Teaching, Learning & Technology
Sharing best practices from faculty around the world who are using technology to transform teaching and learning.

3 Reasons Why Learning by Computer Alone is Not Enough

Tweet this!

While I am convinced that technology combined with excellent instruction can allow the creation of new and powerful learning experiences for students, I am also convinced that "learning by computer" alone will never adequately prepare students for the complex challenges they will face as adults. Here's why...

Reason #1 - Learning is socially situated, and computer-mediated social interactions are a narrow approximation of human interaction

James Greeno (Stanford University) and numerous education researchers agree that learning is socially situated. The behaviorists of the 1920's were only partly right, it turns out. For example, learning to read a book is an important skill (behavior). But while reading a book by yourself engages your mind with the author's mind, it's only a one way street. Reading a book with others, and discussing it, then (in some cases) putting it to practice, brings the learning to new levels.

This is why I'm currently underwhelmed by current attempts to replace textbooks with electronic textbooks. While there is an obvious cost saving potential from eliminating the printing costs (and with open resources, the cost of content itself) and the backpack weight reductions are much appreciated, the exciting breakthrough will be when the electronic book does MORE than a printed book.

At Carnegie Mellon, Professor Ananda Gunawardena has shown what is possible through his "adaptive book" research. This electronic textbook system allows for the annotation of electronic text, but more importantly, the annotations are can be SHARED. Imagine margin notes that can be traded among study partners, and the ability download "expert commentaries" that can be revealed while reading. In essence, the textbook moves from a "solo learning experience" to becoming the foundation for shared conversation - and a new form of assessment.

Even so, sharing annotations is complementary to but not a substitute for live, scholarly discourse and debate.

Reason #2 - Enriching experiences help to develop the brain's capacity for intelligence and creativity

Marian Diamond, in her book, "Magic Trees of the Mind: How to Nurture Your Child's Intelligence, Creativity, and Healthy Emotions from Birth Through Adolescence" (1998), describes in their research how "enriching experiences" positively impact the brain's neurological capacity. At the risk of over-simplifying their work, the net result of enrichment is that the neuron's dendritic structure becomes more complex and capable - even with adults.

One could argue that ICT-mediated learning is, itself, enriching. Clearly this is true in as much as computers can provide experiences that complement many traditional classroom experiences. Having ready access to data collection and analysis tools, for example, allows students to ask deeper, what-if types of questions in real-time during an experiment or out in the field. But notice that in these two cases, the technology use is part of a larger instructional experience (the lab or the field).

Using computers to REPLACE enriching experiences will not accomplish the same purpose - your neurons will know the difference! Designing a 3D model of a house on a computer is one type of experience; using that design to build an actual scale model, then going on to building the full-scale object introduces a rich set of experiences that you cannot have with the computer alone. Going on a virtual field trip is nice when the real trip is impossible, but it can never be as enriching as the actual visit.

Let's give students the FULL set of experiences whenever we can so that their neurons will flourish to the fullest extent.

Reason #3 - Simulations only simulate reality

Simulations are wonderful - they can help us explore the edges of our ideas; they let us test our mathematical representations; they let us play "what if" scenarios quickly. But these are no substitute for the experience of grappling with the vagaries and variability of real-life. A simulated electronic circuit is great - to an extent. But so much more is learned when you then wire up the real components - and discover the variability of a solder joint, or that the component specs have a "range" of performance that can contribute to unexpected results. Error analysis takes on new significance - and problem solving skills rise to a new level.

Heaven help us if civil engineers design a bridge based only on simulations, and stop testing the strength of new materials. We should be similarly uneasy with a surgeon who has only learned from textbooks and simulated cadavers.

The bottom line: It's all about "and"

In the final analysis, students benefit the most from a combination of MANY types of experiences, and the best uses of technology for education is when it allows for the creation of new and powerful learning experiences that complement what great teachers are doing already.

Let's use the full power of technology to connect students to experts and mentors and each other, AND let them grapple with the challenge of real, face-to-face social engagement.

Let's use technology to engage students in complex, creative projects that would be difficult or impractical without the technology, AND let's treat these experiences as only a subset of the wide range of enriching experiences that students engage in.

Let's use the best simulations available to let our students explore, AND let's be sure they confront the variability of real life through hands-on, inquiry based experiences that are messy and unpredictable.

If we view education technology from this perspective, then the technology will help us realize the best possible outcomes for our students...

Jim Vanides, B.S.M.E, M.Ed.
Education Programs
HP Office of Global Social Innovation

Twitter @jgvanides

For information about the HP Office of Global Social Innovations, visit www.hp.com/hpinfo/grants



Tonight: Teachers Talk About Tech Integration Plans @Second Life Social event

Tweet this!

Looking for some great ideas for using technology to enhance teaching and learning this school year? Want to experience an educator social event in Second Life? Now's your chance! The Second Life team from the International Society for Technology in Education is hosting a relaxing and informative discussion tonight at 6pm Pacific Time in Second Life (and I hear there will be prizes!)...

Below is the info that was just emailed, if you'd like to join the fun. Once you've downloaded the Second Life application and created your account and avatar, then go to http://slurl.com/secondlife/ISTE%20Island/93/83/30 which will launch Second Life and bring you to ISTE Island Headquarters; follow the signs or links to the campfire circles.

If you learn something interesting, please feel free to comment and let me know...!


Jim Vanides, B.S.M.E, M.Ed.
Worldwide Education Programs
HP Global Social Investment

JamesG Sorbet in SL

For information about the HP Global Social Investments, visit www.hp.com/hpinfo/grants



Subject: ISTE Educator Social Thursday September 17, 2009

Thursday, September 24, 2009  6:00 PM  - 7:30 PM SLT
ISTE Educator Social
Planning for the New Academic Year with Shamblesguru Voom
ISTE Island Campfire Circles

This workshop is designed for K-20 teachers from all curriculum areas. In this session we will initially meet as a large group in the ISTE beach area and then break out into smaller discussion groups and then come back together as a whole group for feedback. In the small groups you will be asked:

   a) to share your own personal plans for the new year, in respect to  technology and internet applications,  you might be using with your students.

   b) come to a group 'consensus' on what advice you would give a brand new shiny K-12 teacher regarding the use of technology and the internet in the classroom.

We will then reconvene as a large group for feedback from the individual groups ... and prize giving ;-)

For more information visit



The aims of this session are

   a) provide an opportunity for group discussion in SL

   b) introduction/practice to SL tools, skills and organization to facilitate small group discussion

   c) have an enjoyable and productive time with SL colleagues


Terra Sieberman
ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education)
Louise Borgnine in SL

Showing results for 
Search instead for 
Do you mean 
Follow Us

About the Author(s)
  • Jim Vanides is responsible for the vision, strategy, design, and implementation of education technology innovation initiatives. His focus is the effective use of technology to create powerful learning experiences that help students around the world succeed. He has been instrumental in launching over 1200 primary, secondary, and higher education projects in 41 countries, including the HP Catalyst Initiative - a 15-country network of 60+ education organizations exploring innovations in STEM(+) learning and teaching. In addition to his work at HP, Jim teaches an online course for Montana State University on the Science of Sound, a masters-level, conceptual physics course for teachers in grades 5 through 8. Jim’s past work at HP has included engineering design, engineering management, and program management in R&D, Manufacturing, and Business Development. He holds a BS in Engineering and a MA in Education, both from Stanford University.
The opinions expressed above are the personal opinions of the authors, not of HP. By using this site, you accept the Terms of Use and Rules of Participation.