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In the current push to use new technologies in the area of teaching and learning, perhaps it is time to take a step back and reflect on the pedagogical pros and cons of such efforts. In this issue of CDTL Brief, we present several viewpoints on the topic of Fundamental Teaching Skills in an IT Age.

March 1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Computer Technology at NUS: Some Reflections
 
Dr Francis N. Pavri
Department of Decision Sciences
Faculty of Business Administration
 

Recently, NUS has embarked on a very ambitious project to use computer technology campus-wide. In research, academics have been given generous upgrades of computers. In administration, more and more services are being put on-line to allow for quicker and more efficient turnaround. But it is in the area of teaching and learning that the greatest improvements have been made. Professors can now deliver lectures via the ubiquitous PowerPoint presentations or more esoteric ways like video-on-demand and other special Internet relay methods. In some instances, the introduction of email has facilitated closer communication and better learning between students and professors. The latest project to install hundreds of plug-and-play (P&P) points all over campus and equipping each student with a laptop has made available the World Wide Web to thousands of students.

With all these advancements, many academics are asking the following: Have academics really improved their teaching and research? Has the learning and thinking abilities of students improved?

Have I, as an academic, really improved my teaching and research?

My personal answer to this question is debatable. Granted that I now write faster on a machine, access information more quickly through the Internet, and have speedier answers to my queries with local and foreign colleagues through email, I cannot say I am really more productive. For instance, the ability to access INtv, CNN and BBC World via the computer is a potential distraction from real work. Also, how important is it that BBC or CNN is available to us and do such facilities really add to our knowledge?
With regards to email, it is extremely useful to be able to keep in touch with anyone 24 hours a day anywhere in the world. But junk email often fills our mailboxes. With the ease of bulk sending of email, the tendency for many is to send to everyone with no thought of its value to the receivers. It has placed the decision to act on them on the receivers, resulting in the loss of valuable time for many people.

Email also slowly corrupts our own patterns of writing and thinking. The ease of composing and sending email encourages us not to construct our thoughts succinctly and fully in our minds first before inputting them into the computer. In short, our minds become lazy. We usually are not bothered because the consequences are so subtle that most are unaware of it; and even if we are, the convenience is so overwhelming that email is still preferable to pen and paper. The long-term consequences of such debilitating effects can only be guessed at.

Has the learning and thinking abilities of students improved?

It is in the area of learning and computer use by students that I fear the assumed benefits have not materialised. Instead, many harmful effects have ensued. Take the case of report writing. The ability to embellish a report with different fonts, pictures and colour tempts students to spend so much time on such activities, that they frequently forget the aim and content of the project. The writing is often bad and the flow of ideas is inconsistent. The output looks beautiful – but it is mostly form and little function. Is this the way we want our students to turn out? I for one have prohibited students from using any forms of embellishment; they are to pass up only neatly typewritten black text on normal white paper. Many students resent this. I agree the process of ornamentation can be fun and exciting, but is it really useful?

The same is also true of presentations. With Microsoft’s PowerPoint software, the ability to decorate a presentation is limitless and the time spent boundless. Again, many students often forget the presentation’s purpose is to use the force of their personalities and oratory, and not a beautiful slide, to convince their audience. Many lecturers are caught in the same mire too.

The most insidious aspect of computer technology and its use at NUS is the Internet. Everyone is so caught up with its ‘advantages’ that no one is receptive to the idea that the effects may be harmful. It is assumed that the Internet can improve students’ learning because a lot of information is available at one’s fingertips. The intent of the P&P campus-wide network is to enable students to learn quicker and cultivate their thinking skills. But is this really true or is the opposite more likely – that students spend time on the net chatting, surfing for triviality or salacious matter, and in general, being entertained rather than informed? I believe the latter is closer to the truth.

The ease of Internet access has made libraries largely redundant for students, with pernicious consequences to students’ thinking and independent research skills. A typical student report these days contains a host of Internet references, but very few book or journal references obtained from a library. But it is known that the Internet is an anarchic jungle full of material that has not been vetted or edited by anyone, unlike journals and books. For instance, recent incidents in Indonesia have shown that a lot of information published over the net can actually be false. Because it comes from a computer and is attractively packaged, one tends to believe that the facts are accurate and quote verbatim off the net. Students, as observed from their reports, often lacked the necessary sense of discrimination. They cite volumes of information from the net and when asked why certain facts are wrong or inconsistent, they often reply: “But sir, I got it from XXX web site. How can it be wrong?” What has happened to the critical thinking abilities of our students that is so much vaunted on campus nowadays?

The ‘cut and paste’ practice of students is another disturbing trend. As perceived from many students’ reports, large chunks of writing are obviously lifted straight from some web site as the flow of ideas is often inconsistent and the writing style totally different. The ease of copying and pasting makes such plagiarism highly tempting. This is unlike working in a library, where effort is needed to search for information and one must be discriminate when lifting passages, making the resulting learning stronger and the retention often longer. In contrast by often using the Internet, students may not be exercising their minds as much. The Internet provides an overflow of information that is unnecessary for critical thought and a sharp intellect. Less information but more critical examination of it is more important. But the former tends to be emphasised at the expense of the latter. Is this a healthy trend?

Conclusion

I would like to emphasise that I am not a Luddite extolling the dangers of new technology. I am very comfortable with new technology: I teach such subjects to Business students and am often a leader in its use. What I am cautioning is more discretion and discrimination. The whole country, not just NUS, is pushing technology to such great extents with the notion it will save us from all ills and put us at the pinnacle of development. What is often not discussed or deliberated are the harmful and less useful effects that should be given more attention.

 
 
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Inside this issue
Helping Students Learn in the IT Age
   
Why IT Can Never Replace The Lecturer
   
Computer Technology at NUS: Some Reflections
   
IT Showcase
   
Fundamental Teaching Skills in an IT Age
   
Is IT It?