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Ed Neal: A Critical Response to Jerald G. Schutte's Virtual Teaching in Higher Education: The New Intellectual Superhighway or Just Another Traffic Jam?

Ed Neal
Director of Faculty Development
Center for Teaching and Learning
Campus Box #3470
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3470
Ph: (919) 966-1289
Fx: (919) 962-5236
There must be a "Gresham's Law" of educational research--bad research drives out good research--since that is the only explanation for the continued attention being paid to the Schutte study. I believe can learn very little from this study because the research design is fundamentally flawed.

He reported that students in his Social Statistics course who were taught via the WWW performed 20% better on mid-term and final exams than students taught in the traditional way, but he didn't use the same teaching methods for the treatment group and the control group.

Schutte's traditional class met for lecture one day a week and turned in weekly homework problems. Students in his virtual class had four assignments each week: statistical reports generated by three-member student groups via e-mail, a "hypernews discussion" in which every student responded to a discussion topic twice a week, a "moderated Internet relay chat" ("in the virtual presence of the professor"), and the same homework problems assigned in the traditional class. Clearly, students in the "virtual class" had more opportunities to be involved with each other and the teacher and (very significantly) were intensively involved with the course material over the entire week. It seems clear that Schutte would have to provide similar small-group activities, discussion opportunities, and other assignments for the traditional class if he wants to show that the superior performance of the "virtual class" was the result of the technology and not completely different teaching methods. Schutte simply demonstrated that cooperative learning methods and intensive engagement with the material yield improved performance, results that educational researchers discovered years ago.

Some have pointed out that, without technology, Schutte might not have experimented with these teaching methods. That may be true, but it begs the question of whether we need the technology at all if we can be more effective in the traditional classroom by adopting these methods.

The Schutte study does illustrate the confusion (shared, unfortunately, by many in higher education) between teaching methods and various delivery systems. This muddy thinking leads to absurdities such as transferring lectures wholesale to PowerPoint (or some other presentation software) "to increase their effectiveness." I often feel as though we are caught up in a kind of "cargo cult" in higher education-- adopting the trappings of technology in hopes that the magic will bring us trade goods. Studies that purport to show the superiority of technology promote this mythology.


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