Saturday, May 17, 2014

An endorsement for low-tech learning

As a professor myself, I do think that there are times when technology is not simply a distraction, but a potential encumbrance for learning at a deep level, particularly with difficult topics related to race, class, gender, difference, white, middle class privilege and the like.  

Accordingly, I've very much seen computers used as a literal crutch for not engaging critical subject matter deeply.  Instead of joining the discussion, students "multi-task," answering emails and getting their other work done instead of personally engaging the hard questions.

Admittedly, however, not all subjects demand equally high levels of reflection even if all college classrooms require some.  All told, I think that Dr. Scott has a good point about how learning can get short shrift in certain classroom contexts.


An endorsement for low-tech learning

by Dr. Kyle Scott

Every year about this time I start revising my syllabus for the next year. Next year I will include a provision that keeps technology out of my classrooms. As a teacher I oppose the infiltration of screens into our classrooms, particularly liberal arts’ classrooms. I recognize the need for computers to do research and write reports, but I fail to grasp their relevance for teaching a Shakespearean sonnet, the structure of our federal government, or when the War of 1812 took place. Isaac Newton didn’t even have a calculator much less cloud computing when he invented calculus; surely our students can learn his invention without tablets and Power Point. Screens impede learning. The more technologically engaged students are in the classroom the worse is their performance in reading, writing, history, and arithmetic.

Students whose primary goal is to learn a trade should be given the opportunity to do so. Whether it’s welding, cleaning teeth or trading stocks; students who seek to learn a skill should be given the opportunity to do so and they should be trained on the machines and tools they will encounter in the field so they can be competitive in the job market. But this doesn’t mean a literature class has to be taught with every student on a laptop. There’s nothing wrong with books made of paper or students who take notes in a—gasp—notebook with a—gasp—pen! In fact, doing so proves to be less of a distraction and provides tactile and auditory reinforcement of the lesson in a way that computing does not. When using traditional note taking skills students are forced to engage the information more as it is being transmitted to them than when they merely point, click, drag and type. Students who read a text on-line do worse on an exam than those who read the same text through a traditional medium.
Tech-based classrooms are classrooms with more distractions as it is nearly impossible to keep students from moving between what they are supposed to be doing and outside activities.

Research has shown that some of these obstacles to learning can be overcome with the right amount of training. But these same studies also show that the best such training can do is raise technology based education to the level of traditional delivery methods which then begs the question: why go through all the time and expense to get right back to where you started?

Technology in classrooms, and as central components of the campus experience, hinders the learning process by transforming its very nature. Learning requires deep contemplation with a long period of gestation. Technology puts a premium on speed and completion.

Tocqueville wrote of America, “nothing is more necessary to the cultivation of the advanced sciences or of the elevated portion of the sciences than meditation” but importing technology—with its emphasis on speed and instrumentalism—into core competency classrooms we run the risk persuading students that deep meditation and careful consideration is unnecessary for mastering the humanities and sciences.

The proliferation of technology in the classroom is reflective of an educational enterprise that has embraced the commercial ethos thus transforming education into a service industry where students are customers and teachers are service providers. The effects on education are deleterious in that we seek to provide students with what they want rather than offering them guidance as to what they need for fear of losing them to a competitor. Within this ethos there is no incentive to challenge students but instead only offer them courses with enticing names and rooms filled with the latest gadgetry. Colleges and K-12 institutions market their technology advancement as a reason why their institution is good instead of marketing the quality of education. From a marketing standpoint taking pretty pictures of students working on computers, or touting how many computers there are on campus, is better than talking about academic rigor and having photos of students pouring of a dusty copy of Plato’s Republic.

By transforming students into customers we run the risk of violating the necessary connection that forms between teacher and student and transform the mission of education from one of a life of the mind into a life dedicated to the bottom line. In a commercialized educational enterprise we treat students and teachers as though their full value can be boiled down to a numerical score. “By raising and teaching the young as if they do not have souls, we’re producing souls that are flat or one-dimensional.” Just like the screens we are teaching them to hold so dear.

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