they work, the technology is here. My surprise is over how little they are utilized given their potential. Imagine if we had a robust infrastructure for computer-based learning prior to the pandemic. But even without something like a pandemic, it’s just a better way to learn.

New evidence supports the notion that active learning (something that is interactive) is superior in outcomes to passive learning (reading, listening to lectures). This difference is likely exacerbated when the passive learning is online. Imagine a teacher trying to engage 20 young students on a Zoom call. Even at the medical school level – I have given Zoom lectures and run Zoom workshops, and it’s extremely difficult to maintain the level of interactivity that I can manage in person.

The core problem was that, largely, teaching online became a matter of directly transferring in person learning techniques to online, but they did not translate well. Rather we need to develop teaching techniques specifically optimized for online, and they should maximize interactivity. Passive learning techniques plus an online format equals students bored to death.

Even without the online component, interactive learning is better than passive learning. Higher education, at least, is getting the message. At my medical school we are completely phasing out lectures and replacing them with workshops, labs, and other interactive sessions. Information downloads are accomplished in virtual time with multi-media sources. Still I think there is room for vastly increased computer-based interactive learning, although there is some of that as well.

The pandemic is an opportunity to take a look at our educational infrastructure and make significant changes. I doubt we will use it as much as we should.


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