October 1998 // Letters to the Editor
Illuminating Flashlight:
Another Response to Ed Neal
by Stephen C. Ehrmann
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Stephen C. Ehrmann "Illuminating Flashlight:
Another Response to Ed Neal" The Technology Source, October 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Reading Ed Neal's (1998) commentary about the Flashlight project was a frustrating experience for those of us who have been working on Flashlight for years, and, I suspect, for many folks at the 120+ institutions around the world who already use the Current Student Inventory. I regret that both Gary Brown and I have so confused matters that Ed thinks we're saying the opposite of what we each intended.

Although I could quibble about most points in Ed's letter, I will mention only two. Ed writes, "My criticism of the Flashlight project stems from its failure to address one fundamental question: does the application of technology affect student learning outcomes? Both Steve Ehrmann (1998) and Gary Brown (1998) admit that Flashlight was not designed to answer this question. We're not willing to put more money into reducing class size, but we are willing to spend millions on technology."

Readers who look back at what Gary and I actually said might be surprised by Ed’s paraphrase. Perhaps I was too brief in my letter to The Technology Source, but for those interested I have also written about this subject at greater length (Ehrmann, 1995).

To summarize what I wrote in that essay: after decades of study, most researchers into the uses of technology in education have concluded that conducting research on computers' direct impact on learning is as inappropriate as attempting to make universal statements about the impact of paper or electricity upon learning. Obviously, paper, electricity, and computers are all crucial in today's education, but none of them have a direct impact on student learning. Using paper or computers does not guarantee that a class will learn enough to get a high score on a standardized calculus test, for example. The class may or may not do better, depending on how the media are used and what else is occurring. Obviously, if a medium such as paper or computer is used in a particular way, such as distributing a marvelous calculus textbook, it can help people learn quite a bit.

That does not mean technology is of no value, or that we shouldn't study it. Quite the opposite; if you want to understand why learning outcomes have improved or failed to improve when technology is in use, then you need to know specifically what particular faculty and students did with the technology, as opposed to what you might have hoped they would do. You should also make an effort to discover how well the technology worked for those purposes.

Another point that requires clarification is the issue of class size and learning. Neal writes, "The truth is, there is very little empirical evidence that technology improves student learning, but research has discovered some things that do improve learning, such as smaller class size."

Actually, educational researchers have only rarely found relationships between class size and any kind of learning outcome. For example, take a look at Pascarella and Terenzini's (1991) standard reference, How College Affects Students. Ed originally wrote in response to Jerald Schutte's (1997) study on statistics courses. Schutte's tests probably assessed content mastery (he concluded that his students in the Web section were collaborating more, and learning more, than his students on campus). So I assume that Ed is talking about content mastery when he says that class size is more important than "technology."

Pascarella and Terenzini summarize sixty years of studies on content mastery and class size by saying "The consensus of these reviews—and of our own synthesis of the existing evidence—is that class size is not a particularly important factor when the goal of instruction is the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills. Moreover this finding appears to hold across class type (for example lecture, discussion) and when measures of learning were standardized across content areas" (1991, p. 87). Class size is sometimes important for helping students learn (e.g., higher order skills), but seldom in this particular kind of learning.

Finding out what things do help students learn is important. Investigating how well or how poorly technologies are working to help learners and learning is the primary goal of the Flashlight project. I'm terribly sorry that we've repeatedly confused Ed Neal on this point.


Ehrmann, S. C., (1995, March/April). Asking the right questions: What does research tell us about technology and higher learning? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 27(2), pp. 20-27. Retrieved September 30, 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www.learner.org/edtech/rscheval/rightquestion.html

Neal, E. (1998, September). Finding Flashlight in the dark: A reply to Steve Ehrmann and Gary Brown. The technology source [On-line], Retrieved September 28, 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=44#neal

Pascarella, E. T. And P. T. Terenzini. (1991). How college affects students: Findings and insights from twenty years of research, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schutte, J. (1997). Virtual teaching in higher education: The new intellectual superhighway or just another traffic jam? Retrieved September 28, 1998, from the World Wide Web: http://www.csun.edu/sociology/virexp.htm.

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