STIMULATED BY ELECTRONS
The newest wave (one can no longer speak in terms of generations!) of electronic information technologies (EIT) raises puzzling questions for those of us in higher education. Beyond simply using computers in the writing of papers and exams, taking advantage of the facility which they allow us to search the library, or using some particular piece of software to write exams or massage spreadsheet data, how should faculty and students fully utilize the challenging capacities of these new technologies?
At one end of the spectrum lie various kinds of computer aided instruction (CAI), usually pre-packaged tutoring or self-teaching programs used by students in ways that are supplemental to other forms of learning. At the other end lie full-blown multi-media presentations, usually requiring much more on-site development, and having the potential to act as either the primary mode of classroom activity or one that is ancillary but still tremendously expansive of more traditional in-class endeavors. In between lie various specialized computer-based activities, either inside or outside the classroom, e.g., computer assisted drawing (CAD), use of various modem-accessed on-line data bases, such as Nexus or Lexus, or STAT-USA.
Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list and none of these approaches excludes any other, existing as they do both theoretically and practically in various permutations and combinations.
But however they are articulated, the prospective use of EIT raises important philosophical and pedagogical issues. The most basic of these is whether these new technologies are best used to supplement traditional patterns of instruction, which are primarily didactic, or whether they open the door to, and perhaps even demand, new approaches to the whole process of education.
As an instructor who has barely scratched the surface of using a hypertext program to create an interdisciplinary course, I can put the question in concrete terms. How should I build and implement this hypertext computer experience? Should I completely structure it myself, supplying it to students as an individual, interactive, extra-curricular supplement to other instruction? Should I make it more open-ended so that successive classes of students can modify and expand the program and its contents? Should I provide only the barest minimum of content and move the creative activity to a more central location within the in-class experience itself, coaching the students themselves in both their use and construction (or reconstruction) of the hypertext "text"? If I decide on this latter course of action, should the group activity of constructing the course become the primary feature and the organizing experience of the course or should it be subordinate to some "larger" or more traditional activity?
These questions, in turn, have raised more fundamental ones: What are the goals of my teaching, anyway? What am I trying to accomplish: Transmission of content? Intellectual mastery? Development of "know-how?, of knowledge-worker" skills? Familiarity with the greater culture or a specific cultural/intellectual tradition? Self-knowledge and insight? All of the above?
In struggling to understand the new possibilities that EIT offers and in contemplating their potential implications I have discovered my own need to wrestle with some very basic questions about the whole educational enterprise. This alone has already made the impact of the new technology a positive one for me. The current flurry of debates regarding a whole range of issues in higher education suggests that we are passing through a period of appraisal and scrutiny that is much more than idle curiosity for an increasing number of professional educators as well as the increasing number of outside critics.
LEVELS OF LEARNING
Reflecting back on over a quarter of a century in higher education, I am able to identify a number of different levels of the university teaching-learning process, most of which operate simultaneously, although in varying degrees. Many of them remain unrecognized by learners, and some are invisible even to ourselves as teachers. In an attempt to clarify my own thinking about what happens in the classroom I have identified eight different levels of the teaching-learning process.
First is the obvious level of CONTENT. Most of us think of a university course as about something; it is in regard to this level that students are typically most concerned. Students want to "master the material". The student who misses a class will often ask a fellow student, "What did the instructor cover yesterday?" or will inquire of the professor directly (while remaining oblivious to the question's discounting nature), "Did you talk about anything important in yesterday's class?" "Important" in this context means something that the student is concerned that he or she will be responsible to know for the next exam.
The next level is that of CONCEPTS; explicit attention is often addressed to this level by instructors, as in "You should know the basic concepts of the discipline" or "It is important to grasp these concepts if you want to understand this course." Once named by the teacher, students are likely to view this level of learning as simply a more refined or abstract version of content. They have relatively little difficulty shifting the focus of their learning from knowing about the Marshall Plan to the concept of international policy, although it may have to be pointed out (repeatedly) for them to do so.
Third is a level clearly more abstract and a bit harder to grasp; this is the level of PRINCIPLES. A principle usually summarizes a pattern exhibited in diverse concrete instances. A student can study the concrete events that together combined to create America's Great Depression of the 1930's; abstracted from those events and useful to explain what happened might be principles of supply and demand. Such principles find more expression in economics than history; accordingly, we tend to think of the discipline of economics as more abstract than history.
These first three levels represent the explicit or manifest aspects of any course being taught; they are what the course appears to be concentrated upon. But there are several other levels, more implicit and covert than these. Learning at these additional levels tends to occur while the students' conscious attention is addressed to the first three; it is, so to speak, something that happens while the student's intellectual back is turned.
What I think of as this "second tier" of learning begins with the fourth level of NUCLEAR or CORE THEMES; beyond the content, concepts, and principles of every discipline lie what Arthur Lovejoy has called its "component elements." In my own discipline, Robert Nisbet captured five such component elements in his identification of the "unit ideas" or essential themes of the sociological tradition. Nisbet saw these unit ideas--community, authority, status, the sacred, and alienation--as underlying the entire discipline, both defining and effectively unifying it at the same time. While there may not be universal agreement as to a particular discipline's nuclear or core themes, most instructors would agree there is some common set of ideas that students should acquire through their exposure to the discipline. However incompletely articulated, such core themes or unit ideas are almost always present in every discipline from the introductory course on.
A fifth level is that of PROCESS and METHODS; both the general process (e.g., critical analysis or the systematic application of inductive reasoning) and the specific methods appropriate to a particular discipline (e.g., empiricism or, even more particularly, experimental design). It is at this level that the student experiences how something comes to be known, accepted, or believed by those within the discipline and becomes practiced in the epistemologies that sustain that discipline's claims to credibility. In many disciplines, one or both of these (usually the latter) may be taught directly in, for example, a methods or laboratory course.
A sixth level is that of the PERSPECTIVE of the discipline itself; the unique orientation or angle of analysis that makes the particular discipline distinctive and unique. In some disciplines it has been explicitly named, as in C. Wright Mill's famous description of "the sociological imagination" or in economists' classic assumption of "rational man," but in many cases it is not. But whether or not it is specified and described, it is often unwittingly amalgamated as a cumulative result of continued experience and exposure. Again it bears noting that such perspectives are not always universal or unitary in any specific discipline, and that, as with themes, they are experientially constructed possessions of the initiated much more than the novice.
The last two levels may actually be more akin to meta-levels. One is that of ISSUES and CONTROVERSIES within and about the discipline itself. Within any given discipline there is unlikely to be complete agreement at any of these six levels: on-going arguments and debates characterize the intellectual process, and there are continuing disagreements about what a discipline should consist of (content), how it should define its terms (concepts), what consistencies it can claim (principles), what procedures and techniques supply it with veracity (process and methods), the ways in which it views--or should view--the world (perspective).
There is finally a curious eighth level of the MEDIUM--the heuristic approach--of the instructor him or herself. That is, the teacher as a particular individual presents a distinct way of grappling with, and of knowing and assimilating the content and the other six levels named above. Often the teacher does this in ways that she or he is unaware of; this is one level about which the learner may, in fact, be more cognizant and perceptive than the teacher. We are increasingly sensitive to the different ways of knowing that different people present, not only in their individual styles, but also within the learned assumptions of words, attitudes, and actions of the groups in which they locate their significant identities.
The more explicitly we can identify what we want to teach at each of these levels the more likely students will be able to learn at each of these levels. Perhaps even more importantly, an awareness of these different levels can help to inform us in deciding what, after all, we are really trying to do in our particular corner of that great big shop we call higher education, and whether or not we're doing it well.