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Thinking, Learning and Computers


(9/99 -- see appended 9/01 update)
Initial Goals

My goal was to create a course about computers and education for both CCT and M.Ed. students. (I thought, mistakenly, that this would be the only computers and education course.) For the first six classes I designed activities to acquaint students with a number of specific computer-based tools, and at the same time to lead into critical thinking about these tools. On that basis, the second half of the course would examine interpretations of and debates about social and educational transformations that involve computers. The different class activities were intended to provide models for adaptation to classes and other settings. In addition to their projects, students also prepared briefings on selected topics for each other, which is one way they can address the explosion of information made possible by computers (see syllabus from Fall 1998).
This course was established by a former CCT director who believed that research on computers and artificial intelligence provided insight about processes of human cognition, thinking and intelligence, and thus about learning. I do not share that belief, and attempted to provide the conceptual and socio-historical background to support a critical position on computers as models for thinking and learning.

Challenges and Responses
I learned quickly that the M.Ed. students thought the course would provide direct instruction about use of computers and software in their classrooms. Some withdrew; those who stayed still wanted more hands on time on computer-based tools than I had planned. Most students needed more warm-up than I gave them to appreciate "critical and creative thinking," the expectations of reflection pieces, the rationale for the unconventional assessment system, and the value of revising and resubmitting in repsonse to my comments. Nevertheless, M.Ed. students proved able to choose a classroom oriented project or a more critical paper as it suited their interests.

A turning point in the course was a mid-semester class in which I was away at a conference. The students brought in movies cued to a scene highlighting changing social attitudes about computers and had to interpret their scenes to the other students, something I had modeled the previous week. Having to take full responsibility for their own learning had a positive impact on students' engagement in the remaining classes, something they acknowledged in the historical scan during the final class. Unfortunately, activities during the final class to take stock of the course left insufficient time for most students to complete either the GCOE evaluation or the one I had prepared. Follow-up requests yielded more returns, but the number of evaluations received was too low to be representative.

Future Plans
My plans for future offerings of this course are to:
--maintain the hybrid CCT-education nature of the course, and to direct the more pragmatic or anxious M.Ed. students to the other courses;
--rearrange and adjust the early classes so the course begins with the students experiencing computer use from the position of students, not teachers. The aim here would be to make non-CCT students comfortable by establishing a basis in the concrete before moving on to critical thinking about computer-based tools and, later, to interpretations and wider debates about computers in society;
--address the emerging challenge of using the World Wide Web well, in particular for distance education, by starting with a hands-on class related to this topic;
--maintain the CCT emphasis on critical reflection, but with streamlined requirements, instructions, and assessment system;
--require conferences with me early in the course for students to express their concerns and for me to establish dialogue needed to support students' development as critical thinkers;
--encourage M.Ed. students to undertake course projects on their specific educational interests;
--continue to collect clippings on developments in computers and organize them in a binder to stimulate students thinking about their projects and my own thinking about possible changes in the course;
--provide handouts on class activities to facilitate their adaptation into students' lesson plans (a practice already begun by the end of the fall 1998 semester);
--rework the two most difficult classes (on dynamical systems and heterogeneous construction); and
--time the final class so evaluations are submitted before students leave on the last day.

CCT670 was not taught when scheduled in Fall 2000 because I received a course release under a Healy grant. Many of the future plans above, however, are reflected in the syllabus for Ed610 in Spring 2001.

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