You know, I always find it interesting how people like to talk up the idea of using technologies in the classroom to help students “learn in new ways.”
The fact of the matter is, learning in new ways is exactly what is making classrooms look increasingly obsolete. At least, classrooms as we know them today. Often enough, teachers seem to think so deep inside the box you sometimes wonder whether they even feel its cardboard walls anymore.
For example, the computer in the classroom. Very often when I see computers in classrooms, I see them used either as a portal for streaming online content — Youtube videos, for example, pertinent to class discussion — or for projecting powerpoint presentations onto the wall.
Powerpoint, of course, is really just a fancy kind of souped-up version of the overhead projector/slide show diagrams stuff we all (at least, those of us over 25-ish years old) remember from high school. When you’re using Powerpoint in a darkened room to illustrate this or that topic, you’re probably not really doing anything radically different than your own high school teacher did to your classes. Remember? The lights were out, the machine humming, the marker squeaking on the transparencies? In fact, in some ways, with markers and transparencies, at least you saw your teacher working through a problem in a way analogous to the way you were expected to do. He or she didn’t just push a button and have an answer pop into view.
Okay, okay, I use Powerpoint in my own classes, sometimes. I used it three or four times this semester in my Understanding Anglophone Popular Cultures course, for example. It was useful because so often, we were discussing things like iconography and the way character archetypes and genre were signaled by things like fashion, appearance, and architecture. Heck, I’m planning on turning an edited version of my powerpoint on the Korean monster-movie 괴물 (“The Host”) into a flash presentation because, besides being a useful learning experience in working with flash, I’d like to share my ideas on it. (I’m also planning on writing it up for some media studies resource or journal somewhere, at some point this summer.)
But I don’t have the illusion I’m doing anything all that different in the classroom than my teachers who slapped transparencies onto the overhead projector and asked us, for example, what we thought the deeper meanings of various images in advertisements were. This is not innovation: it’s just neater, tidier, more digital (and thus also easier to carry around, to edit, to update, and so on), and a little showier. Big deal!
The truth is, using technology to better students’ learning experience is probably most possible in areas that are, in fact, lie outside the classroom.
1. Facilitating Self-Teaching
Face it, the reason we have students read textbooks is because we always have done things that way. But eventually, professors will be telling students, “Download that book off Gutenberg,” or, “There’s a great Manybooks.net edition if you’re using .prc format,” or even, “For supplementary reading, I recommend subscribing to one of the books listed on my class website; daily email subscriptions are available at DailyLit for free [or cheap].” Textbooks have so long been the ultimate tool of self-teaching that we just take their primacy for granted, and a great deal of a sensible and useful education must necessarily be devoted to showing people how to make connections between books: construct hypertexts by putting texts together.
But the internet is a connections machine. The mother tongue of the Internet is hypertext. This means it’s very easy to send students off towards a bunch of resources and set them loose. Now, when you’re studying medicine or engineering, it’s much more important to be accessing certified and creditable resources, but when you’re acquiring a foreign language, or learning about a foreign culture, this is less of an issue. Barking up the wrong tree can sometimes be as much of a learning experience as a trawl through the classics.
Gone are the days when I tell students, “Well, you should buy this CD,” or “You should order this book from overseas, it’s really the best.” Now, I just make it as absurdly easy as possible for them to follow through on things. I tell them to subscribe to a podcast like (for example) This American Life and listen to it regularly. I tell them to go read at least five articles from the New York Times online (do you really need a link?) for free every day. My students complain about the prices of books, but they all have computers and MP3 players. They all have electricity and an Internet connection. If they don’t follow through, it’s a lack of motivation or interest. All the materials they could ever want for English study are out there, for free.
2. Facilitating Greater Self-Reflexivity
Getting students to think about what they’re doing is another important thing we can use technology for. When they’re not learning to evaluate their own learning, to gauge it and track it and think about it, the results can be frustrating. But it’s not too hard to facilitate this.
For example, I recently bought a micro-videocam. (For those interested, it was supposed to be one of these, but the vendor for Amazon was a pack of morons and they sent me this, and as it turned out, it was easier and less expensive to just keep it and grumble about incompetence.) Anyway, this morning I set up a tripod in my office and videorecorded all of their oral pair-discussion exams. Now they’re available for download on my classes website, along with a PDF students can use to organize their self-evaluation for me.
This was a little nerve-wracking for the students, of course; they knew I’d be recording the proceedings but I think they assumed it would be audio, not video, recording. However, I think next semester I’m going to make this a regular, maybe even a monthly, ritual. Getting them used to being recorded, listening to themselves, and react to how they have performed seems to me a big part of what I’ve been pushing to get them to do. It’s not glamourous. It’s not like anything magical-looking happens in the classroom. It actually ends up being an extra hour after an exam, spent uploading files and adding links to your website. Far from glamorous. But having them see and hear themselves speaking, having them evaluate their performance and set goals, that seems to me a very powerful motivator, and honestly, those who want to learn can get a lot out of hearing their own mistakes.
And of course, there’s the fact that I also sent them out into the world with the same technology. It’s amazing: the students from my previous university would all have moaned and complained that they didn’t have webcams or computers, but when I assigned students to interview a foreigner or two about racial stereotypes widely held in Korea about them (ie. asking Indians how they feel about the stereotypes Koreans typically have regarding Indians) and upload them to Youtube, there were a few who had trouble uploading the video, and a few who had trouble convincing people to sit down for an interview, but nobody said, “Teacher, I don’t have a videocamera!”
You will still encounter people who try this kind of thing, of course. I had a student who “took a job” in her last semester and missed six weeks of debate class. I told her to use this website (now offline? it was promising, damn it!) to debate, and she half-heartedly replied she didn’t have a webcam, would buy one, couldn’t she just debate in text, and so on, until the end of semester arrived and she’d done nothing. But you know, there always are people like that, and it’s especially common for students who get a job before graduating to expect no homework and a diploma on a silver platter. I bet if I’d made regular use of the U-debate site a part of the students’ final grade, the motivated individuals would have gone ahead and used it, perhaps grudgingly at first, and by the end would have reaped benefits far beyond what they’d imagined.
Another benefit of the Internet is how easy it can the drudge-work, the paperwork, and all the other administrative crap teachers end up wasting time on.
Take, for example, setting up a peer critique. In the old days, you would have to get a volunteer or make a schedule. Then you’d have to get the paper from the student at least two meetings in advance of the critique day, so you could photocopy it and hand it out one meeting in advance. (Assuming that allowed enough time, even.)
Now, you can just have them upload it somewhere, and email the class mailing list. You can even have students do the critique online, just by spending the five minutes to set up a shared classblog. (At least, it only takes five minutes once you know what you’re doing.) Personally, I prefer critique in-person, since students tend to try harder and perform better, but online crit is a possibility.
Handouts are a snap. You save the file as a PDF (using one of the wordprocessors that does this natively, like Abiword or OpenOffice) and upload it, and tell people download it from the class website (or email the class listserv with a link)! That’s it.
I’m even experimenting with peer-grading using software. Well, okay, planning on experimenting. What I tried earlier this semester didn’t quite work out, but I think it’s only a matter of time till I find a workable solution. This, of course, is my holy grail of administrative load relief, since I think grading is the single biggest timewaster in education.
Still in the Box
Of course, all of the above is still very much conservative, still very much inside the box. These are the kinds of tricks that are already in a number of teachers’ back pockets. EFL Geek has told me that he also uploads handouts, for example, and Michael at Scribblings of the Metropolitician has been using podcasting as a way of adding to the wealth of EFL-friendly listening material online.
But everything I describe here is very much doable without deep investment. I spent about $40 US a year on webhosting services for my teaching site — mainly because my main blog doesn’t allow me to host multiple separate sites on one account — and the MP3 voice-recorder and video camera I use total up to about $300 total, or, now, even less. Even if you could my computer, it’s probably only a little over $2000 for teaching equipment that will last for several years in top condition.
The next generation of students? All this will be their natural language, all this and more. (Actually, I think this will be to them like “lisp” or “BASIC” is to those of us who know what lisp and BASIC were. So far in the background or foundation of their natural language that if that’s all we grasp, we’re going to look very, very silly.) If teachers are going to find a way to be relevant to those students-to-come, it’s going to have to be through inventive use of these kinds of technologies in ways that actually facilitate the learning that goes on outside the classroom. This will make both students and teachers alike happier campers.
Teachers-to-be of the future would do well to read a novel like Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End (free HTML edition of the novel at that link) or, from what I’ve heard, Halting State by Charles Stross. (It’s on my list but I have a few other things by Stross to get to first.)
Of course, there are other ways to get your students interested in class, and getting them eager to win your approval… the video embedded below won’t show up on LJ, so here’s a link instead. But I find this routine doesn’t work well for me at the moment. Perhaps if I hit the gym for a while? Er… a long while?