Learning and Technology Without the Rant

I had a much more positive response to James M. Lang’s discussion of technology in the classroom in his book On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching .  This is in part, I’m sure, because he is not adamant that technology is an essential in the classroom.  In fact, Lang goes out of the way to say the opposite, writing,

“you will not find me arguing in this book that you need to radically restructure how you think about education-nor will you see arguments here for throwing out textbooks and replacing them all with computer games. The importance of reading, writing, arithmetic, and logical thinking suggests to me that they will persevere, at least as long as you and I will be in the classroom. And I would argue further that the basic principles of teaching and learning, on which I am relying in this book, will still operate in whatever environment we and our students find ourselves-even in the environment of online and distance teaching and learning, in which you obviously will only stand in front of your students virtually, but will still need to understand the parameters of the basic teaching-learning transaction” (Kindle Locations 542-545).

He also adds, “I can’t stress enough that there is absolutely nothing wrong with teaching a course that consists of nothing but you, your students, a chalkboard, and paper and pencils” (Kindle Locations 568-569) and “As I’ve already said, you do not need to make use of technology in any way to be an effective teacher” (Kindle Locations 694-695). These repeated qualifications that technology is not essential to teaching, along with his acknowledgement that “while technology can work wonders in the classroom, it can wreak havoc on your schedule. Especially when you are making use of technology in the classroom for the first time, the start-up costs, in terms of time invested, can be tremendous” made my response to the topic of technology in the classroom much more positive (Kindle Locations 549-551). Yet despite these qualifications or even reservations, Lang advocates the use of technology in the classroom, especially for those instructors familiar with the use of such resources; he explains,

“The benefits that virtual learning environments can provide are important and pedagogically sound ones, not to mention ones that can make your life less chaotic in a semester that will, I promise, seem like four of the most chaotic months of your life thus far” (Kindle Locations 703-705).

As I mentioned in my previous rant-y post on the topic, I am not opposed to the use of technology in the classroom.  I have, in fact, used a course wiki for every course I have taught at WSU, and I find it to be useful for both myself and my students.  I like how the course wiki allows students to sign up for conference times virtually and makes the class session and assignment schedule available to all in a completely updated format (versus the printed tentative schedule attached to the paper syllabus that inevitably changes frequently over the course of the semester).  This last feature is particularly useful as I’m a firm believer in adjusting the content of class sessions to fit the learning needs and skill of the students in that class.  For instance, I worry that my current class is not finding sessions to be as helpful as they should (given the increasingly poor attendance), so now that we are halfway through the semester and I’ve used all the tricks and activities in my toolbox, we will be having a reflection/anonymous feedback class session to plan a new direction for the course that will better serve the students in meeting their own and the course’s learning objectives.  The course wiki facilitates this change in direction without hassle and keeps all the students (those both present for determining the direction and those who are absent) up to speed.  I also use Blackboard for electronic submission of papers and providing additional content (such as pdfs), web resources, and sample papers to students, as well as for its discussion board, grade center, and email capabilities.

Yet despite the seemingly constant discussion and/or assumption that our students today are “digital natives,” I must say that Lee Skallerup Bessette’s discussion in “It’s About Class: Interrogating the Digital Divide” was noteworthy and applicable to my experience as well.  In addition to older students who have not grown up with technology and who frequently struggle to use even the limited technology I bring into the classroom, I have found that even my more conventional (in age) students can struggle with the technology.  Some classes require demonstrations of how to use the discussion board in Blackboard or even how to request access to the course wiki; editing or creating wiki pages always requires demonstration, sometimes more than once.  And even use of Microsoft Word, in particular regarding formatting, can take class time to demonstrate. Even students who do not, as Bessette’s students, grow up or learn in an environment with limited technology can find themselves unfamiliar with the specific technology used in the classroom, and for this reason, I think the use of technology in the classroom needs to be thoughtful. Is it serving a particular purpose in aiding student learning? Is it a technology, such as email, that students will need to know for future professional goals? Is it making the students’ (and instructor’s) lives easier or more difficult?

Teaching literature can be done without an electronic technology; books, pencils, and paper cover the necessary supplies.


One thought on “Learning and Technology Without the Rant

  1. While it’s true that teaching literature can be done without electronic technology (though once upon a time only teachers had books) education these days is a multidisciplinary affair so it seems natural to borrow from other fields. Granted, because literature is a “soft” science more akin to the social sciences, hi-tech methods may seem out of place in the English classroom, but, if the goal is to educate in an effective and efficient manner, why not make use of the tools that are at your disposal if your school is fortunate enough to be funded this way. It’s not the only way, nor the best way necessarily, and there’s no reason to be the hi-tech leader in the field…let others experiment and use their expertise, but it makes sense to at least consider new techniques as they come into play. It sounds like you already use a lot of technology in your classroom so I’m not sure why you deem yourself on the fringe. (I was relieved to hear that our guest lecturer on Online Programming last week, Dr. Smith, does not consider herself to be a tech whiz).

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