Technology plays a primary role in my teaching, but I rarely turn on the computer that makes the classroom “smart.”
Occasionally, I project the class tweet stream. I am an advocate of Twitter for higher ed. But generally, during class time, I try to avoid mediating my connection with students through technology. Face-to-face time is reserved for facilitating old fashioned conversation and discussion. Outside of class, however, my students are bombarded with digital learning resources.
In Temple University’s Intellectual Heritage Department, I teach Mosaic 1 & 2: a two semester sequence that’s required core curriculum for every Temple University student. These are courses that focus on interpretive reading, critical thinking, and persuasive writing–a course designed to “introduce students to foundational texts from cultural and intellectual traditions worldwide.” It is standard liberal arts fare, what David Brooks referred to in his recent New York Times Op-Ed:“The Humanist Vocation.”
I’ve taught in this department for about two years and now I take on the role of “Digital Learning Coordinator.” On a resume it looks great: I’m a young instructor responsible not only for the online sections of a large university’s core curriculum, but also for overseeing a digital strategy for the brick and mortar sections. However, it turns out this job is not as simple as just picking software and giving talks on how to use Blackboard. It also requires a lot of thinking about tough questions; how do I make sure that digital learning resources remain tools–like a whiteboard or a pencil–things that simply aid in a time-tested process of teaching critical thinking? It is not easy. I’m still figuring it out.
My trajectory into the edtech aspect of this job started about a year ago, when I was still a severely underpaid adjunct instructor. The head of our department announced an initiative to develop an online version of the Intellectual Heritage sequence. I applied. Honestly, I did it because there was a stipend involved–for the money. I wasn’t a big fan of the idea of online classes. The idea of teaching liberal arts online scared me.
It wasn’t the typical fears of online socialization that gave me anxiety. I’m not concerned that relating online cannot replace real in-person connection. That’s obvious and not so scary. Likewise, in-person connection cannot replace the clarity and efficiency of writing online. (There’s a reason I’ve replace the majority of conversations I used to have on the phone with a quick text message or an email: it works better). Instead, what terrifies me is that online learning might privilege particular kinds of knowledge. It might overlook some of the very reasons we teach humanities in the first place: to encourage a multiplicity of perspectives, the foundation of social and imaginative empathy.
At the risk of over generalizing, I’ll name two kinds of knowledge that seem more easily and efficiently disseminated using online tools. I’ll term them “edutainment” and “data-fiables.”
Usually, the term “edutainment” refers to content that’s meant to both educate and entertain. But I use the term differently (if you think every professor isn’t trying to both educate and entertain, you’re kidding yourself. Nobody wants to deliver a boring lecture). I use “edutainment” to refer to the kind of knowledge that is both deliverable and consumable. Powerpoint presentations, Ted talks, and even the old fashioned university lecture would all be included in this category. This is the kind of knowledge that is objectified. This is what we get when we imagine the instructor as an expert, a vessel who fills up his students with facts and statistics, as if their brains were empty chalices (to borrow an analogy from Heidegger). In this kind of thinking, ideas are objects; knowledge is objective. Within this construction, my job is to transfer my knowledge to my students. My brain tantamount to a hard drive, the classroom is like file sharing: bittorrent in the flesh.
With the term “data-fiable,” I refer to something I only barely understand. This is the kind of knowledge that algorithmic geeks excel with, the stuff that’s easily understood as data. Not only the facts that can be Googled, but also the things that Google GOOG +0.26%’s back end evaluates using analytics and metrics. This is the kind of knowledge that lends itself to algorithms. This includes ways of knowing that can be automated and quantified. This is what we measure with standardized tests. This is the kind of knowledge that technocrats would have us believe to be unbiasedly objective. And it may be objective. But remember from the prior example that a world of objective knowledge is also a world of “edutainment.”
Instead, the humanities classroom is the place where I facilitate Socratic dialogue, imagination, emotional connection, and metaphor’s ability to bring forth meaning through poesis. These things are not edutainment nor datafiable. Counter intuitively, however, these things ARE related to technology. The philosopher Martin Heidegger explained that the word technology
“stems from the Greek. Technikon means that which belongs to techné. We must observe two things with respect to the meaning of this word. One is that techné is the name not only for the activities and skills of the craftsman, but also for the arts of the mind and the fine arts. Techné belongs to bringing-forth, to poiésis; it is something poietic.
In other words, humanist critics of edtech should remember that technology is itself poetic. Heidegger continues, “From the earliest times until Plato, techné is linked with word episteme. Both words are names for knowing in the widest sense.” However, it requires the humanities to interpret the metaphors of technology, to be able to see that technological ways of knowing, technological ways of bringing forth, are deliverable, consumable, and quantifiable. Heidegger called this way of knowing “enframing.”
From my perspective as a teacher, this is not necessarily a bad thing. We need to resist the urge to be oppositional. Instead, we need to learn to embrace edtech for what it strengthens and rise up with empathetic excellence where it falls short. Just as Google’s predictive dialogue box has forced me to reconsider the essence of human intuition (after all, according to ordinary definitions, Google has better intuition than any human), so technological ways of knowing have forced me to reconsider the essence of teaching.
As a result, I’ve flipped, or blended, my university classroom. I’ve moved everything that can be more efficiently disseminated through smart phones, tablets, and personal computers to the digital realm. Rather than lecture, I make videos and podcasts. Rather than wasting face-to-face time with slideshows full of bullet points of facts, I email the Powerpoints. If it is “content”–that is, if it can be poured from chalice to vessel, if it can be contained–it has no place in the classroom.
The classroom is not where my students listen (or consume what I deliver). Rather, in the classroom I become a sherpa. I guide them on the journey of their choosing. My job is to know where the treasures are, that all paths lead to jewels of critical thinking. This happens through nuanced conversation, through discussion, through debate and interaction.
Of course, the hardest part is convincing my students. Years of education has taught them to expect a hierarchical relationship between vessel and chalice.
The fact is that education has already been automated. Tests, quizzes, textbooks, and Powerpoints are all products of a technological way of knowing the world. They are all ways of objectifying knowledge. My enthusiasm for edtech stems from a hope that it will teach us to handle technological ways of knowing more efficiently and interactively, using gadgets and devices. However, this is only an advantage if it means that teachers can get back to what they do best: educating instead of disseminating and assessing.
Can teachers do this online? I hope so. There are plenty of social tools that enable real communication through the web, albeit asynchronous. I’m working hard to figure out how to use these tools for interaction. Online, I certainly can’t teach students to verbally articulate complex arguments. Nor can I teach them through conversational debate. But I can teach them to think critically about online texts and to express themselves articulately in writing. Preferably, they’ll learn to do it using the conventional online mediums. After all, the blog and the email are sure to be more useful in their professional lives than the five paragraph expository essay. The rhetorical skills are ancient, they need to be taught. Formats go in and out of fashion.