by Vince Casaregola, Professor, English
I was recently completing a survey about using classroom technologies, and in the comments section, I felt compelled to write that classroom technologies did not begin with the development of the iPhone, the internet, or even the personal computer—books, pens, and even paper represent technologies as well.
One of the issues that arise out of the headlong rush to adapt classrooms to every new electronic technology that comes along is the general ignorance of the history of technology. Knowledge of that history is vital in order to understand the social and cultural significance of broad deployment of new technologies. Having spent a fair amount of time studying that history, I realize that, without a historical perspective, it is not possible to engage in effective technology assessment, a practice fundamental in all fields of engineering. Without proper technology assessment, one cannot rationally evaluate the effectiveness of using a particular technology in a specific setting. Such assessment also determines if a new technology more effectively and economically fulfills the needs currently being met by an extant one, and if the newer one opens up useful opportunities not available with the existing technologies. These are the reasons for adopting any new technology. Only after a careful, comparative analysis of the concrete costs, risks, and benefits, can wise adoption decisions be made.
By insisting on more thorough technology assessment, I am not opposing the use of new classroom technologies, merely calling for a more informed approach to evaluating their utility, something essential where the new devices and systems are pushed by increasingly intensive marketing campaigns. We have often depended on the word of the marketers far more than on objective testing to determine the desirability of a new technology. We have been using electronic technologies in the classroom for some time, dating back over fifty years (I recall the televisions installed in my elementary classrooms of the early sixties, allowing us to watch coverage of the Project Mercury launches). Of course not much of the educational programming materialized in our district at the time, and we moved on. Decades later, the advent of personal computers in the eighties led to a new level of classroom usage, often in computer-assisted writing classrooms, where each student sat at a desktop station. Of course the growing use of laptops in the nineties and after made such facilities largely obsolete. Smaller notebooks and tablets, along with smart phones, led to a whole new stage of usage.
Certainly, numerous new applications allow for a range of useful activities, not the least of which is the ease with which students both in and outside of class can access data bases and information sources with unprecedented ease. All this may be to the good, and yet, rarely have we assessed the costs of the new technologies in comparison to other possible ways to use the levels of time, effort, and funding involved. One of the rather sad side effects has been the increased tendency for students to be distracted across the range of possible web sites while supposedly at work on the course activities (distracted learning is somewhat like distracted driving—not likely to achieve desirable ends). Additionally, the new technologies are not the only way that resources might be used–as a number of veteran teachers have told me, there are times when a more robust support of supplemental instructors, who could work in person with individual and small groups of students, might be equally or even more effective in helping students than deploying the next new layer of technology. In the end, it is not about the technology but about the people.
Where does this all lead? To questions of how best to use the time and opportunity of a course and the classroom experiences associated with it. For me, I have found some success with a less electronic classroom, something that might be called—“the spoken word classroom.” Yes, the image of a traditional classroom, with an instructor droning on, easily reveals its own inherent limitations, but it is also an image often overused and exaggerated. Many classrooms, particularly in humanities courses, have long been composed of small groups of students, often not more than 20. Instructors in such environments can actually engage students in a range of oral presentations and discussions that go beyond the limits of the stereotypical lecture and also model effective modes of face-to-face communication. Such courses offer unique opportunities to encourage and enhance something that many college students have had increasingly less experience with—interacting through actual face-to-face speaking.
Traditional classrooms are often pictured as places only of inefficient delivery of information, a notion deriving from the mistaken assumption that education itself is little more than information transmission. In many cases, however, classroom dialogues have been occasions of creating and shaping knowledge from the available information instead of merely communicating that information. Additionally, these classrooms can become places of building relationships among the whole group people in the room. Effective teaching and learning are ultimately about shaping a shared a new understanding of that knowledge, even for the instructor. The classroom dialogue can develop a shared understanding that is the essence of authentic learning. Whatever the technologies being used, whether the most recent new media or ones far older (such as a pen, a pad, and a book), should enhance the growth of that understanding. The question is not so much what blend of technologies is deployed—that should be answered in the particular context—rather, the question is how best to encourage students to engage in an authentic, in-depth dialogue that can become a social environment for learning, a cultural context for shaping a shared knowledge and understanding, whatever the subject matter. In the end, the most effective teaching uses the time and place of the classroom to enhance the shared experience of the people involved, and the activity of direct face-to-face dialogue should always remain essential to that effort.