Russ Hunt
St. Thomas University

Rose-Coloured Glasses vs. Skepticals:

Exploring the Role of Computer Technology in Learning and Teaching

Keynote Session (not "Address") for the St. Mary's University
"Computer Technologies for Teaching" workshop

25 August 1997

[draft text version; please do not quote without permission]

Opening note:

I have rather a lot to say about the role of computer technology in learning and teaching, but I'm constantly aware of a line I used to have on a little card on my office door: "I know I taught it because I heard myself say it." I'd been teaching for a decade before it became really clear to me that I'd been spending most of my time as a teacher answering questions no one had asked . . . and in that situation, almost no one hears the answers. What I want to do here this morning is to make sure, as far as I can, that I'm answering questions that really are being asked.

I recently ran across a phrase from inventory management: "just in time supply," I think it was. The idea is that you don't want to have what you need an instant before you need it: if you're constructing a building you don't want the conduit to be onsite until the moment the electrician reaches for it. Easier said than done, obviously -- and you sure don't want the conduit to arrive a few days late. But in teaching, it seems to me that's a powerful slogan: "Just in Time Teaching." What we want to create is a situation where the answer to a student's question arrives just as she asks it -- not before, because if you haven't formulated the question you're not ready to understand the answer. And preferably not after, either, though in this case after is probably preferable: questions do tend to persist.

Equally important, I bear in mind that I'm not the only one who can answer questions. My wife, who works with in-service teachers, has a view of faculty development which says that because teachers work alone so much what they mostly need is a situation which supports them in talking with each other about teaching and learning. I'm going to try to create some of that support this morning, too.

Thinking about technology in teaching: hype, debunking, and reality

A few years ago I was involved in organizing a workshop for teachers on our campus. The workshop was to be given by Linc. Fisch, a "faculty development" professional from Kentucky, and the evening before the workshop he and I went over to look at the room that had been reserved for the day. We found ourselves in a steeply raked auditorium, with comfortable chairs (I’d been assured, as I remember, that they were "rated at four hours"), fixed behind semicircular ranks of writing surfaces, and a spectacular array of electronic gear and AV equipment: video projectors, computer screens projectors, monitors hung from the ceiling, an array of sliding and concealable whiteboards, and so forth. Linc. looked around disconsolately. "If I wanted to put people in groups of three or four to talk about things," he said, "how the heck would they do it?" He paused. "I wonder how much it would cost to get someone to build a low-tech classroom."

Have you heard nearly all the hype you can stand about computers and the Internet? Listened once too often to someone enthusing about how they're revolutionizing education and transforming our lives? Do you remember how television was going to do that? Do you even remember, perhaps, TELIDON , the Canadian government computer-network-in-every-home initiative that was going to change our lives, but turned out to be exactly the dinosaur it seemed to be named after? You probably don't remember, but might have seen it quoted in a recent Atlantic Monthly, that Thomas Edison predicted in 1922 that the motion picture would not only revolutionize education, but would supplant the use of textbooks.

Here's Bill Gates, quoted on the website for his recent, celebrated book The Road Ahead:

Ultimately the interactive network isn't for my future generations. The kids who have grown up with PCs in the last decade, and the kids who will grow up with the network in the next, will push the technology to its limits

Here are some comfortable words from the New Brunswick government:

On the other hand, there are also people out there who seem to have their skepticals on.

Here, for instance, is Nicholas Negroponte, on the Being Digital website.

As we move more toward such a digital world, an entire sector of the population will be or feel disenfranchised. When a fifty-year-old steelworker loses his job, unlike his twenty-five-year-old son, he may have no digital resilience at all. . . . Bits are not edible; in that sense they cannot stop hunger. Computers are not moral; they cannot resolve complex issues like the rights to life and to death.

Not only that, their triumph is inevitable.

But being digital, nevertheless, does give much cause for optimism. Like a force of nature, the digital age cannot be denied or stopped. It has four very powerful qualities that will result in its ultimate triumph: decentralizing, globalizing, harmonizing, and empowering.

Here's a bit from a lecture given last year in Oswego, New York, by Clifford Stoll, Author of Silicon Snake Oil, as transcribed by Louis Boncek. Jr.(you can get Boncek's report here):

The INTERNET Highway...The INFORMATION Highway..... No! Actually, I'm worried about classrooms. Is it important to have computers in the classroom? I think not! I think the MOST important... er, the two most important things about classrooms are: to have a Committed Teacher AND a Motivated Student. And...anything in between the two probably isn't too good for the learning experience.

Think back to the development of technology in the classroom in your time. Filmstrips and films. They were to bring reality right to you. Make events meaningful. But....Minds need to be stretched.

Teachers love filmstrips, because for 45 minutes they don't have to teach. Students love them so they can nap. Principals love them because they can point to a film projector and show off to the board of education how technologically advanced their school is. But, how much learning was taking place?

Will someone please name for me ONE outstanding filmstrip you remember?

No one? How about one outstanding teacher you've had?

In a recent magazine article, "The Computer Delusion," Atlantic Monthly, July, Todd Oppenheimer summarizes some reasons to be skeptical about the role of computers in education:

As a digest report available on the ERIC database points out, there are problems that go way beyond simply making the technology available, either to students or to their teachers (us):

And time to mess around doesn't always result in miraculous leaps of learning and understanding. Here's a story from the EDUPAGE list, last July:


An Issaquah, Wash., man apparently became frustrated with his personal computer, pulled out a gun and shot it. The computer, located in the man's home office, had four bullets holes in its hard drive and one in the monitor. Police evacuated the man's townhouse complex, contacted the irate PC owner by phone, and persuaded him to come out. "We don't know if it wouldn't boot up or what," says one of the police officers at the scene. (St. Petersburg Times 20 Jul 97; quoted in Edupage, 20 July 1997)

But wait a second before we throw all this bathwater out; let's check: there just might be a baby there, in spite of all the circumstantial evidence to the contrary.

Even if your experience of computers in the classroom suggests that (a) they don't work, that (b) they're not readily available when they do work, and that (c) when they do work they really don't amount to much more than a textbook that moves, you may wonder if there may not be some things we're all missing. Even though the movies and television, after all, didn't transform our teaching, the VCR has certainly changed the ways we present information -- and even TELIDON had consequences for the development of the World Wide Web.

What I’d like to begin by doing is getting everyone here to think about her own, and a few other people’s in the room’s, experiences with computers and anything whatever to do with teaching. You may have used computers to plan courses, to produce syllabi, to compose and print assignments. You may have used the network to send documents to the printer. You may have used email to communicate with students. You may have used the World Wide Web to find course materials. You might have used a graphics program to prepare display material for teaching , and possibly even as a display mechanism itself. You may have gone further and invited or even required students to use the computer -- as a word processor to write their papers; as a research tool in the library or on the Internet; as a communication device (for instance, through electronic mail), with you or with each other. You may have used it in ways I haven’t listed here, and perhaps never even thought of.

To promote thinking about, and sharing, people’s experiences, here’s what I propose (and this is not, I promise you, the kind of short, pointless "writing exercise" workshop leaders often conduct -- we’re going to allow enough time for people -- and me -- to learn from this):

  1. Take a few minutes to think about your most, and least, successful uses of computers in teaching. Choose one that you think you learned something from. Take ten minutes to write a description of what happened -- what you did, how it felt, what the problems are, what lessons you learned. Take your time. We’re going to share these around, but we’re going to treat them the same way we treat talk, simply taking what they say, or try to say, at face value. So you should write legibly, but don’t worry about organization, mechanics, elegance of phrasing, etc: we’re going to ignore all that stuff.
  2. Now we'll take another ten or fifteen minutes for people to read what other people said. Set up groups so that everyone has a chance to read what four or five other people wrote. As you read, mark interesting, challenging, or otherwise striking passages by drawing a vertical line in the margin next to them; when you agree that a passage already marked is notable or remarkable, draw an additional line. When you’ve finished with each, at the bottom, add at least one question (more if you have more). The questions might be a request for elaboration, or clarification, or a test of what was meant -- "do you mean to say that . . . ?" -- or a verification of intention --"do you mean to imply that . . . ?" These questions are going to be read by the writer, and should help her clarify what she’s saying (after all, this writing is very unplanned and tentative, so we expect that it’ll be incomplete or unclear in some ways). Ask only questions to which you’d genuinely like to see an answer, and question which you think the writer might answer (in other words, no rhetorical questions, no evaluations).
  3. Get your own text back. Take a few minutes to read it, and the questions it provoked, over. Take another few minutes to respond to any questions you think particularly worth responding to -- in writing, added to the accumulating text.
  4. Exchange texts again, and read as many of the responses to your questions as you can find. As a group, decide on one or two issues that came up that you think everybody in the room might be interested to know about, and decide on one person inyour group to describe it to the rest of us.

At this point we’ll go around the room and I’ll try to see what patterns I can find in what we’re hearing. We’ll spend some time identifying issues that need to be addressed, either by me right now or by somebody else in the course of the next few days of this workshop.

OK, let’s talk about what just happened. Among the issues I’d predict might come up are the following:

The questions I want to focus on are what computers and networks actually do afford teachers, and also what constraints apply in thinking about moving to models of instruction that require effective access -- on the part of teaching and students both -- to the technology.

Finally, in this first session, I want to raise a question: are these things pictures (are they images of information, like textbooks), or mirrors (do we really see only ourselves in them), or perhaps -- perish the thought -- "windows," through which we can see the world, interact with other people: in fact, learn through social relations in the same way as the student in the classical ideal school did? (That ideal was, of course, a log with a student on one end and a teacher on the other.)


Session two: Text in teaching and learning (electronic and otherwise)

It's often remarked that the media are killing our ability to deal with visible language -- with "print," with books and texts. One of the most passionate statements of this view is that of Sven Birkerts' The Gutenberg Elegies, a nostalgic lament for the ways of reading (and thinking, and living) which he sees as being irrevocably dislodged by the technologies of the media -- predominantly the computer, and especially hypertext. He says, among other eloquent things,

So what really are the drastic differences between print on paper, bound in a volume, and print in a database displayed on a screen? Sven Birkerts thinks about this a great deal in his book. Here's an example, from among many:

Here's the beginning of some thinking about the relationships between these two technologies for dealing with combinations of letters.

Characteristics unique to written or printed text
(and in a paper context)
Characteristics common to both Characteristics unique to electronic texts
(and in an electronic context)
Permanent: it stays the same unless consciously and deliberately altered Basically linear; one dimensional (one thing after another, left to right) It flows; can be tracelessly edited or moved
The technology for producing and distributing it is complex and expensive How you understand depends on what you bring to the text You can't take it to bed with you, or read in the bathroom
Reading tends to be a leisurely experience, to take substantial chunks of time It's easy to distribute to others, to communicate at a distance Reading tends to happen in small chunks, a screenful at a time

I'd like you to take a few minutes to think about other differences, drawing on your own experience with both and thinking freely about them. I'd like you to first write them down. We'll take ten minutes; think of as many as you can.

Now let's share what you've written around a group. As you read what other people wrote, see if they trigger new ideas, ones you hadn't thought of, or refinements of ones you had thought of. As you go, jot them down -- on any of the sheets; this isn't about "ownership of text" and "intellectual property." Finally, take a few minutes to talk about them as a group, and see which one or two items strike you as most important, or most surprising. We'll do a round of the groups and see what people have come up with.

Birkerts also voices a commitment which I think many of us academics share, a commitment to the kinds of reading which changed our lives and which, we continued to hope, might change the lives of our students.

I share a good deal of that nostalgia; further, I share a great deal of Birkerts' belief that it is reading and writing which most powerfully define us as thinking beings. I differ with him when he says that the computer's unavoidable tendency is to produce people who can't read more than a screenful at a time, who can't follow a thought for longer than a 45-second commercial, who, given a choice, will see the film rather than read the book. I think, as a teacher, my primary function is to help students become more skillful, habitual, fluent and engaged users of written text. I think that's what being an intellectual is.

I spent a good deal of time in the eighties and early nineties participating in studies of what people are doing when they read extended texts with engagement and attention. One of the things my colleague Doug Vipond and I discovered is that the real situation the reader's in matters more than most people were prepared to consider: perhaps more important, we established for ourselves that really engaged and fluent reading is characterized by an increasingly long arc of attention. Ars longa, vita brevis, and why have I got such a short little span of attention, when the rest of my life is so long?

And I'm not convinced yet that the computer -- like the video, and like xerography, and even like the filmstrip -- can't help me in that endeavour.

Using electronic text for learning and teaching

Here are some of the ways in which I've been trying to help my students become readers (in Birkerts' sense of the word, but in mine, too).

I won't have time to explore all of these strategies in any detail here. My aim is really to try to introduce a range of possibilities that you may not have thought of, and make it possible for you to pursue them in greater detail if you're interested (and to continue to talk about them with me, if you're interested in that). If you are, you can get to the continuation of the session on a HyperNews forum, similar to the one I set up for the eighteenth century class, by clicking here .

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