Responding to a Post about Teaching and Technology

One of our students, Joe McMahon, has posted a blog entry about the problems related to the (mis)use of technology by professors. [It’s amusingly titled, “You Can’t Make Me Drink the Kool-Aid: Part One.”]

I wrote one of the longest comments I’ve ever written and decided I spent enough time on it to repost it with slight modifications here.

I asked others for their opinions on this piece and now Gardner’s called me out on this as well, so here goes.

I would say that blogging (or wiki-ing, or any assignment, technology-based or otherwise) needs to be created with a purpose. I suspect that all of my colleagues have a goal (or often multiple goals) in mind when they create an assignment. What do I hope to accomplish? What form should it take? What sources do I expect students to engage with? How creative/analytical/exploratory/argumentative do I want students to be? How much freedom should they have to shape their own assignments? The list goes on and on.

For me the question about the use of technology is integral to every assignment I create. [Of course writing your papers on lined note pads is using technology. But Joe is raising the point that for some of these assignments the technology is transparent and well known, allowing students to focus on the content (their argument, their research, their style) without having to spend time figuring out to create a new page, while for others the time spent (in and out of class) figuring the tech out distracts from the focus on content.] I get that. As a result, it’s a conscious choice (one of many that I make when creating an assignment and a class) when I ask students to learn a new technology in order to complete my course. [And frankly I try to always make my thinking on the goals of assignments transparent to students (regardless of the tech involved), although not always at the beginning of the class — sometimes having them struggle a bit on their own is part of the intended process.]

Where I think I really have an issue with the post’s argument is with the notion that students are losing out on content by spending time learning a new technology. First of all, every course I create leaves out much, much, much more “content” than I can possibly cover in a single semester. So, each class is a series of choices I have to make about what gets left out. Are students disadvantaged by the material I leave out of my US History Survey on the battles of Revolution so that I can focus on the popular culture of the time? Maybe, but since I can’t cover everything then I have to focus on the areas that I think are most important in creating a general student experience of learning about the past.

I’ll give you another example with even more of a parallel: I could probably cover those Revolutionary battles if I didn’t spend a third of class time engaged in class discussions of primary sources about the Revolution (and other topics), but instead lectured every class period. Lecturing is an incredibly efficient way to dispense content, though fairly problematic in terms of learning content and even worse if you want to build more skills than just passive note-taking and oral processing. I choose to leave out historical content in order to encourage a set of academic skills that I think are useful beyond the classroom (reading primary documents, understanding context, placing yourself in the past, contributing orally to an ongoing discussion, connecting the words of people in the past to the modern perspectives).

For me the use of (newer) technology fits this category as well. Yes, I’m asking students to do something new, or to push themselves, or to think about doing something in a different way, and yes, that potentially takes away from their time to read (or learn) about those darn battles, but that’s a choice I’ve made as the creator of the course. That choice is based in my desire to balance the skills and content portions of my class (that’s an over-stated dichotomy here) to provide the best possible experience for the students going forward, not just in that course, but hopefully in others as well.

[I haven’t discussed engaging students directly here. I would simply echo Gardner’s perspective on this in his comments on the post, adding only that by being as transparent as possible about my thinking with my students that I’d like to think I’ve been fairly successful as engaging a sizable percentage of them over the years.]

Joe has followed up his first post with a series of suggestions for professors thinking about using technology in the classroom, many of which I agree with. He’s also suggested a Faculty Academy session with students and faculty brainstorming about ways to increase student engagement related to technology. Sounds like a good idea.

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