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Volume 8, Number 3: December 6, 2001

Teaching Dogs to Talk:
Bill Cerbin on Technology and Student Learning

Bill Cerbin is Professor of Psychology and Assistant to the Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UW-La Crosse, where he was the founding director of the Center for Effective Teaching and Learning and the University Assessment Coordinator. TTT thanks him for allowing us to reproduce his address to the UW System Information Technology Summit here.


Wisconsin Dells, September 13, 2001

I want to start with an anecdote to set the context for my comments. This story belongs to Joan North from UW-Stevens Point who used it in a talk she gave several years ago. It goes like this:

A friend of mine told me that he taught his dog to talk. I rushed over to see this amazing dog perform. After listening to the pooch go "arf, arf, arf" for a long time, I said, "I thought you said your dog could talk. My friend replied, "I didn't say he could talk, I just said that I taught him to talk."

Okay-now here is my updated version of this anecdote for the IT Summit audience:

A friend of mine told me that he taught his dog to talk using WebCT. I rushed over to see this amazing dog perform. After listening to the pooch "arf, arf, arf" for a long time, I said, "I thought you said your dog learned to talk using WebCT. My friend replied, "I didn't say he learned to talk, I just said that I taught him to talk using WebCT."

These anecdotes are commentaries on the all too common lack of connection between teaching and learning in higher education. This is the view that teaching can be successful even if students don't learn from it. The IT version suggests that teaching can be improved by adding some technology to the instructional process even though it does not improve student learning.

New technologies can be assimilated to ongoing instructional practices and have no salutary effect on student learning. I think this assimilation process is now underway with course management utilities like Blackboard and WebCT. I predict that in a few years almost every instructor will be using one of these products. (The increase in use will parallel the exponential growth of email in the past 10 years.) More instructors will adopt these tools as they discover how easy it is to use them and as students increasingly expect to get course materials online, etc. I also think that the widespread use of these products will have little effect on the quality of student learning.

This kind of assimilation process has happened with presentation tools. We have seen college teachers gradually shift from using the chalkboard to the overhead projector, and now to PowerPoint. Each successive tool makes it easier to present information to more students, but the mode of teaching stays the same: it's still a model based on transfer of information. You would be hard pressed to find any evidence that student learning improves at all.

In recent years, many commentators have urged us to "take learning seriously." (See "Taking Learning Seriously" by Lee Shulman in Change July/August, 1999.) Despite all the talk in higher education, I believe we still act like the man who taught his dog to talk. We really have not begun to design teaching with student learning in mind. I believe most faculty would say they care about student learning but at the same time would not have much insight into how their students learn the subjects they teach or why they fail to learn what is taught.

Teaching looks a lot different when teachers take student learning into consideration. And, technology can play a significant role in helping teachers design better learning processes and environments for students. Here are several examples of what I mean.

Uses of Technology that Focus on Student Learning

These examples are interesting because they start with questions and considerations about student learning and use technology to scaffold and support certain kinds of learning.

Reading Guide. Professor Viet Nguyen of the University of Southern California has created an interactive reading guide for a particularly challenging book in his Asian American Literature course ( The site contains digitized copies of first 20 pages of the book. On each, the student can mouse over highlighted portions of the text to read commentary by the instructor. In addition on each page, the instructor poses one or more questions that involve students in analyzing the story and making connections among portions of the text and connecting the text to aspects of culture and history. Students post their responses to a class Blackboard site where they can compare their views with classmates. The reading guide helps make expert thinking visible so that novice thinkers (the students) can begin to analyze text in more complex ways. The guide provides scaffolding and support to guide novice thinking toward greater expertise.

Problem-based Learning. A second example comes from the work of Professor John Bransford and colleagues at Vanderbilt University who have developed a multimedia strategy for using problem-based learning in undergraduate teacher education courses.

In Bransford's class, students investigate a series of open-ended and challenging problems related to classroom teaching. What is important to understand is that undergraduates in PBL situations tend to terminate their investigations quickly by seizing on ideas that "sound good" to them. In other words, they take complex problems and produce simple solutions. Bransford uses an interesting multimedia feature to provide students with timely assistance as they work on the these. When students have grappled with a problem for a while, they have an opportunity to listen to experts talking about the problems. The CD ROM contains video clips of several professors giving their views about the problem. (See for an extensive discussion of the class.) This has a pronounced effect on their thinking. Suddenly, they see the problem in a much broader perspective and are willing to revise their thinking, going beyond their intuitive solutions.

Again, this is an example of how to scaffold students' thinking, but it is also a strategy based on an understanding of how students learn and solve problems.

Email. One further example. This one is relatively low tech and quite simple. The research literature on student learning demonstrates unequivocally that the knowledge and beliefs that students already have when they come into a class have a profound effect on their future learning. Yet the dominant mode of teaching completely ignores students' prior knowledge, as it is called, and just proceeds to tell students what we educators believe they should know.

For a number of years I have been giving my students regular writing assignments. Prior to every class period, they respond in writing to a few questions based on their readings. It occurred to me that if I had their responses before the class period when we discussed the questions, I might be able to respond more effectively in class. So, I started to collect their responses via email one day prior to the class period that focused on the questions. I can read their papers and get a sense of their predominant patterns of thinking, understanding, and misunderstanding of the material. This makes a huge difference for teaching! What I do in class now is much more responsive to students' thinking and prior knowledge. By understanding how they interpret the subject matter, I am better able to help them revise and develop knowledge. (For more information, see the material for this course located on the Carnegie Foundation's Knowledge Media Laboratory,

I want to make two points about these examples. First, in all three cases, a "learning problem or dilemma" motivates the use of technology. The teachers are trying to solve a recurring problem that impedes students' learning. Second, the technology is a tool that helps the instructor address the dilemma. But the technology is not an off-the-shelf solution to the learning problems, nor does it come with a set of instructions about how to solve learning problems. There is no documentation for Microsoft Outlook that says you can use email to tap into your students' prior knowledge before class, and this information can help you guide students' learning more effectively.

I am proposing a different way to think about integration of technology into teaching. Rather than trying to get instructors to assimilate technology to existing instructional practices, I think we should be trying to get instructors to be more carefully attuned to their students' learning and to design instruction with student learning in mind. Technology enters the picture at the point where the instructor needs a tool to solve a particular learning dilemma.

In practical terms, what would this mean for campuses trying to support the use of instructional technologies and instructional development?

1. The most fundamental gap I see is that we do not focus on understanding what, how, and why students learn or do not learn what we try to teach them. Unless student learning becomes an object of serious study among faculty, we are likely to drift back to the teaching-the-dog-to-talk mode, to the idea that teachers teach and students learn and ne'er the twain shall meet.

2. Faculty need to know about the capacities and possibilities of new technologies. Many of us are still unaware of what is possible-even on our own desktops. For example, several months ago I accidentally discovered that I could create "sound objects" with MS Word, that I could record my voice and attach it to email messages. Of course, for two days I sent silly messages to people. After the novelty wore off, I began to think about how this feature might be used in teaching. I'm wondering how I might be able to use audio feedback on students' papers to supplement the cryptic notes written in the margins. Instructors need to better understand what can be done with technology, and we need to see compelling examples of how technology can be used to improve student learning.

3. Finally, we can all point to a small handful of instructors on our campuses who use technology effectively to enhance students' learning. The challenge is how to support instructional development more broadly. Lamentably, faculty learn to use technology the way they learn about teaching--on their own, pretty much by themselves. If we really want to integrate technology to improve students' learning, we need to foster work at the group level, the departmental level, the program level. I know that UW System Curricular Redesign funds are intended for this purpose. But we should be supporting collective enterprises on our campuses in which groups of instructors address common learning dilemmas.

Here's an example of what I mean. Huge numbers of students take introductory courses each year. It's astonishing to me that disciplines have not developed exemplary ways to foster students' understanding of important disciplinary knowledge in those classes. Instead, thousands of instructors each year invent their own ways to teach the subject matter. Well, what if we treated introductory courses as student learning laboratories in which we were intent on exploring how best to develop students' knowledge? Collectively, instructors who teach these courses would investigate their students' learning and gradually develop effective ways to teach, solve, and resolve common student learning problems. In that context I think instructors would also be eager to think about how technology could be used to advance student learning, and more likely to think of effective uses of technology as well.

Thank you.


Editor's note: To read more of Bill Cerbin's ideas for using technology to promote student learning, see his IT Summit afterthoughts.


Recommended Reading

Bransford, John D., Ann L. Brown, and Rodney R. Cocking, eds. How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. National Academy Press, 2000. Available online at

Shulman, Lee. "Taking Learning Seriously." Change, July/August 1999. Volume 31, Number 4. Pages 10-17.
Available online at

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