Think you teach without technology?

I’m trying to get my head around the notion of technology-focused versus non-technology-focused teaching.  I’m not sure this is a useful distinction.  I have heard faculty say, “Oh, I don’t teach with technology!”  Or, “You’re too focused on teaching with technology.”  What does ‘teaching with technology’ mean?

If you use your institution’s course/learning management system, is that teaching with technology?  What about if you put your course syllabus on a webpage?  What about if you use PowerPoint when you lecture?  What about if you use an overhead projector?  What about if you use a blackboard (the slate version) and chalk?

I just finished reading W. Brian Arthur’s The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves (H.T. to Gardner).  According to Arthur, all of the examples in the previous paragraph are teaching with technology.   Technology, properly understood, is everything that is known about the process of teaching.  The word comes from the Greek techne for “craft or knowing in action.”  By this definition, it’s simply not possible to teach without technology.  This, I believe.

I suspect that when someone says “I don’t teach with technology,” what they mean is they don’t teach with computers, network-based tools, or the internet, as if those are foreign to their existence.  Can you teach well without these tools?  Of course, just as you can teach well with them.  Network-based tools are not a silver bullet.  They don’t work well for every course in every context, any more than discussion works well or lecture works well for every course in every context.   So where am I going with this?

Technology, any technology, can’t be an add-on to one’s course.  Let me loosely quote Arthur replacing mention of the word ‘economy’ with the word ‘course’.

The course is not a container for its technologies, but something constructed from its technologies.  The course is a set of activities and behaviors mediated by—draped over—its technologies.  It follows that the methods and processes form the course.  The course is an expression of its technologies. … The course forms an ecology for its technologies, it forms out of them, and this means they don’t exist separately.

In short, it doesn’t make sense to take an existing course, and then add a drop of technology to it, e.g. “How do I add blogging to my course?”  That, quite simply, is the wrong question.

The right question is about course design.  Course design means choosing technologies from technology.  The choices one makes about technologies define/structure the course environment.

In my view, students learn when they interact with course content, with the instructor and with other students.  The way these interactions occur in a course is determined by the technology choices made by the instructor.  Sometimes I think that faculty confuse the pedagogical approach with the tools or medium they use to implement that approach:

  • Course texts can be read in print, in printed pdf form, online, or in e-Readers, like the Kindle,  the Nook, or the iPad.
  • Writing can be done on paper, on a computer with word-processing software, on a blog.
  • Discussion can be done face-to-face, synchronously in a chat room, or asynchronously using a discussion board or other media.
  • Lecture can be done face-to-face in a large lecture hall, or in a small classroom.  It can also be streamed online or saved for later viewing as an audio or video capture.

Each of these options has pluses and minuses.  None of them are perfect in all contexts.

Clearly the physical characteristics of the course (e.g the classroom and number of students) constrain what the teacher can do, but I suspect that too often faculty take some of those choices as given.  If so, then a primary reason for course design is to make explicit, decisions about teaching that are otherwise implicit.  Good course design starts from one’s learning objectives:  What are you trying to accomplish with a course?  What do you want students to learn or to be able to do by the end of the term?  From all the ways of getting there, what subset of pedagogies, tools & technologies should you select in designing the course environment?  These are the real choices.  Sometimes ‘traditional’ pedagogies are the most effective.  Sometimes ‘network-based’ pedagogies are the best.  Sometimes, a combination is best.  Good course design considers all the possibilities.

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2 Responses to Think you teach without technology?

  1. Joshua Kim says:

    “Good course design considers all the possibilities.”

    Steve…great post – and thanks for the book recommendation!

    You are of course right on the money in what you are arguing. Where I wonder most about course design is in the area that you know the most about – incentives.

    We can have the best course design methods, the most advanced platforms and tools – but if we don’t have P&T incentives for course design then we will not see it diffused. Resources are key – today’s courses require more inputs. But resources can’t overcome basic structures.

    I’d be curious to hear how you would balance the traditional and important benefits of scholarship and academic freedom with figuring out some incentive structure for faculty to build in course design (and whatever technologies that will follow) into their work?

    Again…great post.

  2. Pingback: Response to Josh Kim at Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

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