UniServe€Science News: Newsletter of the Science Software Clearinghouse Vol. 2, November 1995

From the Director

The lessons of history

We at UniServe*Science believe strongly that the new Information Technologies have almost unlimited potential for improving university teaching. We hope you who are reading this newsletter feel the same way. We also hope you will agree that we should try to persuade our colleagues to use IT in their teaching and to convince university administrators to put up the necessary money. But perhaps a cautionary word might not go amiss before we are too far along that track. There are some of us who will be aware that we have been through this before. In the late 1960s, early 1970s, the great white hope of university teaching was television. From the pages of learned journals and the platforms of educational symposiums the message came forth. Our students spend hours each day glued to their television sets. They gain most of their knowledge of and opinions about the outside world from what they see on the box. Why cannot we harness television to teach them what we would like them to know? Research says that lecturing is not a particularly effective way to teach. Why not replace lectures with television programs?

We all know what happened. Universities the world over invested heavily in television units. Departments made elaborate series of teaching programs. Some were awful and were quickly scrapped, but some got it right and they were used to teach students effectively and well.

Yet today, to our knowledge, there is not any university anywhere in the world which still uses television programs as a significant component of its teaching effort. In the end, that kind of television teaching has to be judged a failure. Yet the original arguments are still valid. Students still watch television and they still get much of their knowledge of the world that way. What went wrong?

There are many opinions about that, but a significant factor must surely be the demands that television placed on departments. Good television programs are unbelievably expensive to make, both in money and in time. Yet departments insisted on making their own. Very, very few were willing to use materials that had been produced elsewhere. This was all right at the beginning, when we were all young and enthusiastic, but when the programs came to be remade, resources just could not be found. Even departments who had used television successfully, quietly went back to talk-and-chalk lecturing.

Today we are at the same cross-roads as we were a generation ago. We believe we can see the right road ahead and we must sell others on the idea of taking that road. But we must be careful not to oversell. This newsletter contains a salutary article by Roger Lewis, telling us that increased teaching effectiveness (at least in terms of exam grades) will not necessarily accompany enthusiastic use of new technologies. We will still have to work hard to achieve that.

This newsletter also contains articles on innovations that do seem to be successful in psychology, in biology, in geology. The message we would like to get across is that, if these are to be truly successful, other departments in other universities must use them That's why UniServe*Science exists -- to get you to consider incorporating these materials in your teaching and not simply to see them as templates for what you might write for yourself. If we do not succeed in persuading you to do that, then we believe that in another thirty years university teachers will be asking: what went wrong with IT in teaching?

To quote from George Santayana:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Ian Johnston


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