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New teaching technologies: how does it shape learning? (interview with Prof. Pierre Dillenbourg)

Given the constraints caused by the public-health situation and to ensure compliance with the quarantine and self-isolation measures, university classes will be run this autumn in a way that does not require students to be physically present at the University while hybrid teaching approach (in-person and remote) is encouraged at least for this autumn. Thus questions about the impact of new teaching technologies on the efficacy of learning are more than ever critical! In this respect, we bring out to light an older interview of Prof. Pierre Dillenbourg, Professor in learning technologies at the EPFL, initially published in the NCCR Chemical Biology newsletter in July 2016. The forthcoming launch by the NCCR of the first MOOC and SPOC on Chemical Biology makes this article even more relevant.

Our thinking about digital technology in higher education is steadily shifting away from as just an IT infrastructure towards seeing it as a digital learning environment, shaping a new era in education. Our distinguished guest, Prof. Dillenbourg, has a strong acumen in higher education teaching and as pedagogue. His stimulating point of view tumbles some of the a priori usually conveyed and offers an integrative view of new teaching technologies.

Do you identify learning practices of digital native students that witness a gap between them and an institution created before the era of new technologies?

The notion of “digital natives” is a common place but if you randomly select two 25-years old students and two 50-years old professors, you will often find greater differences within generations than across generations.

For instance, people claim that MOOC lectures are shorter (< 10 min.) than on-campus lectures (50 min.) because the digital natives have a short attention span, but, when we (Professors) attend a boring conference talk, do we have a longer attention span? Nonetheless, it is true that the context has evolved: today, if an explanation is not clear, students will find a better one online; if the professor makes a suspicious claim, some students will google this statement to verify. The classroom is more open than before.

Numerous IT tools have emerged that revolutionize the way we learn. Do you think that these new technologies enhance long-term learning?

Journalists like to talk about revolutions for selling newspapers. It is true that, even if I have been in the field of learning technologies since 1984, I did not anticipate what happened recently. If, four years ago, somebody had predicted that 300’000 persons located in the US would register to an EPFL MOOC, I would have laughed. That’s amazing… but education evolves slowly, without revolution. Nowadays students have simply many more resources for learning than a decade ago. I am not only talking about the possibility to re-watch lectures at your own speed, but also the rich set of simulations, modeling tools, shared databases, etc.

We found that if an EPFL course includes the MOOC, the students from that course who intensively use the MOOC succeed better their exam than those who scarcely use it. It does not imply that MOOCs increase learning outcomes but rather that the best students get benefit from any opportunity for learning.

Don’t expect anyone to prove that MOOCs in general (or any technology) is good for learning: good MOOCs will enhance long term learning, bad MOOCs won’t. What is a good MOOC? High quality content followed by intensive problem solving or vice-versa!

What key issues do you see in integrating IT tools in education today?

We are constrained by the existing organization bound to traditional practices, the rules for credits and exams, the weekly schedule, the room features, etc. For instance, it is possible (yet non trivial) to implement the “flipped classroom” approach (watch the videos before the class-contact hour devoted to interactive problem solving) with 50 students in a flat room; it is extremely difficult to do it with 300 students in a lecture theatre. Another constraint is how much the efforts invested in education are valorized in the academic career. However, MOOCs have changed a bit the status of teaching, making it more visible, more public, a bit like your h-index.

What is your vision of the future of learning?

Would you say that you have done chalk based teaching at the end of a lecture on a blackboard? No. I guess the same will happen for digital tools; they will become so genuine in education that we won’t even mention it anymore. When I came to EPFL, students where asking if they could get our slides, while now they take for granted they will be in MOODLE (“Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment”, an open source course management system). In three years, they won’t ask you if you recorded the videos of you lectures, they will simply ask “where are the lectures”.

Former teacher in elementary school, Pierre Dillenbourg graduated in educational science (University of Mons, Belgium). He started his research on learning technologies in 1984. He obtained a PhD in computer science from the University of Lancaster (UK) in the domain of artificial intelligence applications for educational software. He has been Assistant Professor at the UNIGE, then joined the EPFL where he is currently Full Professor in learning technologies at the School of Computer & Communication Sciences and Head of the CHILI Lab (Computer-Human Interaction for Learning & Instruction). He is also the Academic Director of the EPFL Center for Digital Education.


Cover photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash 

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