Comments on NYT: New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology

Here is a clip from Samuel Freedman’s article in today’s NYT:

New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology – New York Times

The poor schoolmarm or master, required to provide a certain amount of value for your child’s entertainment dollar, now must compete with texting, instant-messaging, Facebook, eBay, YouTube, and other poxes on pedagogy.

“There are certain lines you shouldn’t cross,” the professor said. “If you start tolerating this stuff, it becomes the norm. The more you give, the more they take. These devices become an indisposable sort of thing for the students. And nothing should be indisposable. Multitasking is good, but I want them to do more tasking in my class.”

To which one can only say: Amen. And add: Too bad the good guy is going to lose.

This story troubles me on multiple levels. First, it argues against an approach that appeals to the least threatening form of technology use — the occasional cell phone ring, the small number of students who engage in chat or “facing” (the abbreviated form of “facebooking” that my students tell me is now the correct verb to use), or the multitasker who perhaps, after all, is able to multitask. Didn’t we used to yell at students for doodling in their notebooks, too? Then, we called that a “multiple learning style” and embraced it. Now, we yell at those who are engaged in online activities instead.

Second, it generalizes the technology use in a way that is not so simple. For instance, I actively invited my composition students to use the survey feature in Facebook in order to conduct primary research. We talked about multiple research methods — and the ethical considerations one must take when engaging in those methods — and why a survey on Facebook or Survey Monkey might be a useful tool. Had the professor mentioned in this article walked into my computer lab classroom last week and seen everyone on Facebook, he might have mistaken what they were doing as “off task” behavior when, in fact, they were engaged in designing surveys for primary research. One student reported that nearly 30 of her friends had completed the survey — before the end of our class period that day — 30 friends who were not classmates in our room, but others on Facebook who were able to answer her survey about linguistic diversity and the prevalance of Spanish in the USA. My students were, I argue, using a tool that they are familiar with to ask questions that matter. Not the typical Facebook survey fodder of “where are you going on spring break” or “what did you do last weekend,” but questions that can matter, if we teach them how to ask the right kinds of questions.

Third, it does not complicate ducation at all, rather showing how teaching and learning is a didactic model and technology interferes with that method. Are there times for direct instruction? Sure. And I teach directly at different points each day in my classes, especially when students ask for clarification or seek specific examples. Yet, I also integrate times for pairs and small groups to work together, for me to confer with students on their writing, and for large group discussions and activities. Some content (like the teaching of writing), lends itself better to that kind of interaction, while other classes do not; I realize this as a limitation (for full disclosure, I am fortunate enough to teach writing and writing methods classes that my department has fought hard to keep capped at 22 students each.) Yet, the technology is not the problem here; instead, we need to reexamine our model of education that, despite its best claims to the contrary, still values individualism, competition, and memorization over collaboration, synthesis, and action.

Finally, I point to Michael Wesch’s latest video: A Vision of Students Today. This video made its way into my classroom when some students showed it for their text analysis assignment. It generated a long discussion about education, privilege, technology, power, and the ways that we interact with one another (or not) in academic settings. In the context of a controversy about how video taping could and should be used on campus, it offered a different rhetorical approach for us to consider in how to use video to make an argument about our lived lives. For instance, students noted:

  • Like the students in the video, their lives are quite busy and complicated, making class one of many priorities (this is not to say that they didn’t want to learn, but that they wanted class to be engaging and relevant and that using online tools for collaboration can help that)
  • They often forget the privileges that they have such as laptops and the ability to be in class; thus, being reminded periodically about the power that comes from education — rather than being lectured at about why they should be paying attention — makes sense.
  • The way that students engage with professors (or not), means a great deal to them. One student said that I am the only one of his five professors that knows his name, thus supporting the statistic that was in the video.
  • The fact that the chalkboard was heralded as a technological godsend for education. And, 150 years later, it (or its digital counterpart, power point) is still one of the primary means of transmitting knowledge. We are not asking students to engage in collaboration and design of their own learning, despite having the tools to be able to do so.
  • The way in which the video was produced, as a collaboration between a professor and dozens of his students.

There was more to that conversation, and I wish that I had blogged about it sooner. Yet, this NYT piece required an immediate response and made me think about this more. As a professor and long-time educator, I am quite tired of hearing the counter argument offered by Professor Bugeja that “‘The idea that subject matter is boring is truly relative.'” While I agree that we are not here to entertain and that we want to stimulate the mind, I think that we, as the subject matter experts, have a responsibility to show students how the subject matter is relative. This is not entertainment. This is our job.

If we can utilize digital tools to do that, then would should. If we can’t, then that’s fine, too. But don’t ban them. In doing so, we are criticizing the students that we are trying to teach and the way that they interact with the world. If we want them to engage in critical thinking, dialogue, and debate, then banning their means of communication doesn’t make us better teachers.

It makes us hypocrites.

Let’s seek to engage our students rather than simply disconnecting them.

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Author: Troy Hicks

Dr. Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Educational Technology degree program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks has authored numerous books, articles, chapters, blog posts, and other resources broadly related to the teaching of literacy in our digital age. Follow him on Twitter: @hickstro

5 thoughts on “Comments on NYT: New Class(room) War: Teacher vs. Technology”

  1. Hi Leigh,

    Right — isn’t this an interesting approach for MSU and other academic institutions to take about “advancing knowledge and transforming lives?” Here is my post to the RCWP list serv about this very topic after two teachers sang the praises of Google Apps in their classrooms:

    I agree with Heather and Julie, this is worth the risk. The first line of Google’s disclaimer states:

    >”You [user] retain copyright and any other
    >rights you already hold in Content which you
    >submit, post or display on or through, the

    As far as I can tell, this is just the typical legal jargon, as Julie notes. Also, if you mark something as private, and don’t want it out on the “public” internet, I think that they would have to respect that in a legal sense.

    This brings up, yet again, the idea that we need to teach students how to download, create, remix, store, publish, and share digital writing in ethical and responsible ways.

    Anything that has my students begging to write would be something that, as a teacher, I would feel is an ethical and responsible use of technology for writing, especially if they understand their own copyright protection and better understand that of others’ copyright, too.

    Thanks for the comment and link, Leigh. I hope all is well with you.



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