Teaching and Tech
Everyone who knows me knows I’m not afraid of tech, and yet I don’t use it much in my classroom. No clickers, few Powerpoint presentations, and I still grade by marking comments on papers (though I tried electronic comments for a couple of years and may go back to it). I’m thinking about this because classes start in a week (and so I have to find some way to delay working on my syllabi) and because of this piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education which casts the argument over classroom tech as some sort of epic battle between codgers who refuse to update and tech geeks who think more tech always equals better teaching. Okay, I’m overstating the vehemence of the article a bit, but doing that allows me to come down firmly in the middle. Is that cheating?
I’m also thinking about this issue because of yet another piece on how communication technology affects our brains, for instance, even the anticipation of receiving an email can take up our attention and leave us distracted from other matters that require our immediate attention. Part of the reason I don’t use a lot of technology in my classes is because I don’t want to remind my students that it’s available to them (which I guess means I need to get my watch fixed rather than using my phone as a clock). The real damage to a class’s attention on the subject when a phone rings isn’t so much the noise as it is the reminder to everyone that they have phones that can be checked for information. I haven’t banned phones from the class completely as some of my colleagues have, but I do have a policy (on my syllabus) which allows me to count as absent anyone caught texting or using their phones in class.
But the fact that I only use Powerpoint (for example) for giving quizzes shouldn’t be taken as an indication that I think its use is harmful to education. It just means that I prefer to have a more free-flowing class structure. I writing and poetry for the most part, and I teach how to form an argument. One of the main points of my class is that there are multiple ways to enter a poem, and I worry that putting together a Powerpoint lecture on a poem would undercut that approach, because it would limit my flexibility in the class.
See, I don’t really lecture, not often anyway, because it’s impossible for me to hold on to my students’ attention for 80 minutes if I’m doing all the talking. Hell, it’s impossible for most stand-up comics to do 80 minutes and kill the whole time even if they’ve had months to prepare a single performance. I have to do this twice a week for 16 weeks. So I turn a lot of the talking over to my students either by asking questions or by moving them into groups and having them argue out the answers to questions or the meanings in poems with each other. I move from group to group and answer questions or clarify facts or context and then lead a class discussion afterward. But while I’ve chosen the poems for the week in advance, I rarely know which poems I’ll be talking about when the class meeting begins, because the next poem we talk about will often depend on where the discussion on the last one went. How do you do a Powerpoint for that?
Which isn’t to say I don’t find technology useful on the occasions when I do have to lecture–I do, and I make the best use of it I can. I use it a great deal when I’m focusing on grammar or the basics of argument with my composition classes, for example. And I’ll be watching Amy as she uses MacSpeech to grade papers this fall to see if that’s something I can integrate into my own work. But I’m not going to jump to the next gadget just because it’s the next gadget.
And I think that’s really the way educators should approach this issue. Be open, be willing to experiment, but also be able to recognize when something isn’t working. Sometimes there’s value in the tried and tested ways of doing things.