Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Benchmarks for Courseware Authoring Programmes

I was recently asked "In your opinion, should researchers compare courseware authoring programs to traditional education techniques?"

This is a slippery question! I believe that in the early stages of any technology, or innovation, human beings naturally compare it to existing technologies because that is the most convenient reference point. However, as a technology matures and people obtain more and more experience with how it works, the benchmark used to evaluate the technology starts to change. No longer do we compare it to the old fashion technology, we more typically compare its utility and functionality to earlier generations of the same product. By doing this comparison to an earlier generation of the same product we begin to develop criteria for evaluating a technology which are unique to the technology itself instead of being related to the traditional method of doing things prior to the innovation in question.

For example, when personal computers first came out, people evaluated them by saying things like “computers allow you to use Word-processing programmes so that when you type your manuscripts you can move words around and spell-check sentences; a marked enhancement over the typewriter!” In this case, people are comparing the new technological innovation (computers) with the traditional technology (typewriters). However, today when Intel announced its most recent production-ready microprocessor, the Intel Pentium Processor Extreme Edition, no one reviewing this microprocessor writes words like “this microprocessor gives computers a marked improvement over typewriters!” (Well, at least I hope no one does! *grin*) Instead they use expression that compare this chip to existing technologies in the same family, like a previously released Intel’s chip such as the Pentium 4 Processor. For example, today they might say something like “Boy the clock speed on the new Intel Pentium Processor Extreme is faster than the first Pentium 4’s that were released by Intel.” However, they would have never exclaimed similar words in 1983: “Boy the clock speed on my new IBM PC 8088 is way faster than my IBM Typewriter!” The point I am trying to make here is that the benchmark for how to describe a computer’s performance has clearly changed as the technology has matured, over 20 years.

In keeping with this idea, I believe it is natural for educators to evaluate courseware while using traditional education techniques as a benchmark until such time as the technology matures. In my opinion, we are on the cusp of the courseware maturation phase. The best practices in courseware design are not yet set in stone but we are seeing them gel slowly with the passing of each courseware development project. I believe in the near future the literature will show more and more exploration by the field into defining models for the evaluation of courseware materials. Once practitioners gain experience using these unique evaluation models, the practice of using traditional education techniques as a benchmark when evaluating courseware will become archaic, just like the typewriter (*grin*).

What do you think? Click the "comments" word below to leave a comment.

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