St. Thomas University
Keynote Session (not "Address") for
the St. Mary's University
"Computer Technologies for Teaching" workshop
[draft text version; please do not quote without permission]
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 http://hoshi.cic.sfu.ca/calj/cjc/BackIssues/16.2/devon.html , 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:
We also have two other, very exciting, initiatives which you will hear all about during the workshop sessions. Briefly, though, the first is our technology project which, by next summer, will see every school in the province connected to the Internet and Schoolnet. (a May 1995 speech by Premier Frank McKenna to the Conference Board of Canada)
Technology is changing rapidly and so are classrooms. By June 1996, every school in the province will be connected to Internet, SchoolNet and each other, thanks to 22 million dollars in public and private sector funding. Students from kindergarten to Grade 12 are using computers to enhance their learning experience throughout the curriculum. (from the official "Education System Description")
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:
There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting programs -- music, art, physical education -- that enrich children's lives to make room for this dubious nostrum, and the Clinton Administration has embraced the goal of "computers in every classroom" with credulous and costly enthusiasm.
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):
Educators planning to introduce technology programs into their schools must also consider a number of practical matters in order for these programs to be successful. As Fulton puts it, technology requires that schools be willing to make substantial investments in time, resources, and support (1993, p. 3). On the most obvious level, for example, someone in the school must know how to install the equipment and keep it working properly. Further, as a 1990 study by the Center for Technology in Education (cited in Fulton, 1993) found, even when teachers are not skeptical about the appropriateness of educational technology and are willing to learn, they can take as much as five or six years to become sufficiently comfortable with computers to able to use them effectively in their classrooms. Schools must be able to invest in long-term inservice training, including both formal and informal training, as well as time for teachers to simply "mess around" with the computers.
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:
MAN SHOOTS PC
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):
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,
The changes are profound and the differences are consequential. Nearly weightless though it is, the word printed on a page is a thing. The configuration of impulses on a screen is not–it is a manifestation, an indeterminate entity both particle and wave, an ectoplasmic arrival and departure. The former occupies a position in space–on a page, in a book–and is verifiably there. The latter, once dematerialized, digitalized back into storage, into memory, cannot be said to exist in quite the same way. It has potential, not actual, locus. (Purists would insist that the coded bit, too, exists and can be found, but its location is not evident to the unassisted and uninstructed senses.) And although one could argue that the word, the passage, is present in the software memory as surely as it sits on page x, the fact is that we register a profound difference. One is outside and visible, the other "inside" and invisible.
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:
The dual function of print is the immobilization and preservation of language. To make a mark on a page is to gesture toward permanence; it is to make a choice from an array of expressive possibilities. In former days, the writer, en route to a product that could be edited, typeset, and more or less permanently imprinted on paper, wrestled incessantly with this primary attribute of the medium. If he wrote with pencil or pen, then he had to erase or scratch out his mistakes; if he typed, then he either had to retype or use some correcting tool. The path between impulse and inscription was made thornier by the knowledge that errors meant having to retrace steps and do more work. The writer was more likely to test the phrasing on the ear, to edit mentally before committing to the paper. The underlying momentum was toward the right, irrevocable expression.
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 stare at the textual field on my friend's screen and I am unpersuaded. Indeed, this glimpse of the future–if it is the future–has me clinging all the more tightly to my books, the very idea of them. If I ever took them for granted, I do no longer. I now see each one as a portable enclosure, a place I can repair to to release the private, unsocialized, dreaming self. A book is solitude, privacy; it is a way of holding the self apart from the crush of the outer world. Hypertext–at least the spirit of hypertext, which I see as the spirit of the times–promises to deliver me from this, to free me from the "liberating domination" of the author. It promises to spring me from the univocal linearity which is precisely the constraint that fills me with a sense of possibility as I read my way across fixed acres of print.
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 .