I’m the department Luddite. I use Powerpoint less often than any of my colleagues, and I’m the person who argues that rooms in a new building need to be designed to allow natural light and views when desired (as well as be able to be darkened adequately). But I’m also the person in my department who plays around with our newish course management system (Moodle), experimenting with a variety of online assignments and quizzes and data-sharing. And I’m the only person to have taught a “lecture” class that met in a computer classroom. (And, of course, I blog, and Tweet, and I was on Usenet before this year’s freshmen went to kindergarten. I can run screaming from a flamewar with the best of them.)
So I’ve got a mixed reaction to a story on NPR about a dean who is banning technology from the classroom.
He’s not a real Luddite – no more than I am. He wants faculty to use technology, but outside the classroom, in ways that prepare students for non-technological activities in class. Have students listen to a podcast to prepare to work collaboratively on a problem. Make students play online games (such as one he developed, in which students combine the styles of various musicians into a swing quartet), and then have a discussion during class. It sounds like fun… but…
…is the problem really technology, or is it the ways that technology is used? Students can be as passive during a chalkboard lecture as during one that uses Powerpoint. And an image on Powerpoint can be used as the basis for a discussion. Students can work collaboratively on problems and turn in the answers on paper, or they can turn in the answers electronically.
And some explorations are only possible with technology. The discussion of volcanic hazards from my summer class, for instance – with networked computers, Google Earth, and the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Volcanism Program, students were able to figure out for themselves how different features provided hints about volcanic hazards. Yes, I could have developed an exercise outside the class, but in this case, I think that having my expertise available (especially to help make sense of the technical jargon from the GVP site) made the exploration work better than it would have as a pre-class activity.
In fact, in my dream classroom, I would go even further. Here are some things I would like to be able to do:
- have groups of students brainstorm about what’s going on in an image (maybe something on Google Earth, maybe a photo from the field, maybe a graph, maybe a thin section they’re examining), annotate the image with their comments, and project their annotated image so the rest of the class can see what they’re discussing.
- share annotated images with other groups in discussions, so each group could add their own comments or interpretations to the image, and then argue about who’s right.
- write a list of similarities and differences between minerals they’re examining during a class discussion, and then be able to share all the lists anonymously, so that students could see the different observations, but students wouldn’t be embarrassed by what they didn’t know.
(I’m not coming up with a very long technological wish list. What other cool stuff do you imagine? And does the stuff I want to use exist already?)
Technology isn’t necessary, of course. I’ve done fine with chalk, paper, Silly Putty, and carts full of rocks. I can have students share ideas on big pieces of newsprint. I can collect pictures that students draw by hand. I can make groups draw and annotate their own images on the chalkboard. But the existence of technology, even in the classroom, doesn’t make interaction and discussion impossible.
On the other hand, there are potential problems that I’ve encountered with technology and teaching – and the suggestions in the NPR story would make them worse. But that’s a discussion for another post.