Asking the Wrong Questions of Instructional Technology

These are my notes for my presentation at the UT Arlington Focus on Technology Conference, held on Wednesday October 22, 2008.

Asking the Wrong Questions of Instructional Technology

I would like to begin by thanking the organizers of this event—The Office of Information Technology, The UTA Library and The Center for Distance Education. I am flattered to be in such good company on this program. I am not an expert in Instructional Technology (from now on ‘IT’), whether it be in theories relating to it or the hardware involved in making it succeed in real live classes. If I have anything to contribute to today’s program, it is the testimony of a teacher who has been fussing with instructional technology for over ten years. In other words, I am a dedicated user, an inveterate experimenter, a restless traveller of web pedagogies.

It began for me in the late 90’s with rudimentary webpages and online reserve desks that were developed with the kind and generous support of the director and staff of the Language Acquisition Center in the Department of Modern Languages at UTA. I wonder what happened to those gentlemen? Maybe some of you remember Pete Smith, Clay Beberstein and Brett Benham. I heard they moved on to greener pastures. Later, I was mentored by Pete Smith’s succesor in Modern Languages, Scott Williams, and more recently and most importantly by Melissa Bowden, the current director of the Language Lab, who taught me how to build a web class from the ground up. And in the last year, I’ve worked closely with my friend and colleague José Tamez and the staff of the Center for Distance Education, particulary Matt Crosslin, on implementing two Spanish language web classes that have been successfully implemented and which are currently being taught. In short, my whole journey with IT has been mediated through collaboration.

As rewarding as it has been, however, to learn and team up with all of the great people I’ve mentioned, there have also been some notable failures or missteps in my use of IT. So this morning I hope to share some impressions with you about what I’ve learned, about what’s worked and what has not.
What I’d like to do is define three principles that, in my opinion, define successful, innovative teaching and how these may be migrated to online or hybrid classes. I also want to consider the ways in which certain types of IT practices run counter to these core principles, or at least present obstacles to their implementation.

So, what are the three principles that in my experience define innovative teaching? I would argue that they are (1) Contact; (2) Collaboration and (3) Creation. (1) Contact is predicated on students being able to interact, to have ‘contact’ with the object of study in a significant and transformative way. This can take many forms—the most obvious examples that come to mind are scientific experiments, internships, service learning projects. In literature, history and other classes in the humanities, contact can be as simple and modest as requiring students to read primary sources, as opposed to only secondary sources. In other words, rather than reading about Columbus, read his diary and his letters to the King and Queen of Spain. Instead of having the professor tell you what the horrors of the Civil War was like, have a memoirist who was there bring it to life for students. These obvious examples aside, there are deeper and more dramatic ways of creating “Contact”. Two years ago I had some students spend several hours in our library’s Special Collections Department looking at U.S. realia relating to the U.S. Mexico War of 1846-1848 for a research project. The exercise taught them about conservation, about the institutional function of special collections departments and naturally, made the war come alive as something distinct, profoundly complex and rich. Let me share another example: for a course on death and mourning in American literature, Dr. Desiree Henderson of the Department of English took her entire class to four Dallas area cemeteries: The Freedman’s Memorial, Greenwood Cemetery, Calvary Catholic Cemetery, and Temple Immanuel Cemetery. Thanks to this experience, students were able to visually and palpably gauge the politics of space, architectural design and the diversity of cemetery spaces in relation to their classroom discussions.  The principle of Contact is inherently defined by the drive to connect with what is outside of the classroom environment. It is defined by implicating students in the act of learning in experiential ways.

(2) Collaboration is the predominant process by which learning takes places in an innovative class. I don’t need to convince anyone here of the social, interactive nature of learning. Through our interlocutors we learn how to ask and answer the right questions, we pool our best resources and fill in the gaps. Collaborative learning takes many forms and includes group work, group projects and the kinds of experiences that students have when they participate in internships or service learning modules. Here I’d like to briefly share an example from Dr. John Garrigus’s teaching, and which he may be speaking to us about later today. Dr. Garrigus  has his students collaborate on an online textbook of World History that meets the content guidelines of the State of Texas Teacher Certification program. Using the interface of a wiki, Dr. Garrigus’s students embark on the shared experience of building narratives about our past. One of my favorite student projects in recent years has been the assigning of a classbook to my students. A classbook is a student-funded and student-produced book of essays. My students elect an editor, a treasurer, a designer and organize themselves in order to put together their final project as a class publication.

(3) Creation is what instructors ask students to produce in an innovative, active learning environment. Not to repeat received knowledge or to fill in the blank, but to create meaning, interpretation and synthesis. Creation happens all the time in many classes—wherever and whenever analysis is called for, creation is the principle that applies. Creation can also be more creative than simply working within the confines of academic convention and intellectual exercise. It can mean, instead of writing a paper, creating a sculpture to interpret or echo the meaning of a work of literature or art. It can mean writing poetry for the first time after twelve weeks of studying the poetry of a famous poet or poets. It can mean, as illustrated by one of the classes of Carolyn Guertin, the production of digital videos and films. It means empowering students to understand that they can be something more than consumers of knowledge or art, but also producers of it.

What’s interesting about these principles Contact, Collaboration and Creation is that they may also be used to summarize Web 2.0, that version of the internet and web practices that are defined by interactivity, decentralization and democracy. In Web 2.0: New Tools, New Schools, Gwen Solomon and Lynne Schrum write that “Web 2.0 signals a transition from isolation to interconnectedness.” Whereas the original World Wide Web was defined by static web pages that encourage the passive consumption of texts and media, reinforcing the conceptual separation between author and reader, Web 2.0 transforms would-be-readers into active co-authors of online media. The isolated and voiceless consumer of Web 1.0 becomes connected and empowered to participate in a conversation through Web 2.0’s large array of interactive tools, such as blogs, wikis, video-sharing services, social annotation, and social networking and bookmarking tools, among others. To get back to IT, my point is that Web 2.0, to a large degree, values the principles of Contact, Creation and Collaboration, and is a good analogue of innovative teaching. In other words, I am arguing that Web 2.0 shares the same values that innovative teaching promotes and embodies. Both advocate constructivist notions of knowledge predicated on dialogue, exchange and creativity.

And yet, IT easily falls into the trap of doing everything that innovating teaching and web 2.0 is not. Rather than Contact, IT can promote Disconnection from the object of study. Instead of Collaboration, IT can reinforce isolation among students. In sum, IT by itself does not improve one’s teaching. In fact, whatever an instructor’s pedagogy is going into IT, it will be the same coming out the other side. So, the question for faculty who are curious about using more IT in their teaching is not about technical know-how or hardware, but whether or not they are ready to be unconventional, creative teachers. Is a course predicated on received, secondary knowledge or interacting with sources, realities or spaces that are of some kind of primary value? Does a course require students to only work alone, with limited interaction with peers and instructor or does it make social contact an integral part of the experience? Are assignments predicated on the imitation of conventional, simplistic formulas of expression or something different and new? How an instructor answers these questions will say a lot about whether an instructor is ready to make full use of the vast palette of colors and the canvas that IT can provide today.

Matt Crosslin, one of the designers at the Center for Distance Education her at UTA, touches on this subject in a series of articles that he is posted on a website called Edugeek Journal, and provides us with some interesting conceptual metaphors for thinking about convention versus innovation. Matt references the problem in his discussion of how Learning Management Systems, those systems like WebCt or Blackboard, can be made more flexible and fluid than they presently are. At their most conservative, Matt argues, these systems may be described as boxes inside of boxes inside of boxes, or as fortified castles or prisons that function as virtual repositories of content. As Web 2.0 tools like blogs and wikis have become more popular, LMS’s have tried to incorporate more and more of these tools inside of their programs, resulting in systems that are increasingly bloated and confusing. Matt’s argument is to counterpropose a different metaphor for the Learning Management System, one that dispenses with the conceit that a LMS should strive to contain everything that is on the WWW inside of it. His different metaphor is that of the control panel of a subway system. Students can circulate more freely in the virtual world but remain on well defined and well mapped tracks that make sense to the instructor and which relay information back to him or her. Matt writes: “The Learning Management System would become more of a hub than a walled garden or gated castle. Students might go there to view grades or get initial contact information, but leave and go out on to the web to learn and share. Instructors would use the LMS program to track student learning and centralize communications.” I encourage you to check out Edugeek Journal to find out more by reading Matt’s articles on the subject, but basically his argument is about finding a way to decentralize what is often an inert and static prison-box of tools.

Over the years I have tried to implement the values of Contact, Collaboration and Creation in live classes, in hybrid classes and in web only classes. What does this mean in practice? It means asking your students to be producers or knowledge and course content. My students have become bloggers and read each other’s work online. They have gone out into the business community, both locally and internationally, secured interviews with fascinating personalities of the business world and produced short films and audio files that become a part of the assigned course material in future semesters. They have become critics and commentators of the quality and reliability of webpages that purport to teach them something about a particular historical period or personage. And often, they have debated each other on message boards, discovering that amongst their peers there are deeply held conservative or liberal views on subjects that they assumed everyone saw in only one light. But all of this sounds very self-congratulatory. I have to tell you, and others who work with me in this area will back me up on this, that I am often frustrated by the results I have gotten. A lot of students think blogging is stupid and intimidating: they don’t read blogs and they are not interested in them, so asking them to be a blogger creates unexpected confusion, tensions, resistance and apathy. Message board discussions, when recommended loosely are ignored, when required for a grade become painful exercises in repetition and redundancy. And in general, when writing is required in my web classes, the floodgates of plagiarism are opened more dramatically than usual. And why not? You’re teaching on the web, why shouldn’t you be writing with what’s already on the web?

All of these experiences, misadventures and postmortems are the stuff of a different talk that I am not presenting to you today. But I offer these comments to you now as an indication that working with IT is no magic bullet. You can’t ever settle on one way of doing something and rest on your laurels; the pace of innovation is such that some tools fall by the wayside and new ones emerge, demanding our attention. Working with IT requires a constant state of self-reinvention and course re-design, and a continuous rethinking of one’s own teaching. You may think you have a course in the can thanks to IT, or you may wish to can it, but you can’t ever it keep it in there. And maybe that pretty much sums up my attitude about misconceptions surrounding the use of IT.

IT cannot resolve all problems by its very presence. Rather, it is continually posing new questions and challenges. Thank God for that because it keeps those of us working in it interested, engaged and caring about the outcome.

One thought on “Asking the Wrong Questions of Instructional Technology

  1. Just stopped by your blog and think it is incredible. I am a high school senior and recently my college English class used ‘The Sandman’ video on your blog- it was extremely helpful and relevant to our studies on Freud’s ‘The Uncanny.’ Thank you so much for posting that! Your blog is an inspiration to begin a new form of discussing literature and in general the arts.

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