All of My Faults Are Stress Related

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.

Comments

  1. #1 abb3w
    August 16, 2009

    The primary problem of PowerPoint is that what it makes easy to do is often not the wise thing to do.

  2. #2 Edi
    August 16, 2009

    You’re right, it’s not technology, it’s how we use it. A good teacher will find the tools do to the job, they’ll be effective even if they’re meeting students under a tree.

  3. #3 Jim Lehane
    August 16, 2009

    I commented on a very similar story recently as well (http://jazinator.blogspot.com/2009/07/teaching-revolution.html) I also believe it is not the technology that is the problem it is the teachers. If you can find a way to use the technology that makes learning for the student easier then that is the way to go. Technology that makes a teachers life easier by spending less time setting up lessons is not necessarily a bad thing, but getting the information through to the student should be the primary goal.

  4. #4 george.w
    August 16, 2009

    That dean at SMU seems to be falling for a gimmick. The reality of “use what works best in the current situation” is a lot less dramatic than a bold gesture.

    Most of my PowerPoint slides are examples, pictures or images that I’ve created for discussion purposes. I seldom use bullet points, and every slide has a note in the lower-right corner; “X slides remaining”. Let ‘em know dry land is approaching.

    We are using Turning Technologies’ “clickers” to good effect in the classroom, but it isn’t a revolution or anything.

    It’s worth going to an Edward Tufte seminar just to see how he uses Keynote. Most of which can be applied in PowerPoint.

  5. #5 Greg
    August 16, 2009

    I am fascinated by people who think that powerpoint bullet points are a problem. Please explain more. just like this post points out, are you railing against using powerpoint, or just bad lazy powerpoints?

    I have to agree with this professor who is limiting tech in his classoom, but he better be a compelling speaker, who can make dry , boring topics come alive. Otherwise, he is dooming himself to being ignored by his students.

    No class snatched my attention more in college than organic chemistry with its interactive notes and material.

  6. #6 mc^2
    August 16, 2009

    The only problem with technology is when it allows teachers to get lazy. They create a lesson through powerpoint, then can run through it too quickly, which can make material difficult to learn. They also will then just reuse the same lesson year after year, even if it is apparent that many of the students are not learning the intended lesson. It is ok to use powerpoint, but it would be best to mix lacture styles to try to get through to students in more than one way, and to get periodic feedback from students to see if it is actually working. Personally, I find the chalk and blackboard lectures more effective because professors will better explain all their steps and reasoning.

  7. #7 Quiet Desperation
    August 16, 2009

    I’d like to see the word Luddite quite simply die away in this sort of context. I once expressed a similar feeling about too much tech in the classroom, and got called a Luddite by someone who then asked me what I do for a living. When I told them I design bleeding edge communication systems for space probes and satellites, it was much fun watching their brain shift gears without a clutch.

    People do enjoy tossing out labels, though. What can ya do? Then again I don’t think automated looms should be placed in every classroom either, so maybe I am a Luddite. ;-)

  8. #8 kendra
    August 16, 2009

    what a wonderful commentary by a seemingly wonderful teacher! technology is MERELY a tool to be used in reaching one’s students, and, at times, a necessary evil~ specifically, being a public school teacher, one is forced to incorporate as much technology as humanly possible into her classroom, whether deemed relevant or merely a ‘must use’ to meet nclb standards. but, i digress… thank you for a great musing on a lively subject.

  9. #9 daedalus2u
    August 16, 2009

    danah boyd has a recent post about this too, from the perspective of a user.

    http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/07/13/i_want_my_cybor.html

  10. #10 Jason Dick
    August 17, 2009

    Greg,

    I am fascinated by people who think that powerpoint bullet points are a problem. Please explain more. just like this post points out, are you railing against using powerpoint, or just bad lazy powerpoints?

    Well, I think part of the issue here is that many people haven’t seen a good powerpoint presentation in class. I would say that most teachers I had who made use of either powerpoint or overhead projections did a really, really terrible job of making use of them. They basically seemed to use them, instead of as a tool to get information across, just as a way to avoid writing big long ugly equations on the board.

    The one teacher I had who had good power point presentations was in a humanities class (my major was physics). He did a very good job, because he didn’t think of using the powerpoint as a way to plop up information that would take too long to write (and thus too long for the students to absorb before the teacher moved on to the next slide), but instead as just a visual aid for what he was lecturing about. And it worked fantastically well.

    The reason why power point is dangerous, at least in my experience, is that it is entirely up to the teacher to set the pace. With a chalkboard talk, the teacher is forced to go at a reasonable pace, given by how quickly they can write on the board. With a power point presentation, the teacher isn’t limited by this, and often goes vastly too fast. It feels like the teacher has just turned on a firehose and expects his students to swallow all the water.

    This is why it’d be nice if teachers who want to make use of these tools would either take some classes in giving such presentations, or just take some care to understand that powerpoint is not going to help students absorb information any faster at all.

  11. #12 Eli Rabett
    September 1, 2009

    Eli fails to see how any dean is going to enforce this ban against a tenured and cranky professor.

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