Using Technology in Classrooms

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.

Powerpoint Baby!

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 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.

Books Matter to this Chinese Teacher

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.

Yes, Indeed, Frustrating

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.

3. Administration

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.

Here, I’ll Just Upload That Self-Evaluation Form Now!

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.

He Looks Happy, Doesn’t He?

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?

17 thoughts on “Using Technology in Classrooms

  1. Boy do I hear you about the OHP thing. When I started teaching translation this semester, I was faced with the question of how exactly to go about doing this. Every classroom is equipped with a computer and a projector screen, so what most of the profs do is pull up files of student translations and then correct them on screen. One of my colleagues didn’t like this because it only allows one possibility at a time (once you correct something, it’s corrected), so he uses an OHP and markers. I liked the idea of an OHP, but didn’t want to deal with the hassle. So I went out and bought a tablet to, in effect, reinvent the wheel–just flashier.

    Manythanks for the Manybooks link, too! That looks great!

  2. Tablet as in Tablet PC? I’ve been thinking how useful one of those would have been in some of my classes. Instead of having to deal with the crappy Windows system installed in all the PCS on campus, I could just plug my own tablet into the ovehead projector fo all kinds of purposes, from movies to editing, modeling proofreading, and so on.

    Manybooks is indeed great. Especially if you are in the habit of using .prc format, which is what my ebook reader handles best. (I’m kind of thinking I should have gone with a different, bigger reader that has a touchscreen, so I could take notes on PDFs and so on, but that’s another post.)

  3. Move to the USA! After years of listening to smug, self-satisfied Canuckistani poseurs blather on about how progressive they are, I’m actually living in a country where a woman and a person of color are mounting serious bids to become the leader of the free world. How many years do you think it will take for a First Nations person or a woman to accomplish the same thing in Canada? I’m not going to hold my breath waiting;)

  4. Sorry, wrong section, but I did like your technology in the classroom post. I never got much more sophisticated than a DVD player and photocopies myself. I think you are on the right track – using The New York Times and This American Life as resources. If you don’t enjoy reading, listening, or watching the material that you use in the classroom, your students won’t enjoy it either.

  5. Heh, shall I delete the erroneous post and the first line of the correction one for you?

    Yeah, this is why I’m so excited to be teaching “drama” next semester — they’re planning, scripting, and shooting their own WebTV miniseries in that class, and we’ll show the highlights, or a trailer for a screening, at the department variety night. Should be loads of fun, especially since it all has to be completely public domain stuff they use. (They can do anything from their own story, to a Korean fairy tale retold in English and the modern day, to one of those “traditional drama” shows set during some dynasty in the past, with costumes and all, but all in English — it’s up to each group to do their thing, but they have to do it weekly.)

    And I have a class that will be producing a graphic novel in English, too. I’m really pushing for having them do creative things, using the English to make stuff and then put it out into the world.

    And the dividends… when one of my students got a comment on a trailer remix she uploaded to Youtube, she was so proud and happy. Rightly so, her trailer was brilliant.

    (And I’ve ordered “This American Life’s” DVD set, season 1, for use in my Listening & Speaking Class next semester. Why not have them hear how real people talk, especially when they’re talking about real things? I think one homework unit will be everyone making an “episode” of their own for a webseries titled, “This Korean Life.”)

    Lots of cool stuff going on, anyway. And of course it’s probably my last semester at this uni. Ah well.

  6. Mark, Kim Campbell was briefly Prime Minister in 1993. The native population makes up about 3.3% of the population. There have been five prime ministers in Canada since 1984 (which includes two who briefly held the position). I assume it will take quite awhile for a Native American to be elected. OTOH, Canada has a territory for the Inuit to pretty much run things themselves.

  7. Tablet as in… um, a tablet? You know, a Wacom drawing tablet. I wasn’t aware that they called them anything else, but what do I know? Anyway, I just hook it up to the computer via USB and I’m good to go.

    OK, let’s see if I can be more helpful… the exact model I have is here:

    I’m pretty happy with it. When I’m not using it for class, it’s fun to play around with it as a drawing tool, despite the fact that I can’t draw to save my soul.

    (Looking at the specs, it doesn’t seem that it works with the rebellion… I mean Linux.)

  8. Charles,
    I’m actually going to be buying a tablet computer where you can draw right on the screen, which folds over the keyboard so you can carry it around like a tablet.

  9. Charles,

    Ah. Yeah, there are Tablet PCs too, I get all dreamy-eyed when I see one. The screen has a touchscreen function and you can draw on it like with a tablet.

    Though I too don’t draw well (anymore — I was pretty good in middle school, though) I would love to have a tool to noodle on. Wouldn’t mind redeveloping my sketching ability, really.

    I’m sure it would world with Linux. Lots of stuff just doesn’t mention it. (All my hardware is like that.)

    EFL Geek,

    I’d prefer you link it, as I’m not into guest blogging, really. Go ahead and excerpt a chunk if you like. Not all of it, but a chunk.

  10. Yeah, for some reason my ISP’s server doesn’t really catch trackback links all that well, though I see the blips on the dashboard from Technorati. Should try sort that out, really.

    Oooh, tablet computer. Oooh. How much is it setting you back? I’ll be considering one if I end up doing much research in the next few years. PDFs are readable on a sideways screen, and it beats buying a(nother) dedicated ebook reader.

  11. Tablet PCs look… dangerous. Dangerous as in, “dangerously tempting.” Although I don’t know about the lack of a keyboard. My handwriting sucks, and I’m a big typer.

  12. Charles,
    there is a keyboard, when using in tablet mode the screen folds over the keyboard and if you really wanted to you could get an exteral rubber roll-up keyboard as well. That’s what I plan to do when I can afford to get an 8″ laptop.

  13. Yeah, I would never get one sans keyboard. I just like that you can fold it out of the way. (And,importantly, rotate the view for reading PDFs by the full page by holding the computer sideways, in rotated form of course.)

    But the roll-up keyboards, I don’t know. I have tried one and didn’t like it much. I’d prefer something a little more solid, but which, say, folds in half.

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