Wednesday, June 2, 2010

High Tech Ignorance

I avoided last week's "Teaching, Learning, and Innovation Summer Institute" at Georgetown. I made the mistake of attending several sessions a few years' back - mostly out of a morbid curiosity - and came away with the sad realization that this was the main pedagogical vision of one of the nation's great universities - that we could best serve as teachers by increasing the amount and intensity of technology in the classroom. More technology means better teaching means smarter students. QED.

Among the topics covered at this year's TLISI conference were:

"What's New and Different in Blackboard 9"
"Georgetown's Telepresence Classroom"
"From Reiss to South Africa: Collecting Data with Clickers"

and so on...

It would be refreshing to see a program or seminar in this annual multiday event with a title such as "The Art of Teaching." Or, one might even be more bold and proffer the subject, "The Lost Art of Teaching," the subject of an article appearing at "Inside Higher Education."

According to the article, an "unusual" panel was recently convened at the annual meeting of the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. (With a title like that, it's not surprising that a panel challenging default institutional norms like technophilia would be considered "unusual"). Several faculty on the panel challenged the notion that increasing use of electronic classroom technology was improving student learning and "outcomes":

They argued in an unusual session at this gathering of community college educators that the push to use technology in the classroom has diminished the roles of teaching and education. They said they feel that many sessions for faculty members about the use of technology are the equivalent of “Tupperware parties,” focused on convenience and not education.

Among the nuggets disclosed in this article is the self-evident fact that our students are not being made smarter by ever-more pervasive electronic technology - they are generally dumber. "A series of statistics reviewed by both professors showing that increasing numbers of college students are not prepared for work at the college level. At that point, the presenters asked: If technology is helping us teach better, why are we seeing so much evidence that students aren’t learning as well as we would like? Current college students have had more exposure to technology in high school and college than previous generations did, but are they better off for it?"

Another nugget was the revelation by a professor who saw classroom discussion improve when computers were banned from his classroom. The idea that students might become more attentive to their actual surroundings - including their classmates and teacher - in the absence of a glowing electronic screen was revelatory.

But my favorite bit was a discussion in which it was revealed that a technological glitch on a campus - making "PowerPoint" unavailable - led to faculty cancelling classes, since without slides they no longer knew what to do or say.

Perhaps the best summation of the article was this statement by its presenters: "There is a science and an art to teaching." On occasion I have used some media in my classrooms (for instance, this year I played the famous song on the Wheel of Fortune from Orff's "Carmina Burana" when illustrating Machiavelli's radical break with the Stoic tradition.) Such uses are best used for purposes of illustration - the core and center of teaching remains the effort to convey ideas and challenge students, something that electronic technology at best is neutral in assisting, and at worst is detrimental. In our throes of a progressive ideology in which the more technological is always better, we leave aside serious reservations about the shortcomings and even damage of such technology in our self-certainty over its unquestioned benefits. Ours is the most dogmatic age of any yet known.


Ryan J. Carey said...

Though I agree that computer technology and digital media are by no means some magic bullet that will answer all our hopes and dreams as teachers, however, to claim that this technology is "best used for the purposes of illustration" ignores a fundamental shift in the study of history, at least. As a cultural and environmental historian, the written word is but one realm of primary source material that I use. If computers, digital projectors, and internet connectivity allow me and my students a greater variety of historical artifacts to view, interpret, analyze, and discuss, then this technology is truly revolutionary in terms of what it can to for any given class session.

A.Student said...

Another nugget was the revelation by a professor who saw classroom discussion improve when computers were banned from his classroom. The idea that students might become more attentive to their actual surroundings - including their classmates and teacher - in the absence of a glowing electronic screen was revelatory.

When I read that I was shocked. How are you supposed to take notes with any degree of efficiency without a keyboard?

Of course I'm biased because I'm in the early stages of carpal tunnel syndrome so writing with a pen is very difficult for me.

Jon S. said...


I have a good friend whose son is a computer science professor in Virginia. He does not allow any technology in his classroom. He has found that it distracts from the lesson and students don't learn as well. Thus, all computer work is done outside of class time. If the computer scientists have figured out that technology in the classroom is problematic (at least), why hasn't everyone else?

The Maneuverer said...

THANK YOU! I went to Georgetown and experienced two types of classes: those in which the professor was beholden to PowerPoint slide-show presentations or the online Blackboard system, and those in which the professor actually taught. In the former I actually had the displeasure to experience an entire class on an internet forum, from the 'comfort' of my own laptop, conducted like a mass text message conversation. In the latter, I regularly (by my senior year, uniformly) had the pleasure of being the only student unencumbered by a computer in class. Instead of looking at social networking sites or celebrity gossip, I interacted with the professor. Of course, I should really be thanking those students for allowing me to have one-on-one seminars. Any technology past chalk has no place in the classroom.

Jake Kintzel said...

To completely write off technology in the classroom would be foolish to say the least. I agree that many of today's teachers have lost the fine art of actually teaching, but to take away such a gift would be a terrible idea. There are many teachers, that I have experienced, who hold the even finer art of being able to teach while using technology as an aid. The teacher can intrigue the class while promoting discussion and on occasion prepare a PowerPoint of useful statistics or comments to reiterate the points already established. As far as the students who escape from the "boredom" of class through social networking site, why should they even be in the classroom if they are going to take nothing from nor contribute anything to the class?