Technology as a Liberal Art
Most people think of small liberal arts colleges as cloistered sites nestled on sweeping land in the middle of a city, out in the suburbs, or in quaint small towns miles from civilization. The stone buildings and gothic architecture of most of these colleges invite thoughts of monasteries, of being somehow beyond the world.
They are places where students go to study at the feet of masters, to reflect, to be removed from the cares of the world. And they’re certainly not places where one thinks of cutting-edge technology in the fast lane of the information superhighway. No, that’s for places like MIT, Berkeley, Harvard.
Many students and faculty believe that there is no place for technology in small liberal arts colleges, a belief they cherish and are loathe to let go of. But technology doesn’t have to be the great invader, the destructor of the special nature of a liberal arts college education. It can, in fact, make that education better and more sustainable.
When I was an undergraduate in the late ‘80s, our technology resources were limited. Always a little ahead of the technology curve, I had a computer of my own. It had no hard drive; data was stored on a floppy which had to be switched out with the floppy for the program itself. It was prone to crashing. Once it crashed in the middle of not one, but two, papers I was writing. When I called tech support, I heard a message indicating that the manufacturer had just filed for bankruptcy. We had no computing department to whom I could turn for help.
My only other option for computing was to use the terminals in the library, VAX machines. In order to write a paper, I had to know a few formatting codes, symbols that now make even the most tech-savvy among our students and faculty cringe. And the papers printed out on dot-matrix printers with holed edges that had to be torn off. There was no Internet, no e-mail, on the campus. All our research had to be done in the library using card catalogs and journal directories.
I cannot imagine going back to that. I recently returned to my alma mater for my 15th reunion and was amazed at how much has changed, and yet how much has remained the same. The buildings, built from stone mined from the same quarry, look like they did a hundred years ago. But inside, much has been transformed. Computers now sit on every professor’s desk. Students have access to computers in any number of places and wireless access in even more places. The new library puts books, journals and computers side by side comfortably. The fiberglass stone-like columns hide all the data conduits to allow information to speed around the library quite quickly. As at many small colleges, technology and the liberal arts are coexisting quite nicely.
One of the advantages of a college like my alma mater, or of Bryn Mawr College, where I am now an Instructional Technologist, is to have a more intimate experience of college. Students have smaller classes, participate in extracurricular activities together and see each other around campus frequently, which means they know each other well. They also know their professors well. Professors open their office doors to students more often than at larger institutions. There is more opportunity for a face-to-face conversation with just about everyone. In light of this opportunity, people think that technology only distances people from each other. But that’s not necessarily so; in many ways, technology helps to encourage more face-to-face interaction rather than less.
From a basic communication standpoint, technology such as e-mail, instant messaging, course management systems and course Web sites offer the ability for students to ask questions, to find information about the class, to interact with other students or with course materials. The mechanics of assignments, class schedules, announcements and the like can be relegated to course management systems or Web sites, leaving more time to cover real material in class. E-mail and IM exchanges can lead to a face-to-face appointment.
These methods of communication, one-way or two-way, merely provide an opening for a more meaningful exchange. An e-mail from a student that asks a question might indicate that he or she is having trouble understanding a particular concept -- which might lead the professor to invite the student to visit and go over the concept more thoroughly. Several such e-mails from students might prompt the professor to shift the next class’s focus to the concept in question.
No matter how much instruction is offered on the Web, the core of these schools is the classroom experience. Technology can do a lot to enhance that experience. At Bryn Mawr, Michelle Francl, a professor of chemistry, is recording all of her lectures for her physical chemistry course. She’s capturing her computer screen and her voice, saving the video and the audio file, and posting them to her blog. For now, these recorded lectures, or screencasts and podcasts, serve primarily as review for the students. In the future, however, she plans to assign these recorded lectures much as she would assign a text and use class time for something more engaging than a lecture.
As she said recently at a conference, “I used to always show the students the easy case during the lecture and send them home to work on the hard case, but that’s just the opposite of what I think I should do. Now we can work on the hard case in class.”
At the same conference, Scott Warnock of Drexel University, demonstrated how he was using the same technology to comment on student papers. He created a video of the paper with his voice commenting on different parts of it, highlighting as he went along. I was so excited by his demonstration that I tried it myself when I returned. I posted the resulting flash files in Blackboard and asked students to review them before our conference and come prepared to discuss their plans for revision. This worked out wonderfully and I had much more productive conferences. The students were able to ask what I meant by certain comments I’d made. Rather than my spending conference time saying what I had already said in the video, I was able to guide them in their revision process and work with them on more complex aspects of the paper. This, to me, is the essence of a liberal arts education, the ability to have these one-on-one conversations that are productive and help the student begin to tackle problems themselves.
For me as a student, the biggest benefit of a liberal arts education was the ability to make connections between classes and topics. I remember realizing that my classes were not these discrete units, that my economics class had something to do with my Victorian literature classes, that in fact, my classes could inform each other. The advent of the Internet and many Web-based technologies creates a unique environment in which those connections can not only thrive, but flourish.
Via blogging, for instance, students can write about the connections they’re making between topics and classes. They can actually make connections with people and resources that I just couldn’t 15 years ago. Now, they can e-mail a researcher or read their blog and comment on it, which might, in turn, lead the researcher back to the student’s blog and might even lead to a collaboration. Not only do students have nearly instant access to many library resources, but they also have access to the wider resources on the Web, including personal blogs by academics, unpublished papers, “open access” journals, and Wikipedia.
But students aren’t content anymore to simply be passive recipients of this plethora of information; they also want to create their own content and increasingly are provided the resources with which to accomplish that aim. In the lab that I run, I have helped many a student create multimedia presentations, using video, audio, and photos. Some have created Web sites and still more have blogs (some of which I read), on which they reflect on their schoolwork and college life. Last semester, in fact, a computer science professor, Doug Blank, and I co-taught a class that is studying the blog phenomena, mostly by writing in our own class blog and reading other blogs and media. The students write an average of two posts a week and comment on each other’s posts even more frequently than that.
They are creating content that is, in turn, being commented on by others, including the authors of the articles they’ve written about. In the beginning, we felt we had to post and comment fairly frequently to help get the blog off the ground, but now the students are the primary authors of most of the content. We use that content as fodder for class discussion. Not only do we discuss the topics that they have addressed, but we also discuss they way they’ve formulated their arguments and how they could be improved. We talk about any comments that present counter arguments and how they should address them. The students are learning valuable lessons about what it means to write publicly and how to evaluate what they say against the standards required by writing publicly.
By now, some of you may be feeling a little queasy about all of this. Blogging? Screencasting? How is that part of the liberal arts? Aren’t we losing control if the students are creating the content? If all the content is online, what need is there for books? What need is there for a teacher then?
Students still need guidance -- and perhaps more so now than ever before. They still need help figuring out when an online resource is a good one. They still need to learn to analyze, synthesize, and critique. They need help making connections. These are skills that technology can’t teach, though it can facilitate the process. I am not saying, you’ll notice, that technology makes it easier.
It doesn’t, but it definitely opens up possibilities that fit in quite naturally with a traditional liberal arts education. Instead of just reading a book and writing a paper about it that gets read only by a professor, students can write an analysis of it on their blog, which their classmates and instructor can then comment on, giving them valuable feedback. Students may engage in an out-of-class online discussion of reading or lecture material that helps them think more deeply about the material. They can ask questions of not just the faculty member teaching their course, but even of the author of an assigned article or other experts.
If a liberal arts education is about increased connections between students and faculty, about learning to learn, about creating critical thinking skills, about eventually going into the world and contributing, then technology is absolutely a part of that. Technology broadens the conversation beyond the ivied walls of the institution, facilitating a student’s own transition beyond those walls. Professors, especially at liberal arts institutions, certainly see themselves as instrumental in that transition. To remain so might mean trying out new technology. It doesn't have to be scary and it doesn't mean an end to the liberal arts. As Sam said in Green Eggs and Ham, "Try it. You may like it. You will see."
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