Technology and the Art of Teaching

Posted by Debby on 14th February and posted in Teaching and Learning

I came across a post today called “A Tech Happy Professor Reboots“, originally published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It touched upon some themes I find myself thinking about often: the role of technology in the classroom and the art of teaching.

The Role of Technology

Michael Wesch, a professor at Kansas State University, and an award-winning national teacher of the year, has become quite popular for his “digital ethnography” projects. He has given TED talks and created student-generated videos extolling the virtues of active learning through technology immersion. He has worked with colleagues to help them add technology to their curriculum… and discovered that there were mixed results. He found that some of his colleagues were reporting back depressing results with their efforts to launch technology-infused projects in their own classrooms. It just wasn’t working for them. Wesch said, “They would just be inspired to use blogs and Twitter and technology, but the No. 1 thing that was missing from it was a sense of purpose.”

A sense of purpose. Something critical to consider. As much as I like to think of myself as an early adopter, I am also somewhat of a skeptic when it comes to how technology might help achieve learning outcomes. I know it is possible, when done well, I just haven’t seen it done well very often. Too many teachers upload their powerpoints or word files and call it an online class. Too many try their hand at blogging, but don’t really know how to engage the students. Too many try to utilize social media tools like Twitter and Facebook without really having an understanding of how these things might facilitate student learning. They are missing a sense of purpose – WHY should we use technology? and instead focus on the HOW – How can we plug this widget into our classroom? They attend a PD workshop or conference session or some administrator tells them they have to use more tech… but not much time is put into thinking through what purpose it will serve. In the end, no amount of bling or flash or whiz-bang technology can replace what an expert teacher brings to the table. It’s kind of like saying that a microscope does the science. You still need a scientist to think through the possibilities, set up the experiment, direct the research, and help interpret the results.

The Art of Teaching

Professor Wesch has a message that I completely agree with:

“It doesn’t matter what method you use if you do not first focus on one intangible factor: the bond between professor and student.

That bond is created when the students know you are in this learning adventure with them and when they trust you enough to take them to places they didn’t think they could go. It is an essential part of the learning paradigm, at least in my way of teaching.

The article interviewed another KSU professor, Christopher Sorensen, who has also been named a national teacher of the year, despite (or perhaps because of) his more traditional, lecture-based courses. Professor Sorensen thinks that “The things that make a good teacher are difficult—if not impossible—to teach… Which is why technology may be so attractive to some teaching reformers. Blogging, Twitter, and other digital tools involve step-by-step processes that can be taught.”. It’s easy to teach and easy to measure by numbers of posts or items created.

What isn’t so easy is measuring the intangibles that make a difference – the ability to inspire, a sense of community, a strong belief in the students’ ability to succeed, an ability to connect with the students, and emotional objectivity, amongst other things [see: What Makes A Good Teacher – PDF]. Professor Wesch said “Students and faculty have to have this sense that they can truly connect with each other,” he concludes. “Only through that sense of connection do you have this sense of community.”

Technology doesn’t change good teaching. Technology alone doesn’t create a good learning experience. Good teaching is a performance art, one in which you dance with the students where they are at as you lead them to where you’d like them to go. It involves juggling any number of balls all up in the air at once. Technology can facilitate management. It can facilitate active learning. It can open up collaborative opportunities far and wide. What it can’t do, however, is replace the human element, the social aspect of learning. One of the commenters on the “Tech Happy Professor” blog said it well

“What I have realized is that although the tools are different, traditional ways of supporting students remain. Instruction, scaffolding, redirection and a teacher saying a learner needs to do more or better or more thoroughly or with more clarity or more creatively or in a way that demonstrates critical thinking occurred are still needed.”

Howard Rheingold also commented that one of the very first points he makes to his education students is this:

BEFORE TECHNOLOGY: PEDAGOGY

The pedagogy comes first, the connection the teacher makes to the students is critical to success, and the technology becomes a great tool to use to facilitate the process. I agree with Howard when he says “Web media are useful to the degree that they make it easier for students to take more responsibility for their learning, to support and critique each other instead of performing solely for the teacher, to not only memorize but to reflect.”

It’s not about the tech. It’s about the people. That is the bottom line.

  • Trudy

    A tale of two teachers.  One was young and had grown up with computers.  Her much older brother worked for NASA and she was sitting on his knee playing with computers and programs before kindergarten.  A SMART board in eMINTS classroom (one computer per every two students) wasn’t utilized except to play student-created videos.  The videos themselves well addressed GLEs, but overall…what a waste.
    Teacher two was middle aged.  Prior to a SMART board being installed in her room she was required to take a technology for teachers class.  That board was used constantly!  This may be minor, but one of my favorite applications was a writing steps chart.  As students completed various aspects of their writing projects they would go to the board and list their name in the appropriate step.  The teacher and student could see at a glance where the student was in a writing project. The function machine for math was a blast!  There were no computers in the classroom outside of the teacher’s but the internet was used frequently. Supplementary information for lessons could be displayed for the entire class, enhancing discussions tremendously.  And these are just a few of the purposes. 
    Now, let me add…teacher one’s classroom was pretty drab.  Not a lot of stimulation.  Teacher two’s classroom was packed full of “stuff”.  I don’t think there was a square inch of wall space not utilized and utilized well.  Teacher two was very much hands-on. Teacher one was less personally engaged.    
    The lesson here?  While it may be just one compare/contrast example it’s the teacher that makes the difference. Teacher two used the available technology very well but didn’t need them to be a wonderful teacher.

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