Liberal Education

How Technology Matters to Learning

Did technology make a difference, for good or ill, in students' learning of economics in the three courses described in Dan Berrett's story, first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and reprinted above? That's the question that Liberal Education has asked me to discuss. By "technology," I mean not only online systems, video, and computer tutorials but also the classrooms, textbooks, and other means of learning in use by faculty and students. Steve Suranovic's course at George Washington University was taught mainly face-to-face in classrooms but also used Blackboard and online video recordings of lectures, among other technologies; Donald Boudreaux's course at George Mason University was taught face-to-face, and apparently no digital or online technology was used; and Peggy Douglas's course at University of Phoenix was taught totally online.

What impact did technology have on the students' learning? Some would assume that the Phoenix students, "totally online," must have learned less. Actually, the online versus face-to-face distinction, by itself, tells us nothing about which students learned more. Thomas Russell (2001) has summarized 355 studies comparing learning outcomes from campus and distance courses. There was no significant difference in learning outcomes. (For access to the studies Russell summarized and to more research done since 2001, see The setting—whether "campus," "distance," or "online"—does not directly influence what students learn. Instead, according to decades of educational research in many fields, what matters is how students learn—what they do—rather than where they do it.

Let me clarify what I mean by "how students learn": one group of students may read information on paper, another may hear the same information spoken in a room, and a third group might hear the same information from a recording. Research indicates that the learning outcomes will be the same for all three groups because, basically, all three groups are learning the same way—they are receiving the same verbal description of the content.

Even so, you may still be thinking, "I know students learn better face-to-face than online!" To explain why that commonsense conclusion is misleading, consider that a giant, tiered lecture hall is a learning space. So is a small, flat-floored room with chairs around a seminar table. In which room would students learn more?

I've actually lived that comparison. As a first-year student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1967, I took a "freshman seminar." That's what it was called in the catalogue. There were five of us students, and a professor, all seated around the table in his office. And at each early morning session, our professor lectured to us, nonstop, for the entire hour, just as though we had been in an auditorium. And we took notes, just as though we had been in an auditorium. (And I struggled, not always successfully, to avoid nodding off as I sat directly across the table from my professor.) I'm sure we would have learned about as much if we had been sitting in an auditorium with him lecturing. Our learning was determined by what we were doing—sitting silently and taking notes—not by where we were.

Obviously, seminar tables are not always used for lectures. In fact, seminar tables are intended to make other learning activities easier than, say, a lecture hall does. My professor could have asked one of us a tough question, and then challenged another student to critique that first answer. We students might have worked on a problem together, thinking aloud, while the professor listened and occasionally gave us a hint when we got stuck.

If you're not convinced yet that the space, even online space, doesn't determine how well students learn, let's take a look at the unexpected possibilities of the lecture hall. Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, has helped many faculty realize that lecture halls can be great places for intensive conversation among students. (For a look at Mazur's approach, see In Mazur's course, student-student debates become powerful engines for learning physics. My freshman professor used a seminar room as a lecture hall, while Mazur uses a lecture hall as though it were a seminar room. In fact, Mazur makes the size of his class into an asset, enriching the discussion in ways that would be more difficult if there were only five students.

So the right setting can make some teaching and learning practices easier (but not inevitable) and other activities harder (but not impossible). And it's those activities, especially what the students are doing, that influence what students learn.

In each of the three institutions Berrett describes, students are learning in different settings with different technologies. But what does the article say about what students do differently in those three economics courses? Unfortunately, Berrett focuses mainly on what the instructor is doing and also mostly ignores what students do outside the classroom. That's important because we'd like to think that students are spending up to twice as much time on the course outside the classroom as they do inside. (For Phoenix, let's consider the time students spend in online discussions with each other and the instructor as their "class time.") So we're missing most of the information we'd need to understand the implications of the technologies and learning spaces for learning.

However, I do notice two things about what those three groups of students are doing.

First, at Suranovic's class at George Washington University (GW) and Boudreaux's at George Mason University (GMU), concepts seem to be explained when students are together, and applied (i.e., practiced) when students are alone, doing homework. In contrast, Peggy Douglas of the University of Phoenix uses what many people call a "flipped pedagogy." While studying alone online, students are presented with new content through reading and, as Douglas explained to me by email, with videos and interactive computer simulation. Students also work on a new team project each week, working in teams of five (collaborating online). Then, while "in class" (that is, while participating in online discussions visible to the whole class) students apply their new skills and receive feedback from other students and from the instructor.

The "flipped" label is comparatively new, but the approach dates to the early days of higher education when students would read on their own, attend lectures of their choice, and then meet with a tutor for intensive discussion to probe and elaborate what they had learned, and receive advice on how they might proceed. There are many reasons why this approach gave way to relying on lectures as a major way in which content is received. For example, there is the classic downward spiral: imagine that half the students in a large class come well prepared, but the other half are not ready for discussion and application. That puts pressure on faculty to abandon some of their plans for discussion and to bring everyone up to speed by lecturing instead. That, in turn, reduces the pressure on students to prepare for the next meeting: the faculty member will explain what's important. So, for the next class, even more students are unprepared.

When I was a first-year student, everyone knew lectures summarized the text so that one could easily skip class (or skim the text). In recent years, thanks to online technology, flipped pedagogy has had a renaissance (perhaps we should say that the balance has re-flipped). Online systems make it easier to introduce content to students online. Then understanding can be tested in a rudimentary way through online tests, projects, or online discussion between class sessions. Before students come to class, the instructor can see what they understand already and where a new approach might be needed. So the class session can be planned to be more effective.

Dan Berrett detailed such a flipped campus course at the University of Colorado in an earlier Chronicle article, written in February 2012. Students "gather the information largely outside of class, by reading, watching recorded lectures, or listening to podcasts. When they are in class, students do what is typically thought to be homework, solving problems with their professors or peers, applying what they learn to new contexts. They continue this process on their own outside class." There's plenty of research to support a flipped approach. For example, evidence tells us that sitting through hour-long lectures is a rather inefficient way to learn. In fact, when students are beginning to practice new ways of thinking, it helps if they have plenty of interaction and coaching. That's why adherents of flipped pedagogy use so much class time for students to practice what they've been learning, with faculty and peers reacting, coaching, and assessing.

It's possible that the Phoenix students are actually getting more supervised practice in thinking like novice economists than are the students at George Mason and George Washington. The article makes it clear that the GMU students have no homework. The GW students use a learning management system, but the article does not tell us whether, online, the GW students get feedback as they practice in thinking "aloud" using economic principles.

Berrett's "Econ 101" article also mentions a second use of technology to support learning: Suranovic's students use online recordings to review his lectures. As I have discovered, many GW undergraduates use this Colonial Cast system to review classroom sessions they have already attended. (Ironically, some GW faculty do not use Colonial Cast because they believe that attendance in their classes would decline sharply. But surveys of students and observations of attendance at GW and other institutions show little evidence of attendance decline due to video.) Many of the students who use Colonial Cast—about a quarter of all the students in the class, typically—believe that their grades would suffer significantly if they could no longer review video of class sessions. The larger point is that a technology like Colonial Cast gives different students the opportunity to study differently. It's a second way in which technology may be helping GW students learn economics.

A lecture hall makes it difficult for different students to study different things at the same time—the instructor can teach only one group of students at a time. And dividing two hundred students into four groups of fifty, each discussing something different, can lead to impossible difficulties with noise. Online, however, students can be given choices among four learning methods, or even four complementary tracks of content.

Colonial Cast is not the only way in which the GW course uses technology to provide different learning pathways for different students. In an interview, Professor Suranovic told me that the GW economics course requires students to think through economics problems with algebra. But many of the entering students are weak in algebra, despite having studied it in high school. So the GW faculty begin their course with diagnostic testing of students' algebra skills and then provide both remedial algebra sessions and a sophisticated online tutoring system in algebra for those who need it. GW research indicates that students who receive this remedial help then do quite well in learning economics.

To sum up, technologies such as learning management systems or class recordings have no direct impact on learning outcomes. But if faculty and students use them to make it easier to do something educationally powerful—activities such as flipping pedagogy or offering different kinds of instruction to different students—those activities can improve learning.


Berrett, D. 2012. "How 'Flipping' the Classroom Can Improve the Traditional Lecture." Chronicle of Higher Education, February 19,

Russell, T. 2001. The No Significant Difference Phenomenon: A Comparative Research Annotated Bibliography on Technology for Distance Education. 5th ed. Chicago: International Distance Education Certification Center.

Stephen C. Ehrmann is vice provost for teaching and learning and associate professor of educational technology leadership at George Washington University.

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