What do you do when the technology is pulled away from under you?

Ian Johnston


This is a cautionary tale about the dangers of using Information Technology in teaching, dangers which are only now becoming widely appreciated. It comes from physics, that being my subject, but I'm sure there must be similar stories within most other disciplines.

For me it began in 1988 when there was a very influential conference held at the University of North Carolina, with the simple title "Computers in Physics Instruction". While it is true that computers had been used in physics education for a long time before then, it is probably fair to say that a very large number of academics, myself included, got their first real taste of the possibilities on the new instructional methods at that conference, or from reading the proceedings.

The manifesto was loud and clear. What makes physics a difficult subject is its heavy reliance on analytical mathematics, but now that fast, cheap computers with good graphics were widely available, they could replace this mathematics with numerical computation, and present the results in pictorial form. You could teach material which used to be considered far beyond your students' grasp. The introduction of computers into physics teaching would change not only how the subject is taught, but also what is taught.

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