One of the most contentious issues in pedagogy, at least in my experience, has been the proper use and place of technology–both in and outside of the classroom. Enthusiastic proselytizers of All Things EdTech argue that we should ALL be using these KILLER TOOLS to ENGAGE STUDENTS because DIGITAL NATIVES INTERACTIVE PEDAGOGY CONNECTED CLASSROOMS. On the other end of the spectrum is the anti-EdTech crowd that argues that all this emphasis on technology detracts from the Real Work of the Teacher, that it’s all smoke and mirrors that dilutes effective pedagogy (Full disclosure: I am a recovering Luddite, and made that argument repeatedly earlier in my career). Of course, these opposing ends of the spectrum eventually degenerate into self-caricature, but there is a rousing debate in between these two poles. Yet, it’s become a debate that generates more heat than light.
Using technology in our teaching–and doing so in an informed and intentional manner–enhances what we do. It helps students learn. It improves workflow and course activities. It has vast potential, in other words, to make us better teachers and our students better learners. No other teaching tool with this potential, however, has attracted as much criticism and resistance as educational technology (EdTech). Why? Some of the resistance to technology stems from fears regarding students’ use of tech in class: STUDENTS ARE TEXTING INSTEAD OF LISTENING TO ME! THEY’RE ON FACEBOOK, NOT THE TEXTBOOK! Other critics point to concerns that technological style can trump pedagogical substance. Still others argue that the learning curve involved adds to an already burdensome faculty workload, and detracts from prep time that might be more profitably spent elsewhere. All of these are, to some degree, at least, legitimate concerns. But I’d also argue that they are somewhat misplaced anxieties, and that many of the arguments I’ve encountered from EdTech resisters serve more as rationalizations for the status quo than as legitimate concerns over student learning. Let’s examine some of those greatest hits, and I’ll further explain my contention:
“Students will be too distracted if they’re able to use laptops/cellphones/tablets in my class.”
Maybe. But they might also use those devices to look up information, or to access course material that’s been posted online. I need to ask if I am creating space for students to use technology to their advantage, in a useful and productive way. The key here is to have specific expectations communicated to students about what is acceptable; pointing out that off-task web browsing distracts everyone around them, for example, helps to build in some accountability to their peers. I’ve found it very helpful to remember that distracted students are not a specifically technology-related issue. Seen in this light, the student staring out the window into deep space is the equivalent of the student checking their Twitter feed. The common denominator is distraction, and removing technology from the equation only addresses one of those students. I find it much better to ask myself why students are becoming distracted in the first place. Am I over-lecturing? Is their team-based activity too unstructured? Treating distraction as a larger pedagogical concern rather than a tech-spawned dilemma opens our eyes to better solutions. There will always be some distracted students–minimizing the incentive for distraction is the most successful way for getting at the problem.
“[Insert technology tool here] is just a fad; it’s style trumping substance.”
Sometimes this is true. Sometimes a tool gets sold as the cure to whatever ails your teaching, and we’re told that merely adopting it will turn our students into engaged/connected/active learners, just like all of the smiling, eager students that grace the front page of the school’s website.* But often, this reaction is a defense mechanism, automatically deployed when we really just want to avoid change. How do you know it’s style over substance if you haven’t used it? The key here is focusing on the “tool” part of “technological tool.” We have a whole range of pedagogical tools–lecture, discussion, group work, discussion boards, audio/visual materials, and more–at our disposal. Specific tools get us to specific outcomes. I wouldn’t use a hammer to remove a splinter from my finger. I wouldn’t use lecturing to get my students discussing the material. We make these judgments about tools and their appropriate uses ALL THE TIME. The same applies for our technological tools; if we think about it, we already have the skills and experience to ensure that technological style enhances pedagogical substance rather than trumping it.
“Technology works great when I test it, but craps out in class. I don’t trust it, so I won’t use it.”
Again, this one has a kernel of truth. “I was going to show the simulation, but the network was down/the computer froze/I didn’t realize the projector wasn’t on, so my class was ruined. That’s why I won’t use technology–you always need a Plan B!” But isn’t this also true for any pedagogical method or tool that we use? Sure, there are times when I’ve gone into class without a Plan B. In related news: there are also times when my class has sucked. We ALWAYS need a Plan B. Discussion fizzles out? Move to Plan B. Group exercise only takes half the time you thought it would? Move to Plan B. So there’s nothing new about needing a Plan B in our teaching. It’s the sine qua non of effective pedagogy.
So what about the contention that EdTech requires Plan B to be implemented more often than in other circumstances? In my experience, this happens not because networks are always down or technology is inherently unreliable, but because individual instructors haven’t prepared to use it well in class. We have methodologies to which we scrupulously adhere when it comes to fostering effective discussion or crafting excellent group exercises, for example, yet we expect to take a technology tool we’re barely familiar with up on the screen and have it work the first time. The key to effective use of technology is practice. Familiarity breeds comfort, and without that comfort, the first appearance of not-working-as-it-should causes instant panic. If you embed links in a PowerPoint to take you to a video clip in class, make sure you practice the presentation in your classroom and that the link works like it should. Using Prezi? Run through it before class to make sure the presentation material flows like you want it to, and that you’re adept at advancing through the content. If our EdTech doesn’t work right when we want it to, yet we haven’t prepared and practiced, that’s a failure of preparation, not of technology.
“How can I be expected to learn how to use this stuff? Sure, my students want me to use BlackBoard for assignments and grades [for example]. But I DON’T HAVE TIME TO LEARN THIS STUFF. I’M TOO BUSY.”
I get it. We all work hard.
But I want you to try this:
1. Imagine you assign your students a particular text that, though complicated, is crucial to your course.
2. Repeat the bolded lines above in whiiiiny student voices. I mean, whiiiinyyyy.
3. Think really hard and honestly about how you’d respond to that line of argument.
After that little exercise, try using that excuse about EdTech and see how it feels. Different, huh? It should.
Now, I’m not arguing that there’s absolutely no valid reason to avoid using technology; but I am arguing that the standard reasons we give don’t fit that category. How can we model to our students what it’s like to remain current in our field, or what it means to be an active scholar, or what it looks like to be a contributing citizen to our campus community, if we punt when it comes to learning new things that have actual, proven potential to improve our teaching? In my experience (again, remember: I used ALL of these excuses at one point), the effort is worth it. As long as the tools we can adopt-EdTech and otherwise-are authentic to our pedagogical styles, we should be giving serious consideration to their use. Not to do so is pedagogical malpractice. So abandon shaky excuses and rationalizations. Take the technology plunge. It’s worth it.
* And while I’m here, I’d like to declare a moratorium on the use of the words “disruption” or “disruptive” when it comes to EdTech. They’re tired cliches and do more harm than good. I don’t want my pedagogical work “disrupted,” I want it enhanced and supported. I get the concept behind the original use of the terms, but now they’ve become the go-to canard for every lazy blog post arguing for higher ed “reform,” and have thus lost any utility. So stop with the disruption, OK? OK. As you were.