12th 2010
Wes walks it back from the wired classroom

Posted under: jobs, students, technoskepticism

“Wes from Wolf Lake” offers some interesting observations about classrooms and technology:

When I started teaching full time (I spent many years in industry after grad school) I was enamored with using technology in the classroom. Countless hours were spent working on PowerPoint presentations, uploading podcasts and even designing my own animations for a web site I built (our faculty resources were limited at the beginning). My admins lauded me for using technology in the classroom and they encouraged me as a I moved into social media and my students subscribed to the RSS and Twitter feeds for the class. The college pushed forward with me and talked about how we could move more and more courses online and how the democratic world of social media liberated the students to discover their own learning path.

My classroom Luddite transition was insidious and gradual but I can definitely see how it began. For any of you old enough to remember the movie Real Genius you know the montage I am thinking of, where the young student comes to a classroom that becomes filled with fewer and fewer students and more tape recorders as the semester progresses, to the point that the last shot has a room filled with tape recorders and a tape recorder playing at the front of the room. Over the years, this is how I had begun to feel in the classroom. The modern equivalent has been the students frantic to know when class podcasts would be posted and demands for the course PowerPoint presentations. Couple this with the incessant texting and web surfing in the guise of “course work” and I realized that this addiction wasn’t doing the students any good.

I have never used technology this way precisely because of my suspicion that it would end up making class attendance irrelevant in the minds of the students.  Why should they show up, if we go to all of this trouble to imply that they can “do” class anywhere and everywhere but inside a room with us, two or three days a week?  Is there really no value in gathering together and communicating with them in a classroom?  (Not to mention the fact that canning our classes with technology this way just makes it easier for us to be nudged out of our jobs.  Why pay us for every class we teach, when the uni can just post our lectures on YouTube, our notes and handouts on BlackBoard or WebCT, and use a T.A. or hire a grader in Bangalore?  Do we really want to make this argument for administrators?)  It’s just interesting to hear this from a proffie who has stepped back from the brink.  Wes continues:

As the students became more and more dependent on the concrete information that I provided and less and less capable of the abstraction I required I started to reevaluate the role of technology in the classroom. This time I looked at the use of technology in the light of my time in industry rather than through the lens of the newest “student-centered” fads. In industry we definitely used technology, but it was to accent or facilitate not to replace the essential functions of the job. Given this, what is the essential function of the student but to learn? Learning at its very core is about internalizing a set of concepts into the student’s personal conceptual framework so that they can utilize the materials rather than simply regurgitate them. This is an active process, not one that is done through passive content consumption.

There are some that will argue that social media (twitter and such) can be used in an active way, but I have not observed this in students. It is difficult enough to get students to work outside the time I have them in class so I would rather focus on getting them to work in class. The use of the whiteboard means I can focus their attention without them waiting for the PowerPoint to be downloaded later. The lack of podcasts means they have to be engaged in class rather than simply downloading the lecture later. The use of in class notes for assessments (through, heaven forbid, quizzes) and holding them responsible for outside reading (again through quizzes) means that mastery is required before the exams.

.       .       .       .       .       .       .       .      

In the end I have not become a complete Luddite (students still text and surf in class, but are asked to leave when it is disruptive), but I am far from the technocrat I began as. So my colleagues may continue to drink deep from the well of the always connected generation while I proudly trudge up to my classroom with a pocket of dry-erase markers.

I’m with you, Wes.  I’ve started giving a little speech on the first day of class in which I inform them that I won’t be posting notes or PowerPoint lectures on the class WebCT page, because I think there is value in coming together three times a week to talk to each other.  If they want to take an on-line course instead, they can be my guests, but what I do cannot happen outside of the fellowship of the classroom.  In the classroom, we can talk to each other and ask questions.  On Mondays when I lecture, I can see if they’re following along with interest, I can see if confusion flits across their faces, and I can recalibrate on the spot to try to make sure my points are clear and understandable.  On Wednesdays and Fridays we discuss the weekly reading assignments and some primary sources.  We can make connections to other course readings and new ideas and questions might emerge.

I’m not so naive that I believe that every student experiences my classes in the way I hope they will–just because I’m talking doesn’t mean that anyone is listening or learning.  Students can still be distracted, disengaged, and unprepared in class.  But there’s a greater chance of engagement happening in this classroom than if I posted notes and podcasts on-line and told them to tweet me their reactions to the weekly readings instead of writing a 1-2 page summary and analysis of it.

There are a lot of things worth doing in person, with just a few dry-erase markers.


28 Responses to “Wes walks it back from the wired classroom”

  1. Tom on 12 May 2010 at 7:22 am #

    As a medievalist, I am always tempted to point out that I am using classroom technology every time I put a piece of chalk against the board. The issue with technology–in the classroom and in the human life-world–has always been about using “appropriate technology.” Technology is appropriate when it works effectively and appropriately to accomplish the user’s ends. Without appropriate thinking and discussion about the ends of both education and technology, no number of “potent bursts of raw technological enthusiasm” (as William Gibson memorably phrased it) can make any technology appropriate.

  2. Janice on 12 May 2010 at 8:48 am #

    I have a minor physical handicap — nerve damage and broken fingers have left my typing ability pretty much unhindered but my ability to write on a board or wall very compromised. I tried shifting to right-handed board writing after this diagnosis but it was a disaster.

    This was one of the reasons that I turned to PowerPoint and fought, almost literally!, to be given classrooms where I could use that technology. Projectors and computers are now integral to how I teach (this even extends to the seminar level as we’ll deconstruct early modern images I share on the screen or students will present a deep reading of primary sources they’re analyzing in class via the projection system). I can manage without it, but it’s a slow and painful process as I struggle to write much with my left arm elevated.

    That said, I don’t use technology that doesn’t work for me. Podcasts? I might consider a five-minute “teaser” podcast, at best, for a class topic. But as what goes on in the classroom varies dramatically from one offering of the class to the next, I can’t predict how a topic will shake out until I’m in the class with the students and we see what they “get” and where they need help. Twitter? I have two accounts already, one for the entire department!, but can’t really see that as a vital tool for my history classes. However, I can appreciate how others can and do use some of these technologies in the classroom and outside, to support their own teaching.

    Every teacher needs to make the choices that work for them and their students in using technologies. What annoys me are the people who declare that their way is the one true way. My use of slideshow software works well for me (even distributing slides before class, although I only release materials the day before as this allows me time to tweak based on the previous meetings’ feedback) but I’d hardly prescribe it as a be-all and end-all scheme for better teaching.

    What’s key here is always paying attention to the class, isn’t it? If you’re caught up in the technology or the materials as a “product”, you’re missing the point that it’s the learning process, in and out of the classroom, that really matters. If it’s all bells and whistles or presented in such a way as to minimize the classroom time, itself, you won’t be surprised to see attendance diminish and learning stagnate.

  3. Notorious Ph.D. on 12 May 2010 at 9:06 am #

    I totally think of the same scene from Real Genius whenever students ask me to post my lecture notes. If they persist, I show them the page-and-a-half where only the intro and conclusion are anything but “talk about work viz. children” bullet points. “This is not going to help you, is it?”

  4. Historiann on 12 May 2010 at 9:18 am #

    Heh. One of the great pleasures of being an experience proffie is walking into a classroom and being able to lecture for 45-75 minutes off of the bullet points on some PowerPoint slides (or brief notes). I think this is also due to the fact that I gave up on the lecture as a medium of communicating facts to one that works for communicating big-picture ideas. Students can get the fine-grained information better from readings anyway (if they bother to do them.) I think I used facts earlier on in my teaching career in part to help fill the time, but also because I didn’t have as many big-picture ideas to help structure the information. (But I figured them out in part through my lecturing and teaching.)

    Janice, I think this is exactly correct: “What’s key here is always paying attention to the class, isn’t it? If you’re caught up in the technology or the materials as a “product”, you’re missing the point that it’s the learning process, in and out of the classroom, that really matters. I hadn’t thought how technology can help not just students with disabilities, but proffies with mobility/hearing/vision issues or other disabilities, too!

  5. Jonathan Rees on 12 May 2010 at 9:44 am #

    I’m in the camp that PowerPoint is a tool that can be used well or used badly. Posting everything and reading your slides is using it badly. On the other hand, I’ve come to believe that not using pictures to teach the post Civil War US survey is practically educational malpractice.

    I still remember the old days when I could only talk about that monk who set himself on fire in Saigon in 1963 or what the inside of an early industrialized factory looked like. Now I can show students and I think it makes the educational experience richer.

  6. Matt L on 12 May 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Great post Historiann. I have to say that its really about what outcomes you are looking for in the classroom and on the assignments. I really appreciated Janice sharing her story as well. I think its important see how the technology can be used to achieve that “reasonable accommodation” that helps both able and disabled students.

    Unfortunately, there is one technology I cannot abide. I cannot use dry erase markers. They wreak havoc on my wardrobe. I end up black, blue, green and red streaks on my shirts & slacks. The good news is the classrooms in my building still all have chalkboards.

    Historiann’s comment @ 9.18 am brings up an important pedagogical issue and I’d like to turn it into a question: What is lecture for? Is it about “facts” (aka covering the material), communicating the big picture, setting up a counter-narrative to the readings, or a combination of all of the above? I used to do a lot of “coverage” and counter-narrative type lectures. Lately, I have moved more towards the big picture stuff, since that seems to be the one thing the students struggle with the most.

  7. Shane in Utah on 12 May 2010 at 12:44 pm #

    I gave up on the lecture as a medium of communicating facts to one that works for communicating big-picture ideas.

    This is precisely why I do post my Power Point slides to Blackboard for students to download after class: when I’m lecturing about, say, the historical context in which a work of literature is set, I don’t want students scrambling to write down every date and name I throw at them. I want them to focus on the big picture I’m trying to sketch for them; they can get the facts and the citations on their own time. But they know that the lecture is just a prelude to the more important business of Socratic class discussion, which they can’t get by downloading a PDF file.

  8. Historiann on 12 May 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    Interesting point, Shane. I guess concerns about students skipping lecture with the confidence that they can just download it later probably balances out with how much more useful your slides must be to the students who showed up.

  9. Rachel on 12 May 2010 at 3:26 pm #

    In my experience, I don’t think the issue is so much as how proffies present their lectures with technology or not. In some cases it can be really beneficial, in others an excuse for students to not go to class. I think the issue is that students today have grown up in such a culture of computers and ipods that they have come to rely upon technology for everything- that is how the majority of them have come to learn. Why think for yourself when you can just text ChaCha (which they claim is “a fusion of computer technology and human intelligence”). The ability to have thoughtful discussions, make big picture arguments, and think for yourself has gone by the wayside of the boundless database easily accessed by the push of a button.

  10. madaha on 12 May 2010 at 3:40 pm #

    actually, Shane, one CAN and SHOULD take notes on “big ideas” – that’s kind of what I expect my students to be doing – the factual info is all in their book, after all. Part of the learning process is figuring out how to take notes properly. It’s trial and error, on the part of the student, but we have to let them figure it out.

    They need to be in class to do just that. Again, like is being said, if the main ideas are canned and prepackaged for them, why should they come to class?

  11. madaha on 12 May 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    Actually, it sounds, Shane, like you don’t want them taking notes in your lecture. Interesting approach? I find that if they’re putting pencil to paper, they’re digesting the info on another level, and processing it.

    The “sitting back and just listening” angle is too passive, and does not aid retention. Also promotes dozing off. I notice a big difference in performance from students who do take notes, vs. those who just sit there.

  12. Historiann on 12 May 2010 at 5:03 pm #

    madaha–I think that Shane was saying that he wants the students to get the big picture, and they can go back over his slides at their leisure to get the details they didn’t catch, if necessary. (But, I could be wrong.)

    Rachel, I think you’re right that students may expect stuff to be available because it *can* be available via technology. I had never heard of ChaCha until you mentioned it. I googled it–it looks like a fun diversion, but I’d hardly call it authoritative. It seems to specialize in one-sentence, just-so answers. This doesn’t leave room for a great deal of ambiguity or nuance, of course, and ambiguity and nuance is what we humanities types specialize in. (Some would say to a fault, of course.)

  13. Indyanna on 12 May 2010 at 5:35 pm #

    Some portion of the adminispherian-evangels for the “student-centered” “connected classroom” have, in fact, drunk the Koolaid–or whatever metaphor you prefer for having unreflectively bought into the techy-tech cosmos. And it would be nice if the proliferating “anti-doping” authorities would isolate the substance, test for it, and get it classified as “performance-enhancing.” For a lot of admins, though, it’s simply a matter of this: if individual faculty decide what they want to do, decide what works for them, mix-and-match, innovate in the home laboratory, as it were, there’s a whole lot less administering that needs to be done. Less opportunity to say that you “oversaw the implementation” of such and such a program, or “facilitated the transition” from one platform to another. Less to put on a c.v., fewer opportunities to fly around the gulag consulting for less-connected peers, write handbooks, self-promote. My institution just dropped one “Learning Management System” and migrated to another, only to discover that the statewide system is bringing on-board yet a third! Not such a great advertisement for the virtues of constant connectedness, is it?

    I don’t much like dry-erase. It doesn’t really erase that well, for one thing. It can’t do the pedagogic work of a million little calcarean (?) crustaceans on a nice clean piece of slate!

  14. Tanya on 12 May 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    Great post, and one of my favorite topics.

    In 1997, my university started a summer workshop designed to teach grad students how to use technology *effectively* in the classroom. Initially, it was a two-week “create a webpage” seminar, but in the years since, it’s evolved continually.

    I took the workshop in 2008, when it was a two-day, 10-hour workshop focusing on free tools that we could use in the classroom. The focus then – as now – was that you figure out your teaching goals FIRST, and then apply technology to meet those goals (and generally, most people walk away from the workshop with the consensus that less is more).

    I’ve spent the past three years involved with the series as an instructor (it’s a sweet fellowship opportunity for the summer months). A little more than a year ago, with the dean’s support, we expanded it so now we have 3 workshops:
    May: Using Technology to Support Your Research Goals
    August: Using Technology Effectively in the Classroom (now a 1-day, 5-hour session)
    January: Using Technology to Support Your Job Search.

    All that to say, yes, this is one of my favorite topics and one to which I give a lot of thought. I really liked the points raised in this post: I agree completely – why should students come to class if they can get all the materials OUTSIDE of class?

    I prefer to use a presentation tool (Prezi, PowerPoint, etc) in class only, and then sparingly – a way to outline lecture content, pull in multimedia, but not extensive content. Mostly, I don’t like writing on the chalkboard, so I’ll take the digital format any day (also, students don’t have to decipher my handwriting…).

    I think tech is great – and g*d knows, I’m a blogger, I twitter, I’m all over facebook, and I’m probably more “digital native” than any of those kids who get the label are (and I’m in my early 30s). But it’s all about the balance. Definitely the balance.

  15. koshem Bos on 12 May 2010 at 7:09 pm #

    The fight against technology is hopeless. Historians should be the first to know and realize that good innovations will stay and evolve.

    Power Point is actually a very old and clumsy tool for presentations. Anyone who has been to court and watched a money high civil case knows that lawyers use for presentation really sophisticated tools.

    If students don’t want to come to class that absolutely their prerogative. They are adults.

    Many years of experience with making presentations available online, exercise submission electronically, providing YouTube videos when available convinced me that the tools aren’t the problem. When I suck, the tools do’t help and when I do well the tools enhance the quality of the effort.

    My exams are online and students are given a week to submit the answers electronically. In about 30+ courses, there two cases of cheating.

    Try it.

  16. Historiann on 13 May 2010 at 6:00 am #

    koshem Bos–you’re right, the good stuff will find its niche and will be used. I’m certainly not against technology–just, as Wes says, against technology that replaces the essential function of our jobs.

    I agree that students don’t have to come to class–but if that’s the case, then they shouldn’t register for my courses. We do important work in class, so they won’t pass without a strong attendance record.

  17. Knitting Clio on 13 May 2010 at 6:05 am #

    Rather than blame technology, I think we first need to consider whether the lecture is an effective use of class time. Cognitive scientists say no — even the best students drift off after 20 minutes and only retain about 20% of what is told to them. For a good summary of this research, see Lion F. Gardiner, “Why We Must Change: The Research Evidence,” Thought & Action 14/1 (1998): 71-88.

    So, not only is using Powerpoint simply to duplicate what you’re saying in a lecture a poor use of PP, using spending all your time in class lecturing is not an effective use of class time.

    In my classes, I use Powerpoint as a replacement for a slide project — to show photos, illustrations, maps, and other materials that can’t be described accurately in text. We spend class time doing close analysis of these images and the assigned readings.

    My colleague in psychology has made a strong case for posting these slides BEFORE class. Students can then print them and take notes alongside the images.

    My sister is a music professor. She creates podcasts for students to review music examples.

  18. Susan on 13 May 2010 at 10:05 am #

    I do much the same as Knitting Clio – electronic tools have made it much easier for me to use visual evidence in my teaching. I never put outlines on power point, and if I have to spell something I do it on the board…

  19. Comrade PhysioProf on 13 May 2010 at 12:11 pm #

    Passive forms of learning like listening to lectures or reading handouts and textbooks are fine for digesting information. However, they are useless for actually learning how to think. Our first-year medical physiology students spend ~3 hours per week in lecture and ~1.25 hours per week in small-group tutorial sessions. Many of them don’t even bother attending the lectures, but they all avidly participate in the tutorials, and report that the physiology tutorials are the single best thing in the entire first-year medical curriculum.

  20. Rick Castle on 13 May 2010 at 1:20 pm #

    I think this post originally appeared on the Rate Your Students blog. And I don’t remember them following it up. Well done for you to keep the discussion going!

  21. Clio Bluestocking on 13 May 2010 at 3:21 pm #

    I’m actually curious as to what people use and how they use it effectively — beyond PowerPoint, of course! I keep signing up for these in-house tech classes called “Using Fancy New Thing in the Classroom,” and they usually end up being “this is what the fancy new thing is — now go use it.” I’ve found that, really, other teachers know what works and what doesn’t and why — and at what level.

  22. Indyanna on 13 May 2010 at 4:09 pm #

    I use a thing called a document camera, a sophisticated take on the old-fashioned overhead projector, only you don’t need transparencies or specially-prepared targets of any kind. I agree with people above who say visuals work best. You don’t want to be describing a self-immolating monk when there’s a picture of it. And those who suggest that projected text is deadly. The doc cam will project anything, including the ugly back of my hand, so watch it when checking to see that the light is on by waving your hand under the light. You can print out anything down to the last second before class; bring in books; get clear pictures of virtually anthing that’s visible. I like it better than powerpoint because, a) I’m too lazy to deal with the tech part, or even with learning about it. b) You can pan and zoom, and sometimes even achieve overlay effects. A clear downside is that you can loose track of your own visual materials or neglect to file them in any rational order when you rush back in from a class with anything else to do. I also recently discovered that they are harder to manage in conjunction with a more formal scripted talk, than during the informal give and take of a class. I’m genetically skeptical of generalizations about students being “visual learners,” or the whole “learning styles” cosmology, but I do like to give students something more interesting to look at than me. And having a map or a vivid icon up there does yield insights that I probably wouldn’t otherwise have.

    I seem to remember Historiann recently having offered some informal “rules” about how literally authentic visual materials have to be to qualify for her classroom, and also seem to remember thinking that I’m a tiny bit more latitudinarian on that score.

    I think that the methodological assault on the lecture and the pronouncements of its definitive obsolescence, have themselves gotten a little age on them by now, and I’m not sure that they’ve ever carried the day. I don’t personally remember “drifting off” at the 20 minute mark, and I was seldom the best student in the class. In my own classes I see alert and expressively engaged faces well into the hour, and others that are catatonic when I first walk in there. Cognitive scientists have their own axes to grind and careerisms to promote. CPP said it best, I think: different media are best suited to different intellectual functions. But hey, somebody’s going to have to break through to the suits in admin, who seem to think that a classroom is like a stretched jumbo jet. If we can shoehorn ten more rows in there, the pilot shouldn’t feel any real difference. If we do “close analysis” of images and readings with the sixteen genuinely interested students in the first three rows, how many minutes will it be before the 65 ones behind them drift off or zone out? And what should we make of that?

  23. Western Dave on 13 May 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    I started using Google Docs with my classes this year. (Actually, the students started using them behind my back but they caught me up pretty quick). Google docs are good for:
    Knowing who contributed what when grading group work. (Students color code their contributions)
    Compiling data from small groups for a larger group discussion. (Real life example: two different sections of US survey about 16 students in each, broken into groups of 4 to cover different aspects of new deal. One section does old fashioned reporting back, the other section has joint authorship google doc where the four groups are simultaneously posting their findings and I’m checking it as it goes up for glaring errors. The google doc class got through the gathering and reporting phase pretty quick and had a lot of time for the guiding question – “How did the New Deal change the relationship between individuals and the federal government.” We even had enough time at the end to get into the memory of the New Deal through a quick tour into You Tube country with Alabama’s Song of the South video from the 80s. The non-tech class barely made it through the reporting).

  24. Western Dave on 13 May 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    And although he doesn’t post a lot, Nate Kogan of The History Channel This is Not always has some interesting way of using tech productively in the classroom.

  25. Comrade PhysioProf on 14 May 2010 at 4:53 am #

    CPP said it best, I think: different media are best suited to different intellectual functions.

    {pats self on back, chugs MFJ}

  26. Historiann on 14 May 2010 at 6:17 am #

    At 5 a.m.???!!!???

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