November 1997 // Commentary
The Merits of the Seminar Table
by Peter Havholm
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Peter Havholm "The Merits of the Seminar Table" The Technology Source, November 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Reading, writing and thinking critically remain crucial skills for every educated person, but teaching them well does not require the use of word-processing, email, or the internet. On the contrary, it is possible that all might be more quickly learned in the absence of technology of any kind.

Active learning, often thought to be the most effective mode of acquiring these skills, usually involves critical practice. For example, critical reading is thought to be improved by the experience of presenting one's interpretation of a text to a teacher and peer students who have also read it and are prepared to agree or disagree with one's reading. Engaging in discussion of reasons for conclusions, relevance of textual citations, and criteria by which one might choose one interpretation over another is a powerful way of improving the scope and power of one's ability to understand texts. Similar methods seem to work well to improve writing and thinking. Essentially, they require practice in the presence of critical interlocutors.

While these things may be done on the internet, through email, or by word-processed mail, I have not yet encountered (even among the pulsing hyperbole of tech talk) a serious argument that electronic active learning is better than that which occurs around a seminar table. It may well be a fine substitute in circumstances where the seminar table is difficult or impossible, but it does not so far seem to be better.

This is not to deny the wonder of the Internet, email, or word processing. It is only to wonder whether the Microsoft Scholars have an argument that the electronic skills they are prepared to require of all academic faculty, staff, and students are better at promoting active learning than a good teacher with a seminar table. While they're at it, if they're interested, they might want to address the suitability of their broadcasting this position in a forum sponsored by the one company most likely to profit directly from the adoption of their recommendation.

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