First (Mis)Steps in Teaching with Technology

The first time I experimented with technologies (other than the podium, the printed text, and the chalkboard) in the classroom, I got mixed feedback. Given everything else that was on my plate then, as a rookie Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, I guess I must have stored that experience away in a somewhat unreflected form. Surely, it informed my subsequent attempts at doing similar things, but it wasn’t until recently, as I found myself trying to write something about the path that led to my current position, that I unpacked what I now see as the most important lesson of that experiment.

My pedagogical training as a graduate student, at Virginia Tech and at Emory in the late 1990s, hadn’t involved much work with digital technologies or much reflection on their possible pedagogical role. When I began to teach, it was still the early 2000s. Course management systems had taken off, but we hadn’t yet seen the rise of social networking, Web 2.0, smartphones, tablets, and wired classrooms. What we had seen and, as I soon found out, some students had already seen quite enough of (thank you, very much), was the move toward the colonization of the learning-world by one technology in particular: PowerPoint.

Now, in fairness to that tool–which, like many others, depends largely on its user for the expression of its latent virtues (and vices)–I, myself, and some of my otherwise very learned colleagues were clearly what you might call ‘hacks’ in relation to this technology. (Be careful not to confuse this term with the similar term ‘hackers’. In stark contrast to the hack, the hacker understands some technology and its use well enough not only to identify its strengths and weaknesses, but also to develop creative–if not always legal–ways of working around the intentions of its original designers and implementers. Hacks generally understand some technology only well enough to power it up and then proudly display their ignorance of all but one of its many functionalities).

I had no real business thinking I could simply change things up in the middle of the semester with a tool I had just begun to play with. However, in fairness to myself and my colleagues, the best of pedagogical intentions can often tempt a new instructor to do just that. Here is how it happened (or at least how I remember it happening) in my case.

Some of the students in the two-part course on History of Western Thought that I was teaching seemed to enjoy my conversational approach to the use of our class time. I learned, however, that others had a tendency to get somewhat lost and would have preferred to have a more clearly delineated structure for the day’s class meeting (or, lesson).

So, I experimented, first, with making my outlines and lecture notes available to students through the LMS. While there were some advantages to this approach, I quickly tired of response papers and essays that read strangely like they had been written in my own words.

Around the same time, I also happened to notice an increasing sensitivity to chalk dust, a relative inability to write legibly and speak conversationally at the same time, and an aversion to having my back turned to students whenever I was trying to emphasize an important point.

The thought that I might project a previously-prepared, well-organized, textual component that I could supplement with live narration (digression from and return to the main line of thinking, question and answer, and the occasional anecdote) presented itself to me as the single technological fix for all of my pedagogical problems. The clumsy execution of that thought, however, was experienced by some of my better students as a variation on the same old routine: come into the classroom, turn on the machine, and turn off the human. After a few trials, dimming the lights in the classroom began to strike me as roughly analogous to extinguishing the intellectual fire that my students and I needed to guide us through the material we were discussing.

I now think that what had excited my better students about reading the texts and coming to class had been that it was preparation for a live, interactive, group event that was unlike what they experienced in their other classes. When I asked them questions, I wasn’t just grilling them on facts I had charged them to digest. As strange and potentially off-putting as it could be for some, I was actually asking them to share something (with me and with their peers) about the way they read, process, and reflect on the texts and the ideas expressed in them. These were likely some of the most challenging texts they had ever been asked (or forced) to read and we were dealing with topics that have challenged thinkers for well over two thousand years. Sure, some of the students were totally at sea, but others were feeling more at home than they had ever felt in an academic setting.

I had been inviting them to reflect on the habitual ways they oriented themselves to the more narrowly focused routines that require so many bright students to check-out, put their noses down, and power through. At the same time, I was giving them a different orientation to large chunks of cultural history and working to animate whole bodies of thought that had existed for them previously only as lifeless remains (if they had existed for them at all). As I write this, nearly ten years later (and hopefully at least five years wiser), I’m struck by just how counter-purposive my initial forays into teaching with technology were.

The colossal failure was, of course, my own. I had somehow managed to forget almost everything that attracted me to the study of philosophy and that made me think I wanted to teach it.  I brought in the previously-prepared, well-organized, textual component to project on the wall, but I managed to forget to work in the other elements I had intended to include (the digression from and return to the main line of thinking, the question and answer, and the occasional anecdote). I was letting everyone, myself included, off the hook of being compelled to contribute to the live, interactive, group event that the classroom experience can be.

Technology has come a long way since then, but more importantly, so have I. My sense of how to balance things so that the best-prepared and the least-prepared alike can get what they need out of my classes continues to evolve, as it also continues to be one of my greatest concerns and most vexing challenges. I’ll share some more about my experiences in an upcoming post. For now, I’ll leave you with the following, not entirely original or deeply profound, suggestion:

No matter what tools you decide to reach for in your classroom preparation, when you get there, get them set up, and the students file in… don’t forget to teach!

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