Friday, September 30, 2011

Patience -- don't be a technodefeatist

This summer Steven Corbett wrote a great piece in Inside Higher Ed about technology and teaching titled, appropriately enough, "Technology and Teaching." Corbett, a tech savvy teacher who says he was a "late bloomer" in using digital tools, describes "The Ups" and "Potential Downs" of using teaching technologies. Reading this, I thought again that despite the views of extremists on both sides, the obvious center ground is that there are good reasons to use technology in your classes -- and there are reasons not to.

Corbett recommends that teachers be patient learning/implementing new technologies. Good advice, and I would add that no digital teaching technology I have ever used was so convoluted that the smart teachers I know couldn't use it. Period. Indeed, be patient, because the "faculty resistance to teaching with technology" Corbett describes I think often emanates from psychological barriers people create. This is not so much technophobia as technodefeatism: the tendency to view digital technology applications as a series of barriers; when users reach one of these barriers, in a type of self-fulfilling prophecy, they throw up their hands in despair.

Digital technology seems to occupy a particular niche in our teaching mindset. Most teachers are innovative: They regularly try new teaching methods, incorporate new texts, or create different assignments for their courses. When they make these changes, they invariably end up with some teaching challenges as a result. A new method, text, or assignment creates responses from students and raises questions about course material that you cannot anticipate. Sometimes they even create issues in the overarching structure of the course.

So why make changes, especially if we like our curriculum? Again, most teachers alter their approaches because that's their nature. They try something new in the hope it will stimulate their students' learning and thinking in different ways. Those broad goals are well worth any obstacle encountered along the way.

Why don't we adopt the same approach/frame with new technology? Introduce a new technology because you believe that it can help you achieve your teaching and learning goals more effectively. I mean, believe that. If you don't (and you're not being forced to incorporate digital technologies into your classes, which is a different, and sadder and more frustrating, story that I won't pursue now), then the answer is simple: Don't use the technology.

If you look at a digital tool as an added burden, a dark, spooky cave full of glitchy goblins, then wait until you're so enthusiastic about the prospects of the new application that no obstacle could deter you. If one unexpected problem would lead you to feel crushed -- and maybe you would self-righteously think, "I knew this would happen!" -- then you're not ready. Try the technology another day.

Certainly, like any new teaching component, from a reading to an assignment to an approach, a technology could surprise you and alter your teaching in fundamental ways. Our tools can change our behaviors. If that's not a welcome experience, you're also not ready for the change.

Sure, I like technology and that gives me an edge in trying new digital tools. But know that my real technophile friends scoff at my actual nuts-and-bolts tech skills. My expertise, such as it is, is in the pedagogical uses of the tools. I used asynchronous tools to facilitate dialogue among students because I wanted them writing more in conversational ways. I have used the rubric/assessment software Waypoint to respond to my students' writing because I find it the best way for me to communicate with them and to evaluate their work. And so on.

Perhaps we need to stop placing capital T technology into its own mental bin and include it in a broader category almost all of us have and regularly use: teaching innovation. Introduce a digital tool when it makes sense for your goals. Sure, there's more whirling and humming with a computer, but in essence and philosophy, this is no different to me than if I had realized, in some long-ago time, that I needed a way to write publicly for my students in an onsite class and discovered I had the opportunity to use this weird new thing called a chalkboard.


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