Computers in Class: This Changes Nothing…or Everything?

Butterfly clings to empty chrysalis that glows in the evening sun.

Technology as Educational Panacea

When faced with the dualism presented in the lead-in, teachers need to occupy a middle ground. Contrary to the hype of the technologists, we would be foolish to expect some clever programming or fancy device to cure all that ails modern education. The issue is far too complex, with far too many variables and circumstances, to be reduced to a single technological cure-all. At the same time, we cannot expect our schools and our society to be infused with technology without that infusion having an effect on the way we run our classes. Adding computers to the classroom provides an opportunity for us to question our practices and make choices that help us become better teachers and help our students become more successful learners. The opportunities presented by a connected classroom should not be overlooked or downplayed, but they should also not be heralded as the salvation of education.

In order to have a functional, productive, and successful classroom, we must first have conscientious, deliberate, flexible teachers who can respond appropriately to student needs. Nowhere in that blanket statement did I refer to technology. The addition of computers or networks to a classroom can enhance the learning process. It will not by itself enable that process. When technology is used improperly, teachers rely on computers to help students learn new material, much like parents can rely on a television to occupy the attention of their children. In both cases, the child suffers and development is stunted. Teachers and parents can both use technology to provide access to resources than they could create themselves, but the onus to make effective use of those resources is still theirs. The effort required to learn still comes from the child.

Back in 1999, when only a few campuses were beginning to explore how computers could change course offerings, Mike Markel wrote that “a creative teacher who meets in a room without any electronic equipment at all practices the pedagogy required for successful distance instruction.”¹ Markel asserts that effective teaching can exist in any context and requires no specific technological equipment. From this view, teaching can be “good” on its own accord, and effective teachers make use of the scenarios they have available. Teacher education needs to help educators better understand the affordances of their specific scenarios. Expecting technology to function as a classroom panacea merely distracts attention from what really matters: the quality of teaching.

Educational Technology: A Broken Record

The push to get students to use technology in classes is most impressive for its persistence. Though the Internet reached widespread popularity after 1995, university teachers began experimenting with its most basic features, such as email and discussion boards, long before then. Many of those teachers wrote about the balance of teaching and technology in classroom environments that stretch beyond the four walls of the room (or beyond the scheduled hours of the class meeting). Such commentary has continued as the popularity of online courses and home internet access continue to expand exponentially. Overall, the conclusion combines a responsiveness to student needs and the use of appropriate tools. Educators recognize that lecture-based courses limit student learning compared to more active models, and they continue to explore newer tools as they become available. As our lives increasingly combine the real and the virtual, our classrooms have made similar transitions. We now find “traditional” courses make frequent use of online tools to accomplish their goals, making nearly every classroom a hybrid of two formats often perceived as distinct.

A brief survey of some thoughts on that balance:

  • 1990: “The biggest challenge teachers face today in connection with computers is not that of using technology—we are already doing so—but rather that of using technology to make a real difference in our classrooms” (Cooper and Selfe, 867).
  • 1998: “Machinery does not reform society, repair institutions, build social networks, or produce a democratic culture. People must do those things, and the Internet is simply one tool among many. Find talented people and give them the tools they need” (Agre 234).
  • 1999: “Many technical communication courses that meet face-to-face are, in fact, hybrids that exploit distance education media and conduct much of their business asynchronously” (Markel 214).
  • 2001: “Without involvement and presence we cannot acquire skills” (Dreyfus 7).
  • 2012: “All learning is necessarily hybrid. In classroom-based pedagogy, it is important to engage the digital selves of our students. And, in online pedagogy, it is equally important to engage their physical selves. With digital pedagogy and online education, our challenge is not to merely replace (or offer substitutes for) face-to-face instruction, but to find new and innovative ways to engage students in the practice of learning” (Stommel ¶2)

Though it has taken some twenty years, educators have begun to recognize that the distinction between a face-to-face class and an online class is an artificial distinction, as much as the distinction between our in-person and on-line selves cannot be separated (see Turkle, The Second Self and Life on the Screen). The challenge becomes finding the proper blend within our teaching strategy and overall pedagogy, allowing the online to inform the on-ground and allowing the face-to-face to extend into the virtual. Both forms as we recognize them can benefit their counterparts, and to deny those benefits would be to limit our teaching or deny our students’ developing senses of personal/virtual identities. Educators need to help students develop both components of their whole identity by int
egrating both physical and virtual in their classrooms.

If we can’t continue teaching when the power fails, we’re doing it wrong. If our teaching has to fundamentally change when our classes get plugged in, we’ve been doing it wrong.