Thursday, May 25, 2006

Cheating with technology

If you haven't read Ira Socol's Inside Higher Ed piece today, you should. The topic of the article itself is, of course, near and dear to my heart, being about the appropriate use of technology in education. It's really about focusing on teaching and learning rather than being afraid of Google (or MySpace or blogs or . . .). There's quite a big discussion in the comments as well. What is everyone's obsession with spelling. I find the whole obsession with spelling a bit classist. Yes, spelling well might show something about your intelligence, but not much. If you're and* egregious misspeller, then it might be worth working on that skill, but if you occasionally misspell a word, big deal. One or two misspellings in a paper is not going to lower its grade, but 20 or so is going to be problematic. And it's going to tell me the student didn't even bother to use spell check. I find the comparison of spelling to algebra rather ludicrous. Maybe basic addition. Writing a complex sentence is more like algebra. Writing a poem is like calculus.

And what's with the memorization thing. I have a lot of information in my head. I did not memorize it. I learned it. I remembered it because I connected it to other things in my head or to experiences in my life. I impressed a professor once because I could repeat almost word for word a passage in Sidney's Defense of Poesie. It wasn't that I'd made an effort to memorize it. If I had, I would have failed, I'm sure. It was just memorable to me.

One of the commenters, in response to my comment that we shouldn't use paper because it, too, like the computer, is subject to damage and failure, suggested we rely on oral exams. I say, fine. I argued before that I think we should teach students presentation/public speaking skills. But we shouldn't just teach them that. They should be able to communicate effectively in a number of ways, using different media and methods. Writing an email is different from writing a report is different from presenting a poster, etc. Learning, in the way Socol suggests, would allow students to think on their feet. They will have developed skills to analyze a situation, search their head for appropriate responses and perform effectively.

I don't get why people get so freaked out about this stuff. It's like Chicken Little. Yes, it might be true that things will change as a result of the emerging technology. Libraries might become more virtual than physical. More work may take place online; it might even be (gasp) collaborative. But really, what's the worst thing that could happen?

I definitely think the virtual life that students lead needs to be contended with and challenged and channeled appropriately. Just like a kid who watches only sitcoms and thinks problems can be solved in 30 minutes to accompanying laughtrack, a kid who spends all their time in MySpace might think that writing is the equivalent of leaving a message. There's a place for that type of writing and communication. What we need to do is find a way to make that a gateway to something better, rather than just dismissing it as unworthy.

*Mr. Geeky caught this. So do you think me any less intelligent?