Worms and Professors: The Puzzle of Abundant Access to Computers and Traditional Classroom Teaching

Nematodes are small worms that scientists study because 40 percent of their chromosomes are similar to humans. In 2008, British and U.S. scientists decoded the genome of c. elagans, creating for the first time a genetic map of a higher organism, can now compare human and worm related genes to get at causes of inherited diseases.

Similarly, we know a great deal about the DNA of K-12 classrooms and use of computers over the past three decades. High-tech champions have dreamed of future schools abandoning traditional classroom structures and taking online courses from home. According to Tom Vander Ark, most high schoolers will be online by 2020. We have heard those boasts over the past quarter-century and still distance education remains marginal to public schooling.

Or consider the $62 million ” School of the Future,” that opened in 2006. A partnership between Microsoft and the Philadelphia public schools, each high school student has a laptop yet follows a traditional bell schedule of 45-minute periods. In classrooms, most desks are in rows, students receive traditional grades–you see where I am going in details drawn from an Education Week article. I dealt with similar issues in an earlier post (September 6, 2009).

So what is going on here?

Here is where those little roundworms re-enter the discussion. Just as genetic blueprints of nematodes can offer insights into inherited human diseases, a comparison between professors and teachers can shed light on why students blessed with laptops galore still face traditional classroom instruction and learning.


Academics are hardly technophobes. At home and office they use computers to write, analyze data, communicate with colleagues, and draft syllabi and handouts for courses. Personal accounts and surveys report again and again that most academics are enthusiastic about using computers and other technologies for routine tasks in laboratories, lecture halls, and data analysis. Moreover, they blog, podcast, create web-based classes and teach distance learning courses.

Furthermore, adventurous faculty have designed projects in their discipline. Associate Professor Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano of Stanford University’s Spanish and Portuguese Department, for example, worked with technology staff to create “Chicana Art,” a multimedia database of works by various Mexican-American artists. Digitized slides have links to what the artists have said, their biographies, and lists of references.

Yet using computers and other new technologies to improve instruction has had little tangible effect on undergraduate classroom teaching or learning. The lecture has remained central to undergraduate instruction.

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Except now lectures are often conveyed through Powerpoint and similar software. According to a 2008 national student survey, 63 percent of professors use PowerPoint software in their courses. At some institutions, the percentage runs higher. Student reactions?

Alison Lesht, a senior at Connecticut College, despaired over going to her organic-chemistry classes. Her professor “would write on the PowerPoint slides complete sentences, which she would then read. It didn’t really add anything to the lecture.” Lesht concluded: “I call it ‘PowerPoint abuse.”

Lectures, now available on slides and studded with bullet points, dominate undergraduate instruction. Except for a small percentage of faculty, 1:1 laptops and abundant high-tech services have hardly made a difference in how professors teach and students learn in classrooms. Why?

Unlocking this puzzle requires examining those institutional goals and structures that seldom receive attention. Consider that a primary goal of universities is to produce and disseminate knowledge (i.e., doing research and publishing results). Structures to achieve that goal are faculty rewards in tenure and promotion for research productivity rather than effective teaching. To insure that faculty have time to do research and publish, university administrators reduce teaching obligations by creating large lecture classes in the undergraduate courses and small classes in graduate courses. Those goals and structures shape how classes are organized and influence how professors teach.


The power of institutional goals and structures to shape teaching connects university professors to K-12 teachers. Public school goals are not restricted to literacy and academic skills that prepare children for jobs in an information-driven economy. Historically, schools have also been expected to socialize children into the habits and values of the larger community while creating engaged citizens who contribute to a better community. The dominant structure to achieve these competing goals has been the age-graded school with self-contained classrooms where students are promoted or retained annually.

Those institutional goals and age-graded school structure have had a decided impact on how teachers taught and teach now (see August 13 and 16 posts). The introduction of computers sought increased literacy and academic skills, not other prized goals. High-tech fit neatly into the low-tech age-graded school.

Thus, the majority of K-12 teachers, like most university professors, influenced by the institution’s primary goals and dominant structures, continue to practice traditional forms of teaching in the privacy of their classrooms amid a cornucopia of computers.


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