Tech Your Children Well

When considering the latest tools for teaching, avoid the trendy and focus on what really matters, writes Rob Weir.

July 17, 2009

My headline title’s a pun — a play on a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young song for you whelps born after 1970 — but the sentiment referenced is a burning issue for pedagogues. How much technology should be used in the classroom? It’s a white hot issue for new professors. As anyone who has ever set up a new computer or HD-TV knows, “easy to install” is an oxymoron. Now imagine getting up-to-date tech-ready for all your new classes. Just don’t imagine getting any sleep, because you can’t do both. Here are some dos and don’ts for those who’d like to find middle ground.

Rule One: If technology doesn’t make your teaching easier or better (preferably both), leave it alone. There’s great pressure to adapt the newest, shiniest, and coolest gadgets in our classrooms. Many new hires are keen to prove to students that they’re way more hip than older profs (like yours truly). Get a grip. Your primary task is to be a great teacher, not work on your image. What are the educational goals of each lesson you are preparing? How can you best meet them? Some professors are using Twitter for its buzz factor, but it’s of limited educational use for most of us. Forget the fact that you can’t communicate much in 140 characters; before you start Tweeting, does every one of your students have a cell phone or 24-hour access to a computer? Mine don’t. Editing programs for video and audio files also fall into the too-much-trouble-for-too-little-payoff category for me. I know how to use them, but why spend half an hour editing a sound file that only takes 30 seconds to play in class?

Rule Two: You can’t keep up, so don’t even try. The computer and electronics fields move at speeds that make even the pop music industry seem glacial. Keep your eyes and ears open for things that might work for you, but unless you’re a computer scientist or an engineer you can adopt a wait-and-see attitude about new tech. Maybe Kindles will replace books but, then again, maybe they’ll be the next CD-ROMs. It was just seven years ago that publishers were selling CD-ROM materials like back-alley drug pushers. Quite a few professors retooled their classes to use them. How’d that work out? Which brings me to—

Rule Three: Don’t buy a pig in a poke. That’s an old Pennsylvania Dutch expression that means don’t fall for a clever pitch. New hires will soon learn that faculty-office hallways and e-mail inboxes are trawled by vendors. Most are honest folks, some represent start-up companies that want you to Beta-test their product, and a handful are hucksters. (Nearly all “free laptop” offers are scams.) Every one who drops by will insist that their product is the one you’ve been waiting for your entire life. No matter what’s on offer, commit to nothing. If vendors wish to leave a complimentary book or CD, or give you a password to check out an educational module that you actually want to peruse, fine, but be as noncommittal as you possibly can. Refer hardware vendors to IT staff and those offering research tools to library specialists; these folks probably know way more about this stuff than you do. And don’t get sucked into time-absorbing discussions. Most new hires have more pressing things to do than evaluate somebody else’s products.

Rule Four: Sometimes you have to conform! One of the best ways to hit the tech ground running is to get with the college program. Your tech planning, purchasing, and use has to conform to what your college supports, not what you prefer. Maybe you think Macs work better than PCs, but if your campus uses the latter you need to make sure that everything you create can be read and accessed by PCs. Maybe you despise Microsoft and use an open source operating system as an act of thrift or personal rebellion. The same deal applies. This isn’t about you; it’s about delivering services to students. (It works the other way as well; you should demand that students produce work in whatever format the campus supports.)

Rule Five: Don’t charge for what is free. As a historian, I used to ask students to buy collections of primary source documents. Those books now retail for well over $50 and everything in them is available on the Web for free, as are maps, documents, and articles that would cost hundreds of dollars in print. This is a place where you should burn some tech-preparation time. Find out what’s online that students can access. I paste lots of live links onto my syllabus. Some of them go down before the semester ends, but it causes less anguish to readjust than to charge students for things a Google search will turn up for free.

While we’re on the subject of free, don’t go out and buy expensive programs for your home computer. Most colleges purchase licenses for pricey applications such as Photoshop, Adobe, Windows, etc. You can get copies of these for free or at a fraction of the cost.

Rule Six: Always have a low-tech backup. As you prepare your lessons, weave yourself a safety net. It’s amazing how many professors ignore what they experience in their daily lives. How many times has your server gone down? Ever log onto the Web and have it crash? Did your keyboard ever freeze? Has the cable ever been down for servicing? Did the power ever go out? Ever have a DVD that broke up and was unwatchable? Stuff goes wrong with tech all the time. Make two plans; the one you hope to use and the one you’ll fall back on if something goes wrong.

Rule Seven: Stay out of my Facebook! You need to protect your tech boundaries and let students know what they are. Tell them the hours you check email and, more importantly, when you don’t. Don’t give out your cell phone number or your personal email address if you’re not comfortable with students using them. It’s probably also a bad idea to “friend” current students in social networks such as Facebook. (It’s one thing to set up a separate Facebook account to use as a teaching tool and quite another to welcome someone into your personal electronic space.) Don’t give students access to any databases that convey personal information; you’d be stunned by how much they infer from even innocuous postings. Once they graduate you can decide who you want to stay in touch with.

Rule Eight: Find your comfort level. To circle back to the idea of making technology work in teaching, figure out what works best for you. I like gadgets, so I probably use more technology than most history professors. I travel with a mini laptop, illustrate all of my lectures with photos, use Web pages and clips, create video lessons, set up blogs, have robust Web sites for my classes, and have worn out scanners and digital cameras. But some of the most dynamic teachers in my department seldom get more high tech than using an overhead projector. At the end of the day, good teaching is about the person, not the delivery system.

See also:

1. For Michael Edlestein’s threads on teaching with Facebook start here.

2. Oregon State has a nice primer on teaching with technology.

3. Read a recent blog about how students think of technology.

4. A North Carolina State student’s thoughtful musings on technology in the classroom.

5. If you want to consider using Twitter, here are some tips.


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