Did I just step in some Technology?

If you take the @ train to downtown Paragraph City sometime, duck into the Toffler building and elevator up to the observation deck. If you drop a quarter in one of the View-Masters up there, you won’t be able to see the cutting edge of instructional technology, but you’ll see – in 3D – colleges who can see it.

IT is like that at my college, distanced by cost and a lack of IT people from what’s new, but not entirely out of sight. At a small college where we worry about keeping the tuition attainable for our over-jobbed students, that’s probably appropriate. Still, I often wish the IT jungle were a little more lush here.

Two events bring the instructional tech topic to the fore.

Item one: an occasionally heated discussion of the “don’t push tech on me” – “you’re such a Luddite” variety that University Diaries points out here: http://www.margaretsoltan.com/?p=3740

Item two: the 2008 Horizon Report (http://connect.educause.edu/Library/ELI/2008HorizonReport/45926), which tries to forecast the IT weather coming our way over the next five years. It has seemed to me that most crystal balls are about as predictive as bowling balls, but the Educause & New Media people who publish this report have a pretty good 5 year record built up. I recommend the report.

Both items put instructional technology’s relationship to learning up for view, and there are a host of questions, like these

  • How does the faculty keep up with the tech du jour? Should we?
  • Just because we can learn a new dance step, should we? It remains, after all, the same couple dancing: just me and milady composition.
  • How do we know learning happens better with tech than it did when chalk used to stutter across a blackboard?
  • Is a higher tech presentation what students want? The follow-up to that is often this: Why give students what they want when what they want is often not that good for them? But I’d rather ask this: Is there any reason to not teach students with the sort of presentation that they would prefer?
  • Will the tech dumb down the material, for instance by putting it into sound bites or making an engaging discussion unlikely?
  • Do our students have the companion tech necessary, or are we digging the digital divide ever deeper?
  • Can we afford to have the necessary tech, and can we afford not to have it?

Both item one and item two above address some of these, and so will I in upcoming morsels. One point more, right now.

PowerPoint is often raised as an example of technology everyone, Luddite or not, is familiar with, and the argument is often made about how dreadful PowerPoint presentations are. But it isn’t the PowerPoint, it’s the lecture. Lectures by incompetent lecturers have always been dreadful, and they continue to be dreadful in PowerPoint. But it’s not the fault of the tool, and if I let the tool change the way I think about how I communicate to my class, it’s possible what results is an improvement.

That “if” however, is not surmountable by all faculty, for better or worse. And there are bigger monkeys in the jungle than that old PowerPoint grouch.


5 Responses to Did I just step in some Technology?

  1. Robert says:

    I seriously doubt that social scientists can definitely prove that technology improves learning, but if technology raises the level of engagement by students, learning undoubtedly improves as a natural side effect. And don’t forget that education is a consumer market — if you don’t provide what students want, regardless of what might be better for them, do you run the risk of losing “market share”?! On the other hand, accommodation to the point of minimizing personal interaction in hopes of drawing out shy students may ultimately do them a disservice. Instead of helping them interact confidently in face-to-face encounters, you may create a population of individuals who are lions behind the keyboard, but mice across the desk. Balance is probably the most prudent approach!

  2. Ira Socol says:

    I wish academics could define technology – as I said on the Chronicle site “there is the implication that powerpoint is a technology but writing on the board is not. They are both technologies, and, in fact, they are both technologies with the same purpose – teacher-centered display of information for notetaking. Except that one is typically pre-prepared and the other created during class (a use difference, not a technological one, both technologies could be used either way), there would seem to be little difference between them to measure.”

    So many fall into the trap of believing that “technology is something invented after I was born,” and that is disappointing. After all, a British survey in 2000 identified the printed book as the biggest technological invention of the last 1,000 years.

    Other technologies? Paper, pens, pencils, desks, classrooms, mail delivery systems. We use them well or we use them poorly. And everyone both enables and disables, depending on the users needs. Because – it is vital to remember – Gutenberg enabled the rapid dissemination of information. He also helped wipe out half of Europe’s languages. He also enabled the distribution of pornography and terrorist propaganda.

    So let me simply suggest a few ways free technologies have supported writing in my experience:

    1. I use free text-to-speech software in Firefox, combined with Google Dcuments, to help students who are poor readers to edit their own writing.

    2. I use Google Docs to let student writers collaborate – sometimes across the classroom, sometimes across town, sometimes across oceans.

    3. I use Skype video calls to bring writers to students in remote places.

    4. I use Google Maps and Google Earth to help student writers place their stories in unfamiliar locales. A student in Michigan can walk the streets of Paris or London or Belfast or Rome. They can even then ask for “hotels” or “pubs” or “cafes” in those locations and follow the Google trail to menus and photographs. It is a wild boost to the imagination.

    5. I use free text-to-speech systems and internet available literature to help expose students to reading which may be beyond their decoding level. Accelerating their appreciation and understanding of literature and history.

    6. I use the “right-click” tools in Firefox to help support writing – definitions, translations, reading words aloud.

    7. I use speech recognition engines (like the one included in Windows Vista) to help free dysgraphic student writers to express themselves rather than sweat the formation of letters.

    What is important here is that the above are all free, ubiquitous technologies, and all will, within 2-3 years, run on mobile phone software. They can support and boost student reading and writing everywhere.

    What is also important is that if we do not teach these things only the most privileged students will find them outside of school, and we will encourage the vicious gaps which divide our society.

  3. Robert,
    Thanks for the comment. The lions behind the keyboard names a phenomenom I’ve seen more than once. Within reason, I’d like to offer every student the platform where he or she could roar a bit and shake off the mousey meekness I see in more than half of the students I meet. Alternatives to the traditional, unplugged classroom can help that happen. Yet, as you say, with balance.

    Ira Socol,
    I think this point is both terrifically important and generally overlooked. I suspect the usual dictionary that defines what we mean by “technology” is our budget. For my college, that means the photocopiers, DVD players and bandwith are all “technology” but the copier paper, the blackboards and the library are not. In a recent discussion it was very briefly suggested that the need for a new boiler in one building be included in a technology grant we are putting together.
    Labeling something “technology” enables it to become “the other” in the classroom, giving it both a mystique that attracts and to others a superficiality that repels. It occurs to me I might rather just speak of “tools” though that’s too terribly workingclass for some academics.
    Thanks for the comment.

  4. Ira Socol says:


    My favorite discovery of the last year was an 1842 journal article describing to teachers “how to teach with the chalkboard.” The author is forced to say that he is “not against books” but that “one might teach an entire lesson using this new tool.” He also talks about the freedom one must give students when giving them “handheld slates.”

    Interestingly the author is also the person who fought for chairs with backs and individual desks in the classroom, another “technology” that strongly impacts education.


  5. I love this, Ira. Imagine what the case must have been against chalkboards (and “for” books) or against chairs with backs (and probably in favor of benches). What will our debates look like in a couple of decades?
    Thanks for the comment.

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