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.
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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.