Teaching and Technology: The Rise of the Machines

I’m not an especially big fan of TV, and there are only a handful of shows I watch on a regular basis.  One is the original “Law & Order,” which I enjoy because it’s very story-driven.  One of my new favorites is “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” based on the film franchise in which a homicidal computer system uses cyborg assassins to carry out its plan to destroy mankind with nuclear weapons.  I have yet to miss an episode.  Three aspects of this show particularly appeal to me.  One is the fact that I love the original movies.  Another is Summer Glau, the highly attractive young lady who plays a re-programmed cyborg working for the human resistance.  Third, the dominant machine theme resonates with a dilemma facing those of us teaching in college classrooms nowadays.

When I started teaching college courses, the only gizmos I used were a dry-erase marker and an overhead projector for the occasional map or photograph.  It was a flexible system that worked pretty well.

Later I attended a faculty conference in which an outside speaker assured us that our students had the attention spans of small terriers, and that if we wanted them to understand and relate to the material, we had flipping well better start talking to them on their level.  (I should have been more skeptical when the sound unexpectedly kicked in during his PowerPoint presentation, scaring the living daylights out of his audience and causing him to leap two feet into the air.)  So when I had one class that was struggling with a survey course, I started creating PowerPoint presentations for each session, which I projected on a screen during class and posted before each meeting on a course website.  My lectures, bound as they now were to bulleted lists and images, became disjointed and shallow, a recitation of Greatest Hits of World Civilization since 1500.  The students, meanwhile, stopped assimilating the material into good, thorough notes.  Some of their grades actually got worse.

Now that I’m back in the classroom, I’m faced with the technology dilemma again.  Here are the conclusions I’ve arrived at so far:

1) I’m not at all opposed to having classrooms loaded with instructional aids.  Far from it.  The more in each room, the easier our jobs become.  There are times when pictures, maps, film clips, and sound not only enhance a lecture, but are necessary in order to fully grasp the material.  If the best way to incorporate these elements is to embed them into a PowerPoint slide, then so be it.  If classrooms offer us the flexibility to choose between a computer port, a document camera, and an old-fashioned marker board, then so much the better.  The content should determine the medium, not the other way around.  The more options instructors have available, the more effective they’ll be in the classroom.

2) The biggest obstacle to utilizing technology in the classroom is generally not the instructor, but the classroom itself.  We’ll gladly use what’s provided, but lugging your own projector to every class and hooking it up gets a little old.  The fact that facilities sometimes differ across the same campus makes the problem even more vexing.  What do you do when one of your classes is in the glorious new building equipped with screens and computer ports, but your other class meets in the antiquated building across campus?  Do you take it when you can get it, or do you try to keep your classes consistent?  It’s extremely difficult to prepare for your classes when each one requires a different methodology: PowerPoint for your Monday class in the new building, handouts for your Tuesday class in the old building, etc.

3) I believe we should all think twice before converting our lectures into PowerPoint presentations just because it’s the hip thing to do.  Some material is very ill-suited to the cookie-cutter, headline, bulleted list format of a computer slideshow.  History, for example, is complex, subtle, and interpretive.  I lecture from an outline that I keep before me on a lectern, but any student who simply copied that outline would be no more prepared for an exam than a visitor to a stadium would be prepared to relate the ebb and flow of a baseball game simply by copying the numbers off the scoreboard.

4) As instructors, we owe our students the most comprehensive, clear, and effective presentations we can prepare.  We don’t owe them fifteen weeks of non-stop entertainment.  We should keep their interest and stimulate them, but at the end of the day, learning takes work.  One of the purposes of a college education is learning how to think.  It takes a well-rounded, well-informed individual to function as an adult in the real world.

So-called “smart classrooms” are wonderful.  Let’s use them wisely, lest our smart classrooms churn out dumber and dumber college graduates.

(The nifty photo is from the Terminator Wiki.)


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