"Internet Flashcards: Communication and Access"
Osher Doctorow, Marlene Doctorow, and Sam Hopper
Doctorow Consultants have been developing internet flashcards. Technically, the idea is fairly simple: the student presses a FRONT button to see the front of the flash card (not more than 2 lines of information) which usually gives the premise of some proposition or statement (theorem, etc.), and after trying to guess the answer or conclusion the student presses the BACK button to see the back of the flash card (not more than 2 lines of information). In addition, there is a SHUFFLE button to shuffle the order of flash cards randomly or pseudo-randomly, an ALPHABETIZE button to alphabetize the cards (the first word of each card's front being carefully chosen in order to indicate the main category to which it belongs, for example TRIANGLE in the case of cards concerned with triangles), a BACKWARDS button to reverse the BACK and FRONT order so that the student can learn all the cards backwards, an ERROR PILE button which selects only those cards missed on the previous attempts and restricts the next round of study to those cards, a CORRECT PILE button which selects only those cards which were correctly guessed on the previous attempts for further study or examination, and a few other buttons including QUIZ, MIDTERM(S), FINAL, EXAMPLE(S), DEFINITION(S), AXIOM(S) OR ASSUMPTIONS.
The rationale for these cards in terms of communication and access is somewhat more complex. It is true that the cards are interactive from the above description, although some more work (mostly of a technical type such as establishing GROUP CONFERENCE buttons) has to be done to make the students who use them into a learning community and to enable a group of students to collaborate on projects. Thus, communication seems reasonably straightforward if not entirely completed yet technically.
Access is one of the key advantages to the internet: it makes the flash card technology available to any student who can get hold of a computer (which is getting relatively cheap) either privately or through school. The authors argue that it is not only the severely disadvantaged who have an access problem without the internet, but that most students who are not in unusually affluent schools are not exposed to flash cards as integral parts of their courses. Most teachers will, only if pressed or repeatedly asked, admit that flash cards are a good thing, and a small minority will even recommend flash cards to the class and then usually not say anything more about them. One of the authors was an exception: he insisted that most of his classes, from elementary school through colleges and universities, make and learn flash cards, and demonstrated in class how to make them.
The usual argument for not using flash cards or other instructional aids is the argument that individual or group homework/classwork or projects in massive doses are the best way to learn. The counter-argument concerning cheating and the domination of a few smarter or better informed students in groups does not impress most teachers, who are fond of thinking of their students as honest, good natured people who are "born free" and only spoiled by bad environments. At least one of the authors was especially interested in this question in teaching almost all levels of school from elementary through university, and found to his surprise that almost everybody cheated when the teacher was preoccupied, when the teacher was ill and a substitute came, and so on. However, even without this argument, a deeper logical and empirical argument exists. This is referred to here as the PROBLEM OF MEANING AND STATING/ASSERTING. Most students do not know what key words in the course MEAN as definitions and do not know what key THEORIES, HYPOTHESES, AXIOMS, POSTULATES, etc. mean, and likewise they do not know what these things assert. If you take a group of people and tell them to discuss things among themselves whose meaning they do not know, you are creating a TOWER OF BABEL in which basically agreed upon nonsense is produced. If one or two smarter or better informed students do know what things mean in the group, and try to teach the others, you have at best a SEMI-BABEL TOWER in which the teacher has delegated teaching to persons far, far less competent than the teacher to teach and communicate.
Why do students not know what things mean? There are several reasons. Most students do not listen much, and the modern generation listens mostly asleep in the alpha-wave TV-radio-casette modality. Most students are in fact distracted by other students or events or their own memories or interests or even by the teacher's appearance. For the older generation, books used to solve this problem in large part, because students actually had to read books at home and often in class. In the present day, the INTERNET alone can almost guarantee that the student is not distracted. The student's attention is focused on the screen/terminal, and with the authors' interactive flash card methods the student has to actively generate meaning and associations and practice.
In addition to years of university/college teaching by two of the authors, one of the authors has done enormous amounts of tutoring at all levels. STUDENTS WHO JUST DID HOMEWORK WITH THE TUTOR GUIDING/HINTING USUALLY DID POORLY IN THE COURSE, WHILE THOSE WHO LEARNED FLASH CARDS BEFORE DOING HOMEWORK USUALLY DID WELL IN THE COURSE.
A few teachers are convinced that a theory or theorem or hypothesis cannot be expressed to students in terms of meaning before massive doses of homework, somewhat analogous to students being unable to learn to fix a car without massive hours and even years of repair experience. In fact, however, it depends very much on the ingenuity of the teacher and the courage and flexibility of the teacher. If the teacher cannot summarize the meanings and does not have the flexibility and even knowledge to state more intuitive if incomplete meanings (clearly identified as such), then there may well be trouble. However, even in car repair, there are different levels of car mechanics. One author had a lemon (a car which was manufactured defectively) and went to a skilled but inflexible car mechanic who kept repairing the car almost every week for years. When, finally, in exhaustion, he went to a super-expensive car repairman, the latter in a few minutes diagnosed not only the lemon but the reason for the lemon: the engine size is not large enough for the body/frame size in this model of car.
Ultimately, access of the poorest students to the internet will depend on schools obtaining supplies of internet computers for all students to use.
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