Desert of My Real Life

{October 5, 2008}   Isn’t It Ironic?

The MediaShift blog on PBS’s web site (written by Mark Glaser and which I highly recommend) recently reported an interesting story about the experience one of its interns had in one of her classes at NYU’s School of Journalism. The class was called Reporting Gen Y and was supposed to be about the use of new media in journalism. Apparently, the instructor was not very knowledgeable about new media and so the intern wrote a report for the MediaShift blog about the fact that the class was not particularly up-to-date and that perhaps the instructor should know a bit more about new media if she was going to teach such a course. After reading the report on the blog, the instructor decided to discuss it in class. She asked the class what their responses to the blog entry were. What happened next is in dispute.

The students say that they were told that no one would be allowed to blog or Twitter (which is micro-blogging–writing short entries about a particular topic–see my own uninteresting Twitter entries here) about the class. Because the class is about new media and journalism and the newest media include blogging and Twittering, it is somewhat ironic that such coverage would not be allowed concerning the class itself. And if she did say that such coverage was not allowed, we have to wonder whether there would be a similar ban concerning traditional media such as the student newspaper. The instructor, however, says that she never said the students couldn’t blog or Twitter about the class. Instead, she claims she said that students could not blog or Twitter during class. The distinction she makes is, of course, huge. Blogging or Twittering during the class would be a distraction to the student herself as well as to students sitting around her while blogging or Twittering about the class seems like it should be allowed under any First Amendment rights. It’s difficult to know what the instructor actually said during the class but I think this incident has a couple of interesting lessons for those of us who teach.

The first lesson is that we have to remember that we can learn from our students. Their experiences of life are different than ours. They may not be “experts” in the sense that they have thought about their experiences and put them into a context. But they are definitely experts in the sense that they are on the front lines of new media use. Our job is to help them contextualize their experiences and we should not be afraid to learn from them just as we would hope they are not afraid to learn from us. The second lesson is that we should not be defensive when our students criticize us. We are not perfect. We don’t know everything. Engaging in conversation about our shortcomings empowers our students and helps us grow as instructors. This is a good experience for everyone. Rather than being threatened by our students’ empowerment, we should seek out such situations and savor them for the magic that they hold.

We don’t know what happened in that classroom. It’s actually not that important to me. What is important is to remember that when it comes to using new media, we have much to learn from our students. They are experts in the use of such media. Our expertise lies elsewhere, in the analysis of that use. As always, we can help our students put their experiences into context, help them to think about their experiences in new ways. Defensiveness ALWAYS gets in the way of that.

{September 9, 2008}   Fringe

I am watching a new show on Fox tonight.  It is called Fringe and it’s from JJ Abrams, the guy who developed Lost which is one of my favorite shows of all time.  It’s a cross between X-Files, Lost and Heroes, all of which I have really enjoyed.  But here’s the thing.  One of the major plot developments in the pilot involves a Harvard faculty member who was institutionalized 17 years ago in a psychiatric hospital.  He is released from the hospital and goes back to the Kresge building at Harvard.  His lab had been in the basement of that building which has been used as storage for the last 17 years.  Lo and behold, his lab is pretty much intact, with microscopes and lab equipment just as he left it all those years ago.

This series is science fiction but this particular plot point was the most difficult one for me to swallow.  If Harvard is like most institutions of higher education (including my own), space is at a premium.  There is no way that such a large space would be left alone for 17 years while the primary user of that space languishes in a mental institution!  It’s funny to me that it’s this mundane detail rather than the many sci fi potentialities that makes me question the reality of this show.

{September 2, 2008}   How Not to Do Educational Technology

At the start of each academic year, my university hires a speaker to address the full faculty, presumably to inspire us to take on new challenges. Like most universities, mine is interested in new and exciting uses of technology in instruction. This year, our speaker was Dr. Curtis Bonk, from Indiana University’s Instructional Technology Department and who, according to his web page, “firmly believes in distance learning since he is a product of it.” His web page also tells us that he “is listed in the Who’s Who in Instructional Technology.” So he should know.

The problem I had with his talk was that it was focused on the “technology” part of “educational technology” and not the “education.” Dr. Bonk seems to believe that technology will solve all problems. That if we simply use technology, all that is wrong with the world of education will be fixed. For example, he started his talk with many stories about his own boring accounting education. Toward the end of the talk, he showed us how exciting accounting education is now–professors are using PODCASTS! But the clip he showed us was a podcast of a boring lecture about accounting. He seems to think that simply using the latest, greatest technology will automatically make students want to learn. And that somehow the technology itself will HELP them learn. But his lack of focus on pedagogy was problematic.

The ironic thing to me about this idea is that Bonk himself comes out of a program that thought that using TV for educational purposes would revolutionize education. We all know that it hasn’t. And yet, Bonk has not learned from the failures of educational TV that technology in and of itself is not the answer. Why should we believe that using Web 2.0 technology–podcasts and Youtube and Twitter and Second Life–will somehow be different than all the other technologies that came before them? Bonk seems to think that Web 2.0 is somehow different than all the technology that came before it.

Don’t misunderstand me. I do believe that there are some interesting uses of technology that can truly help us to increase student learning. My problem is with those who think that using the latest, greatest technology will automatically increase student learning, that somehow the technology itself is a pedagogical tool. Bonk showed himself to be one of the people who believes in the power of the latest, greatest technology when he gave us a short discussion period and timed it using a freely downloadable PC-based timer. When he stopped our discussion, he said something like, “There. Use this timer and you’ve put technology into your class.” My questions were, “How is this different than an egg timer?” and “Will using this PC-based timer increase student learning compared to using an egg timer?” Bonk never addressed either question.

Bonk’s fascination with technology for the sake of technology was very clear when he discussed the capacity of flash memory drives. He showed us his latest thumb drive which holds 32 gigabytes of memory. He told us that soon such drives will hold a terabyte of memory and then, he asked dramatically, “What will knowledge be?” As though knowledge is about the number of facts that can be carried with you! Knowledge is about more than just facts. It is about being able to synthesize facts, being able to make connections between facts and being able to analyze those connections, being able to apply what you know in one context to a completely new context to reveal something about the world that no one has ever thought about before. More memory on a flash drive will not help students do this.

Technology in any context should be used only if it supports the goals of what you’re trying to do. As educators, we should not be advocating the use of technology for the sake of technology. We should be asking, “Which uses of technology increase our students’ learning?” That’s where we should be focusing our attention. Unfortunately, too many people think the latest, greatest technology in and of itself will solve all of our problems. And even more unfortunately, Curtis Bonk seems to think that technology is a panacea. A look at our long history of technologies that have failed to live up to their initial hype should remind us that there is no panacea.

et cetera