Thoughts on Pedagogy: Does Technology in The Classroom Help or Hurt?

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A couple weeks back I had the great privilege to meet with some of the faculty and staff at the school where I attend, to discuss updating the classrooms on campus for better learning.  The school was recently awarded a grant with this specific task in mind.

One question raised was “What are the best ways in which we can spend this grant money on technology for learning?”As the discussion unfolded, however, two sorts of issues became increasingly clear:
1) Assumptions of pedagogy
2) Technology and it’s relationship to learning (does it help or hurt?)

Technology and the Educator at the Center

We found that there are, obviously, different styles of teaching and with those styles come different assumptions about teaching.  It’s interesting that when I first think about classroom technology I think of the typical setup with a projector, screen, speakers, podium, and computer.  But all these things are aimed at the enhancing the lecturer as centerpiece of learning.

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In the modern world we are obsessed with performance based styles of learning.  It seems like every time we, students or Christians, get together we have someone talk at us, and we get very little interaction with our peers and/or speaker.  This trend was made popular, at least in the church, by revivalist preachers such as Billy Sunday and Charles Finney.  Many of us believe it is a very tired pedagogical method. One person comes to the classroom, or congregation and disseminates all the information he or she can do, through spoken word, video clips, powerpoint, etc.  The Lecturer as the learning centerpiece has become a standard assumption of pedagogy in many classrooms.

While I do mind learning from lectures – they are not the only or even the best way to learn.  Jane Vella has written a lot about adult education and talks about the importance of task oriented learning and small group work.

Most of my favorite professors from Undergrad and Graduate school engage the class in a variety of learning styles including small group work and round-table discussions.  In these classrooms,  students demonstrate the skills necessary to achieve the course objectives, they put into practice what the professor hopes for them to learn; just telling them how to do it doesn’t prepare them.

At any rate, when you have money to spend on “classroom” technology the focus tends to become the professor and enabling him or her to be better at performing and delivering content.  It’s one of modernity’s fetishes, words and the people who speak them.  In this view the responsibility to learn the material is taken off the learner and placed on the educator, as if to say, “the better content I can deliver as a professor, the better skills I exhibit as a lecturer will make the students learn what they need to know.”

Technology and the Learner

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Even deeper is the issue of whether technology aids or harms learning.  People will take their sides quickly on this issue.  Should we allow computers in the classroom?  Should we make all the professors learn powerpoint?  Should all classrooms be wired for the web?  One thing to keep in mind is that technology has ordering power.  A majority of fundamental questions now revolve around whether technology is useful or not, it orders a majority question and decision we make as educators in the Western world.

One thing we discovered in this discussion about pedagogy and technology was: Technology often times controls the pedagogy, rather than the pedagogy controlling the way technology is used.

People are worried that if the school offers “podcasts” of lectures the students won’t come to class.  This is a real concern, and one that gets at some “base” questions about what it is we are attempting to do in the classroom.  If our lecture is the basis for our whole pedagogical style then handing out audio files from a class leaves us vulnerable to the power of technology.  But if handing out an audio file is only a small part of what happens in the classroom, and the classroom is still the laboratory where understanding and experimentation takes place, then we may be all right.

But using technology in the classroom will continue to raise questions, and we must first be serious about a technology free pedagogy, so that the technology we do use is only a tool and not a crutch.

An Experiment in Learning

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I for one hate powerpoint, am easily distracted by the things on my computer, and like to surf the web.  I also rarely enjoy (or benefit from) a 2 hour lecture where students do everything possible to keep up with what’s being lectured about by typing frantically on their keyboards.  In my own experience I learn very little this way.

So, I decided to do an experiment this past quarter.  I bought a pad of paper to take notes on instead of typing them out on my laptop.  This enabled me to engage my professor and classmates without having to focus on my computer screen and word processor.  But I also used technology as a tool – I purchased a very inexpensive and easy to use recording program called voice candy and used my laptop to record the 3 hour class periods (not lectures) so I could review them later.

This helped me keep my head in the class discussion at all times, I handwrote notes, and drew out diagrams (Nancey Murphy, the prof for the class, loves to use diagrams and pictures).  I was able to engage my classmates eye to eye in our wrestling with the course material, but I can also go back and review the audio and type out notes as I need to.

The point of this was to find a way in which I could use technology as a tool, that wouldn’t impede my learning.  It’s really easy to get distracted with your laptop open in a 3 hour class!  It’s also really easy to think we’re learning, while playing games, surfing the web, and chatting online, when in fact we’re doing very little of that.

I really think my experiment helped me learn and get to know my classmates better.

And so after all this a different questions seems more appropriate:
“How can we help to empower student-centered learning? And what tools can help make this possible?”

Credit for header image here and the sleeping students photo here.