Jan 26

Technology is your friend!

Posted by A Writer


As you may have noticed (I hope), I've been AWOL the last few days for several reasons–one of which is the beginning of a new semester, with its excitement, nervous energy, and idealistic visions of a better tomorrow.  (And its committee meetings, and faculty meetings, and…sigh.  You get the idea.)  And as usual, the new crop of students looks both promising and hopeless, depending I think on changes in the moon.  (This is a leap year, right?)  All seems to be routine in the college world.  But on my way into class today I noticed some changes around my institution's campus–a few new mysterious towers, a couple of vans bristling with ladders and wires parked outside two of the major classroom buildings, some folks in hard hats and carrying clipboards wandering the halls; and within my classrooms, brand spanking new projectors.  Digital zoom, Dolby surround system…nice.  This'll be sweet for the Super Bowl.

Except, of course, that you don't watch the Super Bowl in a classroom.  You might talk about the economics of the game there, and maybe discuss injuries in a sports science class.  But watching the game itself?  Nope.  You're not going to play Madden '08 there either (more's the pity, I suppose), or check out Law and Order in HD.  No, this is an educational setting…though you might start to wonder about that if you wander around campus a bit.  Brand new computers in all the rooms, high-tech podiums with built in DVD players, VCRs, iPod docks…yep, it's a veritable sea of tech, and my school hasn't been shy in advertising that fact.  Top 200 Most Wired Campuses, Top 200 Most Wireless Campuses (the lists weren't in the same article, though it would have been fun to watch them fight it out if they were), in partnership with major technology corporations, developing new technology programs–it's a brave new world, and we're leading the charge right into it.

But hey, I like technology.  I have an mp3 player and a cool smartphone myself, to say nothing of my DVR and flat-screen HDTV with HDMI inputs.  When I watch the Super Bowl on that bad boy, let me tell you, I'm going to…um…

Wait a minute.  How did I get off the subject of education again?

Because you see, that's the real problem here.  My college is so hot and bothered about its technological profile it's almost funny…but what's getting lost in the shuffle is the educational side of things.  How are all these wires, gadgets and doodads (I love that I was able to use "doodads" in a 2008 post) actually helping the learning process?  My college, and many others, claims that adopting all this technology is just getting us in "sync" with the younger generations, that we will either adapt to the IM / iPod mindset or perish in our overwhelming irrelevance.  To a degree I understand this argument; a lot of professors are fiercely anti-tech, and whether they realize it or not that stand certainly isn't helping them reach a new crop of 18-22 year olds in their classrooms every year.  (They probably don't realize it.  The same view of the world that makes them look at a computer as Satan's child and pop music as Perry Como's domain generally doesn't allow for very insightful self-assessments.)  But there are two major issues here: first, just having cool whiz-bang technology sitting in a classroom won't help students absorb the professor's (hence the subject's) coolness through osmosis and further the educational mission.  In fact, most institutions are lousy in explaining what the hell they're really using the "Web-rific Powerpoint Enhancer 2008" for, since, well, they don't really know.  Someone like IBM or Apple has sold some poor innocent VP for Technological Advancement on vague promises of how the Projector 2020 will enhance student learning a hundredfold, and the next thing you know they're showing up in every classroom to the bewilderment of professors who never asked for and will probably never use them in the way they're intended.  Not only this is a waste of resources (but that's the capitalist way, right?), it can detract from the classroom, particularly if an overzealous Dean decides that his school is going to be the most techy place in America no matter what it takes.  All of a sudden professors start seeing memos about portfolios and running student chat rooms, and that's when we know that we've started down that long, steep hill.

But most of us are used to resisting or deflecting institutional pressures; it's a lot easier to smile and nod beatifically and then do what we want in our classes than it is to confront the dragons head on.  The second issue is the really bad one: students see through this ridiculous charade.  Contrary to the mass media's opinion, the younger generation is not reachable only by technology; it's reachable by accessible, meaningful and challenging work.  I'm continually amused by a lot of college professors' obsession with Powerpoint, which is generally used to produce a bunch of boring slides while people look through the Xeroxed handouts–of the exact same slides–just in case the program breaks down.  (Now that's a brave new world, baby!)  It's certainly "technological," but who cares?  You could have gotten the same result with a standard slide projector and a good old reliable set of handouts.  And students immediately recognize this problem; you can force-feed technology into a lesson all you want, but if the lesson itself feels like it was pulled from Ferris Bueller it's not going to matter if you can send the knowledge right into the students' brains.  Students resent being patronized, and this is patronization of the highest order.  Beyond that, it's a hopeless chase; academics have only now started to hear about what a "podcast" is, and by the time they start integrating it into their classrooms the students will already be on to "text-casting" or something similar.  Chasing the sun would be an easier proposition.

So what's the answer, then?  Should we just bail out on all things tech and head back to chalk and notebook for our exclusive educational diet?  Well, no–technology can be useful, so long as it's used to enhance a lesson which could have stood on its own.  I can tell my students all I want about Greek drama, but when I can play a film with period costumes and acting techniques I can really heighten their understanding.  I can explain the creative process, but if I show examples of different takes on the same song, for instance, using a combination of YouTube, mp3s and websites, I can give them multiple ways to access their own understanding.  Technology is indeed your friend, but no one likes a friend who never gets the message that it's time to leave.  The sooner school administrators get that message and stop bringing that friend along to every party, the sooner we'll be able to get back to the real business of educating our students–even when we aren't using something with a computer chip to do it.