Friday, June 01, 2007

It's (mostly) not about the technology

One of the things that drives me crazy when people talk about teaching and technology, is that they focus too much on the technology, on the nuts and bolts of how a particular tool works, without thinking about pedagogical goals. I always start from the goals and then look around at the tools I have available and choose the one that seems to fit. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes it changes the nature of the classroom so much that I have to use another tool or shift my goals.

The general goal should always be, I believe, to help students learn x (whatever you want to define x as). X could be critical thinking or basic biology concepts or how to conduct an experiment or how to program in Java. Usually there's a y and a z too. The goal should not be to entertain students or to reach them as digital natives. This seems to be, however, some teacher's goals. I've had faculty say to me that they feel they should move into the 21st century and that's why they want to use PowerPoint or video. I can appreciate that using yellowed notes creates a presentation of self that might say "dinosaur" but one should not decide to use a tool just to appear "with it." Because it won't work. You won't appear "with it" necessarily and you may not reach your pedagogical goals.

And that's where this article by James Lang begins. I think I ultimately agree with him, but I also see that attitude creeping in of focusing too much on the technology as a way to reach digital natives rather than thinking about teaching (though he comes around to that). I don't have time to make a perfectly cogent argument, but here's the point where I most disagreed with him:

Certainly technology has improved our ability to teach many subjects -- students studying anatomy can now work on virtual human bodies instead of dead cats, and that seems to me like an improvement. And the ability of computer programs to simulate and model chemical processes or economic theorems certainly surpasses what instructors used to be able to do with chalk, blackboards, and overhead projectors.

But can a computer program teach careful reading skills more effectively than a great teacher working with books, pencils, and a blackboard? Maybe a properly designed program could do it more effectively for some students, but probably not for all of them.

These two paragraphs focus on the kind of "magic" qualities of technologies, about the way computers can present content. And the second paragraph, especially, I find kind of crazy. No one, except maybe a few commercial educational software companies, has ever said that computer programs should be teaching careful reading skills. What most of us out here in the Web 2.0 world think about is not simulation programs or creating programs that supplant teachers, but about programs that enable collaboration both within a class and with experts outside a class. It's about students being able to ask questions of a cancer researcher about what cancer looks like at different stages and its effect on organs. Imagine that the researcher can watch as students work on real or simulated bodies. It's about the students being able to share their work with each other, to discuss what they're learning with each other. How do I teach careful reading skills with technology? By having students read, write on a blog, comment on other blogs and discuss it face to face in class. That way, they read more carefully to begin with. I can see very quickly where the difficult points are before class instead of being hit with it during discussion. And if, as Lang points out, Walter Ong is right about writing changing the way people think, then having students write before they get to class changes how they think about the reading.

I think the rest of Lang's article is right on, focusing on reaching students with different learning styles and not making assumptions about their comfort level with technology.

As an aside, another post that got me thinking about these issues was this one about computer science at Digg (read the comments; I couldn't get to the original, but it's easy to tell what the gist was). I think it points to a real divide among students (and maybe faculty too) about what a college degree is for, an issue I know we're all familiar with. Students, by and large, see a degree as a ticket to a higher paying job. The rest of us see higher education as a way of creating thoughtful citizens. I think often that the ones in the latter camp see us technologists as being on the side of the students who feel that way (edited, because I know plenty of students who want to be thoughtful citizens and more by the end of college). Well, I'm here to say we're not and I think we'd all be better off if we realize we're on the same team.