If you’ve been in education as long as I have, you remember the initial promise of technology. Computers were going to revolutionize teaching and learning. Not only would they streamline the work of teaching by taking over the drudgery of grading, but they would also help teachers to develop and present more compelling instructional materials. Students would have nearly instant access to a wide range of materials from which to learn, so so each student could learn in the way that best suited her. By lightening teacher workloads and increasing student access, we would break the dawn of a new day in learning with technology allowing students and teachers to work cooperatively toward shared goals.
It was a wonderful vision, but I have to say that reality has been a bit of a let down. Sure, we have lots of technology. Most of my courses now depend heavily on computers and the internet. My classrooms now sport SMARTBoards instead of chalkboards, easels and flip charts have given way to PowerPoint presentations, and most work is turned in via shiny new electrons instead of pieces of dead forest. But the assignments, presentations, and in class scrawling is all largely as it was when I first stepped into a college classroom as a student back in 1979. To be sure, there are some definite advantages to the new media. Now I can put nearly all of my course content online so that students can access it whenever they wish. Computers have indeed taken over some of my grading, though essays and much of mathematics seems beyond them still. If I want to offload my grading onto a computer, I have to construct assignments with an eye to what the computer can handle rather than on what will best help the students to learn. I don’t consider that an acceptable trade-off. The internet has given students access to a treasure of information I couldn’t have even dreamed of at their age. Unfortunately, that trove makes plagiarism easier than ever, and many students find the allure of YouTube antics far greater than that of the assignment du jour. It often seems that for every task that computers have made easier, they have introduced a new task or made another harder. I used to have to create a syllabus for every course. Now I have to put that syllabus online and keep up with an ever-changing e-learning platform, Moodle, in my case. Time that I used to spend in developing content for the classroom now gets spent just learning new technologies. Unless I make up that time elsewhen, my courses end up technology rich but content poor. In many ways teaching and learning are the same as they ever were, a tortuous pas de deux of teachers struggling to keep up and students struggling to catch up. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.
But despite this, I remain optimistic. Technology can make a difference, a tremendous difference, it just won’t do it easily. To my mind, the key to teaching and learning is not the latest web gadget, or that newfangled piece of hardware hanging on the classroom wall. The heart and soul of teaching lie where they always have, in the always human and often fragile interaction between student and teacher jointly feeling their way toward a common goal of learning. Anyone who has spent much time in front of a classroom knows that the path to this goal is different with each student. The challenge of teaching lies in finding how to connect with this-particular-student-in-front-of-me-now with regard to this-particular-thing-to-be-learned. The resolution of that challenge depends critically on the particular teacher, the particular subject, and the particular student, and the particular context, it is never the same twice. This challenge is never resolved by simply adopting a new technology or a new pedagogical framework, it’s far too complex for that. Teaching today’s student with today’s technology is essentially no different than Socrates teaching the slave boy by drawing figures in the sand – the technology is simply a method for the teacher and student to connect with each other about the subject at hand. Stick, chalkboard, PowerPoint, Web application, the difference is hardly worth mentioning when compared to the other elements in the learning context: teacher, student, subject, context.
So whence my optimism? Even though i see little difference between chalkboards and Prezis, computers have made one thing possible: massive computation. Of course that massive computational power is what makes Prezi possible, it takes a lot of computation to track what’s going on in a Prezi and make sure that everything makes its way from server to student intact. But that computation doesn’t really do anything different than the basic physics of a chalkboard does. No, the promise of massive computational power lies elsewhere. Of course it lies in part in the promise of better modelling of the brain processes involved in learning, but that will be of little direct use to the teacher in the classroom. What that teacher needs is an answer to the question: how do I reach this student now? I believe we are now at the threshold at which computers can help us answer that question. This blog will be an exploration and imagination of how that might work along with an assessment of what progress we have already made in that direction.