According to The Daily Princetonian, senior members of Princeton’s administration are considering how best to augment learning in the classroom with new educational technologies. This is certainly exciting news. However, decades of research in human-computer interaction will tell you that even the most advanced technologies don’t “stick” unless they are consistent with the values of the organization in which they are introduced. As the University is poised to make a considerable investment in our educational future, we must think seriously about what makes our experience unique in order to choose technologies that will best support Princeton’s educational values and goals.
Most of the proposed approaches to “interactive learning” follow in the widely publicized footsteps of Stanford and MIT: streaming lecture videos online for course previews, revision aids and even to reach an expanded audience. Our introductory courses may well be enhanced by online tutorials, and talks by visiting dignitaries should certainly be streamed for our global audience. But what makes Princeton unique is not its lecture halls.
What makes Princeton unique is the seminar.
Think about it. The joy of a Princeton education is not being one of 100 students listening to Tony Grafton lecture or streaming his recorded talk in your dorm room in your pajamas. The joy of a Princeton education is being one of 12 students in a room with him, actively engaged in discussing ideas together week after week. Our campus comes alive when students and faculty gather around a table to explore topics in fields from anthropology to physics, in our freshman seminars and beyond. This is the core of the Princeton experience. This is what gets students excited, what makes our alumni proud and what makes prospective students choose Princeton over MIT or Stanford.
Good seminars are predicated on discussion, student-to-student learning and direct and unparalleled access to extraordinary professors. Unfortunately, none of the “interactive learning” technologies discussed in the Prince article support such interactions. This is because most technologies for higher education and outreach take the lecture hall as a guide. From Blackboard to video streaming sites, these systems leverage tools from something our society is very good at doing — broadcasting — to enable a single professor to reach a wide audience of students. The result is systems that frame learning as a one-way street, wherein information flows from professor to students.
But education is a broad concept in theory and in practice. Too frequently, these one-way technologies must awkwardly service a range of class types such as precepts and seminars, undergraduate and graduate courses and even continuing education. Putting one-way technologies to use in the seminar ignores the unique requirements of the format, such as multi-way conversation and intensive student-professor interactions. This runs the risk of discrediting such educational activities — or worse, constraining them to fit the digital tools at hand.
No wonder the seminar is currently a lone bastion against technological invasion. Professors frequently discourage the use of electronics in the classroom, which they perceive as antithetical to fostering student participation. This is not only due to the lure of Facebook, but also because the educational technologies in use undermine seminar values.
Along with asking how to make lectures more interactive, then, we at Princeton must also ask: How can we adopt instructional technologies that support the goals of the seminar? Better yet, how might Princetonians leverage our expertise in the seminar format to both evaluate and build educational technologies that support our learning goals?
One interesting approach is happening right here on campus. Students in my interdisciplinary seminar on human-computer interaction are researching this very problem for their class project this semester. Using empirical, qualitative studies of seminars, they are exploring what makes the seminar work. The goal is to use these insights to propose and build value-sensitive designs that can improve and augment the seminar experience, while also keeping in mind where technology should get out of the way. We won’t generate all the answers, but grounded research into the question is the first step to building systems in which “education” is not a one-way street.
When it comes to new educational technologies and the opportunities they afford, it is wise for our administration to reconsider our options. But while other schools may innovate in the domain of lecture enhancement, Princeton has a unique opportunity to lead the way. To do so, we must leverage our years of experience in terrific seminars and our student-centered approach to education, whether in our choice of off-the-shelf educational technologies or in our own system innovations. After all, it is in the Princeton seminar that we learn an important truth: “Interactive Learning” is already what Princeton does best.
Janet Vertesi is a Link-Cotsen Fellow at the Society of Fellows in the Liberal Arts, Lecturer in Sociology and Affiliated Faculty with the Center for Information Technology Policy. At Princeton, she teaches SOC 357: Sociology of Technology and SOC/COS 409: Critical Approaches to Human-Computer Interaction and serves on the executive committee of the Digital Humanities Initiative.