Monday, December 18, 2006

Technology in teaching

The Chronicle has an interesting discussion with Henry Jenkins of MIT about using technology in teaching.

Extracts (with comments):

1. [Jenkins talks about] blogs as a way of sharing insights and experiences teaching -- as part of the process of mentorship within a department. Most of us spend far too little time talking with our colleagues about our roles as teachers and younger faculty are often starved for advice from senior members of their department but don't know how to ask. If a department created some blog or wiki that allowed for people to trade positive or negative teaching experiences -- everything from dumb things student wrote on tests to innovative ideas about classroom activities -- I think this would create a context for support for pedagogy within departments. Of course, the same can be done through fields.
Earlier, Jenkins had repeated the usual thing about those scairdy-cat faculty (I'm paraphrasing his idea) who won't use technology because they see themselves as lone operators who don't like to ask for help.

That aside, a wiki isn't entirely a bad idea, but does anyone think that people will truly open up, under their own names and in writing addressed to their colleagues about bad teaching experiences? How long would it be before students would be checking such a wiki to see Professor Blooper's Greatest Hits? How long would it take for the university to shut down such a forum on the grounds of FERPA and student privacy where quoting from papers is concerned? Also, every forum or discussion list I've ever seen (including the ones at CHE) where teachers relieved stress by posting student bloopers has had a few posters saying something along the lines of "this is not worthy of us as Educators."

Also, isn't he missing the point? Isn't talking honestly about teaching what a lot of us (anonymous bloggers) do? It seems to me that a version of this community already exists, although he doesn't seem to know it.

2. [Jenkins on low bandwidth issues]The MIT environment is very rich in bandwidth but every summer I spend time in the woods in the North Georgia mountain on dial up. I am always frustrated by the shift in how long it takes to do even simple operations and how many of the things I do easily in Cambridge are impossible to do in Clayton, Georgia. This is something that researchers in this area have not spent nearly enough time reflecting upon. It is frankly a blind spot in a lot of the research initiatives that involve new media for schools. I think any assignment needs to start from a realistic understanding of what it is going to be hard for students to do and what it is easy for them to do. One has to factor in the realistic constraints students face in designing activities. And one has to also know -- and inform them -- about resources on campus where they might be able to get faster connections or more expanded bandwidth. I am not sure there's any magic formula there.
I'm glad he mentioned this problem, which has been talked about since, what, 1988 or so when people really started using technology in teaching. Those designing (and those funding) the next new shiny thing that's going to transform teaching technology put it into the report somewhere and it's promptly forgotten when funding time comes around. Even common technologies aren't responsive to this; has anyone tried Blackboard or WebCT on a dialup lately? Apparently we aren't any closer to solving this problem than we were in 1988, but at least it's still mentioned as a problem.
3. [About teachers who are annoyed with students who use laptops in the classroom]: In some of our Intro to Media Studies classes, professors have asked TAs to do real time blogging during the lecture, throwing out links to web sites which are relevant to the content being covered. This way if students are multitasking, they may be reinforcing what is being taught rather than being pulled in a separate direction. After all, this is a generation that is used to absorbing information from multiple sources at the same time and often learns multimodally -- that is, by taking in the same information through multiple sensory inputs. So build on that.
First of all, this may be excellent advice--for a lecture. For a discussion class? Not so much. In my experience, when the laptop screen goes up, the urge to participate goes down. I had two students this semester who were good at participation--until they began to bring their laptops to class. Don't get me wrong; they're welcome to bring laptops if they want to. But in a discussion-based class, attention to the screen leads to "discussions" like this:

"Why might the heroine have said this to the hero, Student?"

(Looks up from screen): "What?"

"Why might the heroine have said this to the hero, Student?"

"Umm. I'm not sure."

I did take both of them aside and said something like this: "Look, bring the laptop if you want, but you haven't been discussing the works along with the class; this could affect your participation grade."

Second, haven't recent studies shown that this much-vaunted "multitasking" learning is a crock? Students think they're paying attention to everything, but they're not. Certain law schools, as reported in the CHE, have banned laptops or shut off wireless access in the classroom for this reason.

Do laptops really "enhance the classroom experience" as Jenkins says they can?


Bardiac said...

I'm so with you on the multi-tasking issue!

I've had so many students tell me that they're ADD or ADHD and NEED to do two things at once, play sudoku during discussion or whatever. But ask them a question and they're lost.

I think you're also right about the FERPA and such. Really, don't professors use the lunchroom to talk about the craziness? We do, all the time.

undine said...

I haven't heard that ADD/ADHD excuse yet. You'd think that they'd have to have more concentration on the task, not less!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting.

I hear that ADD/ADHD excuse a lot, but those who use it for multitasking, cannot document their condition, I have found.

I refuse to use Blackboard or WebCT, because most students can't get on from wherever they are. I do have class web pages but I serve them from my own research space on the mainframe and I write them in very light code, so they come up reliably even for people on dialup / with slow machines.

I'm cool with looking at computers during lectures - actually I audited a class and did this, and it really did help, I could look up the things my colleague (the professor) was talking about as he was talking about them, and it was cool. But he could spy on our screens to make sure we weren't reading other stuff, and he'd get on the cases of people who were.

I don't allow laptops in my classrooms, or cell phones, or newspapers. In severe outbreaks of electro-mania, I take them away; they all go to an empty desk for the duration of class. If a cell phone rings, the owner leaves class FOR THE DAY.

undine said...

I do something similar, Professor Zero; my course pages should be accessible by everyone, unlike the slow Blackboard/WebCT interfaces. I use those BB/WebCT extensively only for online classes, where the students more or less have to have a decent connection to take the class.

I may steal that cell phone idea.