Saturday, February 5, 2011

Technology as a Cause of Academic Divide

Academic electronic publications overflow with articles on the evils of using technology in the classroom. A significant percentage of academics who, irrespective of their age, are stuck in the mentality of the past are deeply opposed to the use of new technologies in teaching. They fill article after article with disquisitions on how students hate classes that rely on technology, how they suffer because of PowerPoint presentations, cell phones, IPads, Kindles, laptops that seemingly distract them from actual learning. Educators who use technology in the classroom are branded as lazy creatures who want gadgets to do their job for them.

I am one of those "lazy" educators. In my literature and culture courses, I use PowerPoints on a regular basis. I first started doing them last year, and the students liked them so much that I decided not to stop. I keep begging the students to tell me if they dislike PowerPoints, after which I will be happy to discontinue them. The students, however, are adamant in their insistence that they love my PowerPoints. I find them to be very useful, too. To give an example, on Thursday we were discussing Lazarillo de Tormes, a Spanish Picaresque novel of the XVIth century. When we got to the passage in which Lazarillo leaves Salamanca, I had photos of this city, of its great university, of the Cathedral of Salamanca up on the PowerPoint. Many of my students haven't had a chance to travel to Spain, and seeing what Salamanca actually looks like made them appreciate the reading in an entirely new way. After class, two of the students came up to me to say that they were now considering going to Salamanca as part of the Study Abroad program because the city sounded fascinating. 

Another thing that I like to do in literature courses, is to put up passages we are analyzing and questions students are supposed to be answering in groups up on a PowerPoint. This is saves a lot of time that previously used to be occupied with endless questions of "What are we doing right now? What were the questions? What page is it? Do you have an extra copy of the book? Where are we right now? What did you want us to do?" Maybe all of this makes me a lazy educator, but I'd much rather spend valuable class time on actual discussions than on repeating what the question was a dozen times in a row.

For some reason, when people talk about using Power Points in class, they imagine a professor who fills the slides with bullet points and then reads them out loud in a droning monotone. Most of us don't do anything like that, though. My PowerPoints mostly provide visual materials to illustrate the points I'm making. It really makes no sense trying to explain the ideological implications of the tango when you can't show the students a video of an actual tango dancing.

In language classes, I allow students to use cell phones to look up words in electronic dictionaries. Many of the students take several languages, and it makes no sense for them to lug a Spanish, a French and a Chinese dictionary around at all times. Why not use the available technology to makes everybody's life easier?

I have a sneaking suspicion that academics who are so virulently opposed to use of technology in the classroom (and who also scoff when they see their colleagues read books on a Kindle) are simply intimidated by technology because they have no idea how to use it. Instead of confessing their technological incompetence and asking for help, they try to marginalize those of us who are comfortable with technology and use it on a regular basis. Of course, technological advances cannot be stopped. We have to prepare ourselves for the advent of even more sophisticated inventions. I, for one, feel very excited about that prospect.


sarcozona said...

Some of the best professors I've had have used lots of technology in really creative ways. And some of them have stuck to a blackboard and chalk.

Technology doesn't make a professor good or bad, but technology can definitely make a professor worse. Most of the negative experiences I've had with technology in the classroom are with professors who are being forced to use it. I had one prof who gave decent lectures at a whiteboard, but was a nightmare when he was "encouraged" by the administration to start using powerpoint and clickers.

I think instructors should be aware of technology that can help them and that there should be resources they can use to learn new technology. But some professors give brilliant lectures with a blackboard and chalk and they shouldn't have to change.

That being said, I wish more of my classes used technology common in a particular field (like JUMP or SAS in Stats or BLAST in genetics).

Clarissa said...

I have to agree with you on clickers that the administration is pushing on us like there is no tomorrow. I've been trying to explain just how useless clickers are in the Humanities, but nobody listens. "They can just click to select the right answer!" the administrator says to me brightly. What right answer? I ask. There are no right answers in the Humanities. It's all about analysis, not a weird bunch of multiple-choice questions.

Anonymous said...

I'm very big on a/v in some courses, less so in others. Would like to expand use of WebCT a fair amount. Cannot stand clickers and actually don't like PowerPoint ... but I use blogs in class.

Clarissa said...

Believe it or not, I'm actually very resistant to using blogs in my classes. I have a tendency to be over controlling in my teaching, and I know that in everything that concerns blogging, the controlling beast in me will come out. :-)

Pagan Topologist said...

I have never used PowerPoint in class. It requires far too much preparation time. I am an improvisational lecturer, and I find that people have a natural rhythm of thinking which my writing on a blackboard (or whiteboard, though I don't like the smell) matches. I always use a blackboard if I can when presenting a research talk at a conference, and I get a lot of compliments on how understandable and easy to follow my talks are.

My impression is that PowerPoint (and similar software for Linux) is optimized for marketing, not for teaching and learning. I tend not to remember things I see on such a presentation, whereas I remember very well things I see in a traditional lecture with blackboard. This may be because the presenters go too fast, but I think there is more to it than that. The rhythm of the presentation is wrong, as I said.

Pagan Topologist said...

I forgot to add that I find overhead projectors with transparencies or an acetate roll to be in between. They are more satisfactory than computers but less so than blackboards, with one exception. If one uses an acetate roll, it is fairly easy to roll back and see whet was written during a lecture several weeks ago, either to refresh students' memories or to correct mistakes.

The real issue in my mind is whether the speaker is thinking in real time as he or she speaks, or just reciting something prepared earlier.

Clarissa said...

Yes, you are absolutely right, David, this is the issue of a controlled environment vs a more improvised one. I do completely improvised classes from time to time (especially in higher level/graduate courses), and those are usually my best classes. However, it is normally very difficult for me to relinquish control to this degree. It makes me feel stressed out and guilty, especially after a student wrote in the evaluations for a course where I tried to do more improvisational lectures that "the teacher often seemed unprepared." That just hurt my feelings.

I wish presentations at academic conferences were narrated freely rather than read, though.

As for transparencies, I am very glad they are gone from my life. I just never could make them work correctly, and it was such a pain in the neck.

Pagan Topologist said...

Actually, there are two things I dislike about transparencies. First, The glare blindness from looking at the projector when I place the transparency, or when I need to write something else on it, makes it difficult to see my students/audience. Second, thee is not as much information available to peoples' eyes at any one time. When I have blackboards on three walls, if someone mentally loses track of the context, it is possible to scan the boards and find a hypothesis, definition, or whatever, and not become just hopelessly lost. Maybe this is more of a problem with mathematics than with other disciplines.

Clarissa said...

Transparencies also require the lights to be dimmed which means that students can't do anything else except stare at the transparencies. And then there is always somebody who can't see, and chairs begin to be moved, and all that eats up too much time.

Pagan Topologist said...

Don't those lighting problems also apply to PowerPoint presentations? In my experience, they do.

NancyP said...

For teachers needing to show images, PP is a godsend.

My major problem with technology is students paying more attention to their twitter feeds than to the subject.