A Virus Ate My Homework: Technology in the Classroom

We’ve all heard it: “My printer didn’t work, Professor, so I can’t submit my paper on time.” Or, perhaps, “My computer crashed. Everything’s gone. I have to do it all again. Could I have an extension?”

They’re the technology excuses. Funerals are no longer held for beloved grandmothers who die with alarming and improbable frequency. Instead, they are held for computers, printers, or internet access (“I have to send you this email from my iPhone because my wifi is not working…”). Viewed from one (admittedly cynical) angle, technology is simply one more avenue for clichéd excuses to blossom.  I tend to give my students the benefit of the doubt, but I have to acknowledge that technology-related excuses, as a corollary of technology use, are on the rise.

How do I deal with it? The same way I do with grandmothers’ funerals and essay-eating pets. I lie back and let it all wash over me, tsking at my students with good-natured bonhomie. Students’ excuses are an irresistible force, and I’m too lazy, I confess, to be an immovable object.

The point toward which I am meandering, though, is that technology in academia is on the rise, and so, too, are problems associated with it. The Chronicle, for example, has an article which ponders the difficulties arising out of non-standard pagination (or none at all) on e-readers. Other technology-and-education issues which enflame the interwebs involve online/distance education (good? evil?), laptops in the classroom (good? evil?), smartphones during exams (you get the drift). And there are too many of these to link.

So here’s my two cents on the topic–the kinds of technology I have encountered, and what I do about them:

  1. Online classes: I haven’t taught one myself, I confess, but I do know people who have. There seem to be some problems associated with these. First, lack of adequate interaction. Teaching cultural anthropology, for example, is best done through face-to-face interaction, IMHO. Above all things, I have found students back-and-forth with me a lot in the classroom, working their way through concepts until they completely understand them. In online discussions, e.g. on Moodle, inertia takes over, and a gentle silence reigns over the kingdom. By their nature, online classes require disciplined and self-propelled students. Students have a hard time being self-propelled. Sometimes they don’t know how (which they learn through interaction with a professor), sometimes they have other things to do (children, jobs), and sometimes they just lack the discipline or desire. Also, interaction with professors doesn’t just occur in the classroom (or shouldn’t). I’m not certain of the mechanisms in place for this in online education. Finally, and this is really important but doesn’t get talked about as much, from what I’ve seen, managing and teaching online classes takes a lot of time. A lot. I’m going to go out on a limb and say they might even take more time than traditional, face-to-face classes. This is because, once again, online classes by their nature entail a lot of work–what, in face-to-face education, would be called busy work. Like responses to every reading. You don’t need them in a F2F classroom, because you can ask students what they think. When you leave the classroom, the interaction is over, and you don’t have to read it, think about it, and respond. Let’s face it, talking is faster than reading and writing. (Bear in mind here that I am not talking about people with disabilities, professors or students, for whom online education is not necessarily chosen for reasons of convenience. I come to them later).
  2. Synchronous technology: Not the modelling software, but using both F2F interaction and online interaction at the same time. I’m all for this. Moodle forums are a lifeline for extremely shy students, students with speech disorders, and so on. It’s all very well to say our job is to prepare students for the “real world”, but people who can’t, simply can’t speak in public for emotional, psychological, or medical reasons are very much part of the real world too. Since I started setting up forums on Moodle, I’ve found students’ worries about participation grades considerably reduced (which means they stopped harassing me about it :P). I also have managed to go almost completely paperless, and if I ever took my exam online, I would be completely paperless. Because students submit papers online, they are more or less multimedia. They link to websites, embed videos, include graphics…all while retaining formal citation practices, more or less. It’s great. It really is. And I save a couple of trees every term.
  3. Computers/smartphones in the classroom: I’m a little torn on this. On the one hand, I realize students use these for rapid reference and taking notes (I’ve seen students take notes on their wee little phones. And no, they weren’t texting–I checked). On the other hand, students use these for updating their Facebook status while I’m talking (“Bubbles McCoy is in ANTH 101 and bored to death, OMG!“). In the balance, I’m inclined to let them use their laptops and smartphones, but mount surprise checks and random inspections on occasion. Mostly, I admit, because I enjoy keeping them on their toes.
  4. iPods: No. Unless a student is using assistive technology like a smartpen, no headphones in my classroom. I usually know about students who need assistive technology because student disability services will let me know about other accommodations, but even if I don’t, I could tell because of the volume of the music blasting out of the headphones. Exception to iPod rule: students who use them to record lectures, but they cannot do that without my permission. And they don’t need headphones.
  5. Assistive technology: This is a no-brainer. Students who need such technology have to be allowed to use it. It’s really important, though, to keep up with the rapid changes in assistive technology. Braille displays, smartpens, hearing technology, recording devices,  video for Deaf students–it’s important to keep up and stay aware. The best way to do this is to stay abreast of the assistive technology news. That’s not easy. The next-best way, and one that is anthropologically easy, is to simply ask. If a student is using assistive technology, I just ask them what it is, how it works, and how it helps them. Then I ask them if there is anything I can do to make their learning experience easier. For example, I often use doodles on the board to explain concepts. I once had a student who was visually impaired, and after a discussion with him, simply stopped doing it, oriented my lectures toward verbal descriptions instead. Okay, it was really difficult to change my style. But I learned something new.

So those are my thoughts. I’m a technophile who’s not extremely tech-savvy, so this might sound rudimentary to some of you. I’m not a disability studies expert, so this might sound insufficient to some of you. But I try, and I live to learn. If you have ideas, I’m willing to try them, with my students’ permission, if I can get them to work for my class.

Edit: Do take a moment to read Kerim Friedman’s post on social media on Savage Minds. My two favorite lines from it:

[T]he technology itself is not as important as the social conditions in which it is used.

And, just a few lines down:

[T]he mere existence of these technologies does not imply that people will necessarily make use of them in a particular way.

It’s not directly connected with my post, exactly, but social media is one important kind of technology I did not mention in my post, except in a flippant way. I’ve known of people using Facebook pages for class discussions, or Second Life to hold classes in, or twitter to keep students appraised of updates to courses. I think that’s pretty cool, but I use Moodle for all of these. My philosophy here is simple. I could move my class discussions to Facebook, where my students are surely more comfortable, but I choose not to. I like to think they learn from my classes, and one of the things I would like them to learn is to separate spaces. Facebook is for home, Moodle is for school. These are different modes of communication with different purposes. To learn to work in a distinct professional space is, I think, a good life lesson. Thoughts, as always, are welcome.

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One Response to A Virus Ate My Homework: Technology in the Classroom

  1. Kyle says:

    Great post. It really is true that technology does have a place in the class room, but how it is used in the classroom always starts off other questions! Using technology for learning disabilities can always start of a debate as to if it helps or encourages the learner to not really try if the technology does it all for them (math, note taking ect).

    Keep up the good work,
    ~ Kyle

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