In the comments on the last post Owen suggests, and Kevin seconds, using student blogs leading into writing assignments to intercept plagiarism, while presumably adding the value of recursive drafting. I think this is a great idea, but as I said there I’m not sure that in my situation and for my purposes it isn’t a solution looking for a problem. But I could be wrong. I’m going to say some stuff I think about various pedagogical techniques and technologies, ‘bells and whistles’ as I sometimes call them when I’m feeling generous, ‘magic bullets’ when I’m not, but ultimately my aim is to participate in a discussion about which strategies and media might be good for what.
I don’t think Powerpoint or Blackboard or blogs or Ning sites are automatically good or bad things; they are tools that may or may not fit the job at hand. In general I agree with Diana Laurillard in her excellent Rethinking University Teaching: A Framework for the Effective Use of Educational Technology (1993) that “[e]very medium has its strengths, so they can help, but each needs to be complemented by a teacher-student dialogue, and that is ultimately labour-intensive” (178). I’ll admit to being a little on the extreme in thinking, as this sentence implies (and as Laurillard shows throughout), that the one essential feature of good, effective teaching is dialogue. And insofar as the bells and whistles are used to save or displace the intensive labor of dialogue, I think they are actively pernicious.
Because I think this, my classes are set up with the maximum of dialogue and the minimum of inculcation. I lecture very little and mostly just to show the students how to figure things out for themselves, after which they set to it. I do a lot of modeling, guiding and prompting; I elicit, mediate and referee. The basic process is a recursive spiral, much like meditative or martial arts training, in which we start with the basic skills of critical reading, analysis and synthesis and work through them over and over with new material and projects at increasing levels of facility. I consciously save my energy for the intensive reading and reacting that this process requires from me, and beyond the assigned course materials I expect the baby birds to go find their own worms, so I do very little or no ‘supplementing’. Here’s Laurillard again, from an interview:
And over the last century there were ideas from Piaget and Vygotsky and Bruner and Pask, and so on, and all the way through, no matter who your guru is, you can find somebody who’s saying something similar to that, that what it takes to learn is more than just being told. You’ve got to engage with it, you’ve got to have feedback, you’ve got to be trying to make it your own, you’ve got to be working with it, practising it, applying it in real life, getting feedback on what you do, arguing about it with others, negotiating ideas in all of those things; and I don’t think that changes, and no matter how good the technology is, what it takes to learn a difficult idea is much the same kind of thing, of grappling with it, reflecting on it, arguing about it, trying to apply it, trying again to do it better. That’s what learning means. So what we use the technology for is to find ways of making that better and easier. But it doesn’t change the cognitive task of what you have to do, not that much.
I have the privilege of not needing to use bells and whistles because my classes are small enough (the largest are capped at 25) to enable substantive dialogic process in facetime. There’s no need to lecture, old-school or with the Powerpoint magic bullet, because I’m not stuck with mooing cattle for students packed into the intellectual slaughterhouse of a large hall with seats bolted in rows facing the wisdom gun up front. And although I’ve found Michael Wesch’s work interesting and impressive, unlike him I’m not driven to the internet to compensate for the sociological monstrosity of overloaded classes in barbaric spaces. I can and do get my students in a circle, looking at each other.
There are some pretty spiffy ways the bells and whistles can save labor in the drudgeries of teaching and learning, however; this is where I find them the most promising. If I had a net-enabled projector in my classrooms (you may see here that my campus is so tech-disabled that part of what I’m doing is making virtue of necessity) I’d certainly use it to enlarge images for discussion, maps for orientation, and web resources for assessment. I assign an ethnographic field journal in most of my classes as a reflective record of the teaching/learning experience, and I’m pretty close to suggesting a blog as a way to do that (in fact, one student who was already a blogger did it that way recently on her own initiative). I really liked Wesch’s experiment with having students post executive summaries of divided reading assignments as a way to enable more well-informed and wide-ranging class discussions; I’ve done that sort of thing with handouts and/or oral reports, but depending on how much you want the process or the outcome of research to be the focus his way may gain in efficiency and elegance.
And of course software and web technologies can be fantastic tools for enabling access to practices, materials and conversations for students who would otherwise be excluded; to take notes and organize thoughts; or even just to find answers to questions that come up in class on the fly.
I guess this has turned out to look a bit like a luddite manifesto, but my mind really is not made up on this stuff. In what ways can the bells and whistles be more than bells and whistles? Where do they go from workarounds to enhancements? What’s really new about the new systems, as opposed to flashy new ways to do the same old crap? Is teaching to use these technologies effectively an end in itself, even part of schools’ core responsibility? If we can do these cool things, how stupid would it be not to? Thoughts?