In the past couple of days, I’ve come across a couple of articles I’ve found thought provoking. The first, The Benefits of Making It Harder to Learn, talks about an experiment where researchers intentionally used fonts that were harder to read to create assignments and classroom presentations. In every instance, the subjects who were forced to navigate the more difficult texts learned the material more deeply than the group who encountered the material in a more accessible form. James Lang, the author of the article, describes the idea of “cognitive disfluency,” creating barriers that learners have to overcome, as a key to successful learning.
The other article I read, A Technological Cloud Hangs Over Higher Education, is more of a non-scientific lament, but it makes much the same point. Keith Williams, a physics professor, recounts when his department removed all of its pendulums, replacing them with virtual pendulums on computers:
The software did everything, and there would be no more experimental complications, such as higher-order friction and drag. If students wanted to observe what Foucault observed, I suppose they could rotate their screens. Best of all, the students now recorded all quantities with perfect accuracy, so they wouldn’t need to learn how to account for errors. There were no more experimental errors.
Much like Lang, Williams wonders what is lost when everything is neatly available “in the cloud,” with the click of a mouse.
I found these observations intriguing because I had a similar epiphany while designing the online writing course I’m teaching this summer. Initially, I wanted to help my students by making all of the course readings available as scanned PDF files–in essence creating the equivalent of the old photocopied course packs I had to purchase when I was in grad school. I confess I was caught up in the technological “neatness” of it all. When one of the course reviewers asked if I was within “fair use” copyright guidelines (I was), it gave me pause. Why, I thought, in a course that emphasizes the research process as well as writing, was I eliminating an opportunity for students to learn how to find material on their own?
So I removed all of the PDFs I had painstakingly uploaded, and I replaced them with a bibliography of the readings. I had already checked, and all but two of the assigned readings were either available through our library’s periodical databases or online in places like Google Books, so I knew they could get them, but they would have to go through the process of using the library–what a novel thought!
In the process of doing all of this, I also recognized another learning opportunity we will have once the course begins. In creating the bibliography, I took advantage of the “automatic” citation features of the library databases, as well as free web services such as EasyBib. I then proceeded to “fix” all of the things these services got wrong. So we’ll be talking about the dangers of relying on technology to do our thinking for us.
I don’t know if my students will thank me for making their lives more difficult now, but maybe they will later.