smu dean suggests removing technology from classrooms

Dr. Robert R. Cargill lecturing in the UCLA Visualization Portal

Dr. Robert R. Cargill lecturing in the UCLA Visualization Portal

we in the digital humanities spend a great deal of time exploring new ways of using technology to make instruction and research more efficient and effective. but one university is now suggesting educators remove technology from the classroom. josé a. bowen, dean of the meadows school of the arts at southern methodist university is challenging faculty to ‘teach naked’ and cease using technological aids like powerpoint in the classroom. according to the chronicle of higher education,

Mr. Bowen wants to discourage professors from using PowerPoint, because they often lean on the slide-display program as a crutch rather than using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web.

i most certainly disagree. i object not only to the suggestion that professors who use powerpoint need a crutch, but to the assumption that those who use powerpoint in class do not ask their students to prepare before class.

there are pedagogical reasons for the effective use of a information organization and dissemination tool like powerpoint in class. the fact is that lower division undergraduate courses provide much of the raw materials required for the critical thinking and research exercises at the upper-division and graduate levels. the lower division accumulation of knowledge provides the building blocks for skills learned in advanced seminars. while it is important to teach critical thinking skills at every level, lower division courses provide the in-class instruction and discussion that allow students the environment to take in vast amounts of information from a credible source and synthesize it via discussion and questions into their intellectual skill set. of course, those discussions are more productive when students have done their readings (in textbooks or online) beforehand, but as anyone who has ever taught freshmen will tell you, this is not always the case. reading ahead of class and using the classroom period to discuss prior readings is the essential expectation of an advanced seminar. and they are advanced seminars for a reason: only the best students are responsible and disciplined enough to prepare in this manner. most students need to be… wait for it… *taught* things. a good instructor can quickly ascertain what percentage of a class has read and how much they have read, and can balance his or her lecture and discussions accordingly (unless you just want simply to punish the students for not reading, as some are wont to do).

to advocate for the removal of powerpoint from the classroom reveals a couple of misconceptions about powerpoint itself (and the use of technology in class in general). this negative view of technology is either the product of instructors who do not possess substantive information to disseminate, or of instructors who simply do not know how to use powerpoint. the assumption that technology, and powerpoint in particular, is to blame for poor teaching is just as dumb as blaming vehicles for traffic accidents, guns for violent crimes, or garbage disposals for  severed hands – it is not the technology, but the misuse of it that is the problem.

a one-size-fits-all approach to technology is just as silly as a one-size-fits-all approach to pedagogy. powerpoint shouldn’t be used with jazz flute class (i didn’t see ron burgundy using powerpoint), but a history of music certainly would benefit from a lecture of prepared bullet points to aid in conveying key points. (making the slides available before class for download and review would be even better, allowing the students to prepare for lecture and spend more time in discussion during the lecture, leaving the familiar powerpoint material to be available in class to prompt discussion). likewise, while powerpoint might not much assist a discussion on ancient trade and economic theory, a slide or two displaying the archaeological evidence for certain claims made during the discussion would go far to drive into a student’s mind the wealth or scarcity of evidence for said claim. and no, perhaps a theology class wouldn’t require a lecture in powerpoint, but courses in an introduction to ancient near eastern backgrounds, hebrew, aramaic, greek, biblical criticism, and the synoptic gospels would benefit greatly from prepared, informative comparisons on slides, saving the instructor from having to spend time writing out and flipping to texts needed to make his argument.

(as an aside, maybe this is why so many theological classroom discussions result in worthless banter – students lack the foundational tools necessary to have an intelligent discussion. i’m all for teaching people how to think, but proper logic is well served by a set of vetted facts from which to draw logical conclusions. when an upper division theology class discusses ridiculous (and non-biblical) ideas, and the class participants weren’t well grounded in a foundation of scripture, language, and history (drilled into them by lower division courses), should we at all be surprised by the drivel these ‘theological’ discussions produce? but i digress…)

technology allows for a maximum dissemination of information in the shortest amount of time in an efficient manner. but that requires preparation and pedagogical consideration – two things that too many professors are failing to do in their courses.

please allow me to conclude my response to smu dean bowen with an equal and opposite chastisement of ‘class discussion.’ discussion within a class can be a useful way to draw new ideas and insight from students, prompting them to engage and participate more fully in the material being discussed. but ‘class discussion’ or ‘breaking into groups’ can be just as much of a waste of time and sign of unpreparedness on the part of the instructor as fumbling through a lecture with chalk in hand. and in most undergraduate courses, discussion time is often little more than a “share your ignorance” period facilitated by lazy professors. as a student, i didn’t pay tuition to sit in a class discussion and listen to what the the dumbass sitting next to me ‘thinks’ a text says (especially if he didn’t prepare for class and do the readings as i did). i certainly don’t care what he ‘feels’ about the text, or what it ‘means to him’ if those ‘thoughts’ and ‘feelings’ are the product of misinformation, sensationalism, popular myth, and a lack of preparation. i paid tuition so a professor would consolidate the information that i could otherwise gather myself over the course of a couple of years into compact, vetted, and digestible units that i could take in, process, and use as i develop critical thoughts about the subject. as a professor (and an admitted dyed in the wool lecturer), it is my responsibility to present a course that does not waste a student’s time. i am charged with imparting as much information (especially at the undergraduate level) and critical thinking ability (especially at the upper division and graduate levels) as i can in the few weeks i am given. technology helps this happen.

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3 Responses

  1. Hi Bob,

    I agree that a one-size-fits-dismissal of technology makes as little sense as a uncritical celebration of its potential. It would be interesting to know, for example, if there is any comparative research about the retention of information following lecture formats as opposed to retention of information following discussion and other classroom formats.

    After reading this post, I do wonder about how you see teacher/student and student/student feedback and interaction operating in your lecture classroom? These are obviously easier to manage in a less structured and presentation than in a set lecture format. So how do you give the students opportunities to practice the skills of critical thinking, for example?

    Best wishes,
    DM

  2. dave,

    it depends on the course i’m teaching and at what level the students are for a particular course. on the lower division undergraduate level course, i tend to review as many facts as possible, while building a critical case for whatever we happen to be studying. the theory and arguments are rooted in facts, and at the undergrad level, they are not as familiar with the facts as are grad students.

    for upper division and graduate students, i tend to encourage more discussion in class by assigning research projects for each student. since the classes are usually smaller at upper division levels, the group is the seminar itself.

    facts without critical thinking skills are worth little, but so too is basing an argument on nothing. i encourage open participation in class, and make myself available after class and online for other questions.

    for me, splitting up into little groups is a waste of time and produces little.

  3. I’m a lit professor, so I like to use small groups in classes, but as research teams with tasks to perform and present, not so much to opine. Presentations again have the potential to be a great waste of time, but if they are focused and directed properly are very effective for forcing students to confront the material and present it to others. But the key is that they are digging up stuff and shaping it to present to others in the class, not just chatting away.

    When I used to teach Milton to sophomores, I had that experience of the potential interminability of theological discussion, but students quickly learned the pointlessness of those kinds of exchanges, and shut them down when others brought them up.

    I tend to agree that critical thinking needs to be modeled in order for it to be learned, but I also think students need opportunities to learn how to shape arguments for themselves, and learn how to assemble the evidence in an appropriate way. But it’s definitely a protracted process.

    Tim Burke’s Easily Distracted blog had an interesting thread about the lecture/powerpoint issue, which you can find here:

    http://weblogs.swarthmore.edu/burke/2009/07/23/red-herrings-overboard/

    Best,

    DM

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