Technology Matters (Or does it? [Of course it does!])

In a recent WASC-related conversation I was having with Sue Maberry, I apparently slipped into a trance-like state and began waxing all technological, commenting on the various ways the computer, the Internet, the smart classrooms, etc., have changed how I teach, enriching and facilitating what I do, and how I do what I do, both inside and outside the classroom. Her response was: Write that down! We’ll publish it on the new teaching blog that Debra’s putting together…

Later that day I started taking notes for this piece. Thinking back on my first years as a teacher I realized that I had begun my career in the technological equivalent of the Neolithic age (1987): I can remember writing all of my lectures out by hand, as well as mimeographing typewritten syllabi and exams. I also clearly recall the excitement I felt when accessing the UCLA research library’s recently digitized catalog from home on my Macintosh SE computer, with its 20-megabyte hard drive and 2 megs of RAM, using a 1200-baud, dial-up modem and a program called “Tin Can.” I still remember my amazement when, connecting to the university’s network for the first time, I watched as the UCLA logo magically appeared as a white ASCII graphic on the SE’s black, nine-inch screen.

Through the late-1980s and early-1990s, I was using digital technology in much the same way I had used analogue technology before it: I word-processed documents on my computer, printed them out, first on a dot-matrix, then later a laser printer, and distributed them to my classes. They replaced the typewritten, mimeographed or photocopied pages I had been handing out previously. By the mid-’90s, in addition to the library I was occasionally using the Internet for course research, and the information I found there, like that in the books I checked out, was put onto paper and shared either verbally as part of my lectures or as print handouts in class. At one point I was shown how to create spreadsheets in Excel to calculate final grades, and I subsequently retired my calculator, pencil and paper, though I still had to submit final grades on paper for years to come, until very recently in fact. In all of these cases, the computer was being used to locate or generate information that was ultimately being migrated to paper, so in essence the process had changed but the end product was the same. This was true until 2004, when things started to change.

That year Sue offered to create “Course Pathfinders” for my classes on the library’s website. She posted my assignments as web pages, and put up links to databases and websites I encouraged my students to use when researching their papers and projects. This made it easier for the students to access on-line resources, which were just a click away, but it was not practical for everything I needed to share with them, so I was still distributing handouts in class. With the advent of the soon-to-be extinct Otis portal, however, I was suddenly able to upload my syllabi and other documents directly as PDFs, which meant no longer having to provide print copies or put them in course pathfinders. Since they were now electronic documents, they could include hyperlinks to on-line materials that I had previously been printing and giving out as photocopies (which the school was paying for) or reproducing in pricey course readers (which the students were paying for). Essentially I found myself moving away from paper whenever possible, and thinking more in terms of electronic data sharing than photocopying print handouts.

The adoption of O-Space the following year allowed me to do all of these things more quickly and efficiently: practical tasks such as grading, keeping attendance, posting syllabi, handouts, and assignments that might include attached text, sound and image files, movies, links to websites, etc., as well as individual and/or group communication with my students via email or in forum-like discussion threads, was suddenly possible from within a single program. Just as O-Space transformed the “behind the scenes” work I do for my courses, the smart classrooms and subsequent in-class access to the Internet, the Otis Digital Image Database, and whatever DVDs and CDs I might like to play for my students has definitely changed what takes place in class. It is now not only possible but actually easy to present pretty much anything available digitally – whether on the Internet or on whatever media you might happen have it (CD, DVD, flash drive, portable computer, iPod, etc.) – to your students during class time as a complement to, if not the subject of your lectures and/or discussions. Not only does this broaden the range of materials I can introduce into my courses if desirable, it also makes for a more dynamic, varied, and hopefully interesting and effective learning experience for my students. And since anything available on the Internet for use during class can also be accessed outside of class, students can revisit it whenever they choose (or whenever I assign it, which may be more likely).

The availability of so many new technologies has also caused me to reconsider the types of assignments I give my students, with the hope of finding stimulating alternatives to the more traditional written test or research paper. Last fall, for example, I created a wiki for a course I teach on hypertext and hypermedia literature, and that you can check out here if you like. I had students contribute to it rather than write term papers (though, alas, they still had to take written exams). It was a challenging experiment that I think we all enjoyed, and I will have future students expand on it when I teach the course again. Other LAS instructors have also created wikis for their classes, and some English teachers are using blogs as on-line workshops for student writing and discussions. Sue has put together a page with links to all of the current Otis blogs here, and they include not only the “Comp blogs,” but several others as well. I’ve visited many of them and am impressed with the quality (and quantity) of student work posted there.

Though not intended for instructional purposes, these new platforms are welcome additions to the range of more conventional assignments we give. They allow us to engage our students in ways that might seem more interesting to them, since things technological play such a big role in their lives (though whether this will actually result in better work remains to be seen). Whatever the case may be, we’ve definitely come a long way from mimeographed exams and dial-up modems. In fact, it’s almost maddening how quickly digital technology evolves, and even if it seems impossible to keep up with the constant upgrades and innovations, I am excited about the possibilities they offer. I certainly can’t say what things will be like in a year or two (or even next semester), but one thing seems clear: they will be different. And you’ll need a new computer to be able to use them.