The Problem with Learning Technology (Chronicle)

The Problem with Learning Technology (Chronicle)

Kirstin R. Wilcox

Lecturer at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

I’ve stopped going to presentations, colloquiums, brown-bags, and lectures when the topic is learning technology. After several experiences that felt like a bait-and-switch, I realized that learning technologists and I were using words very differently. Where they said “best practices” or “learning technology” or “innovation,” I heard potential for enhancing what happens in my classroom. It turned out what they meant was “content delivery” — packaging information in forms that students could easily assimilate, review, retain, and be evaluated on.

For a literature instructor like me, “content delivery” is not an issue. In my courses, primary literary texts are the content. Getting students to buy or download a reputable edition with the same pagination as the rest of the class can be a struggle, but content delivery simply consists in getting students to read the book.

The kind of learning aids that can make the fundamentals of chemistry, nutrition, or astronomy easier to grasp and remember are never more than supplements to literary learning. PowerPoint presentations that explain and contextualize the book, study guides that summarize it, videos that offer mini-lectures, and the like can never deliver the content of a literature course. At best they deliver a spindly simulacrum. Learning only happens after the content has been delivered, when a student reads the book and has an idea about it, or, even better, two ideas that when rubbed together produce a spark.

It’s impossible to anticipate how actual learning (as opposed to reading and listening) will click with any particular student — which story will draw students into hitherto unimagined possibilities for being human; which poem will crack open the realm of expressive language; and which contextual data point or interpretive possibility, raised in class discussion, will prompt them to look at the text anew and see the connection to a world they care about. You can tell when it’s happened though — the shy question after class, the awkward language in an essay draft that shows an inchoate idea slowly taking shape, the comment in class that prompts classmates to look up and disagree.

Technology can help advance that process, but the conversations about how tend to take place at the far edges of the expanding online learning carnival, where the goal of delivering content in large lecture classes drives innovation. The technology that helps students understand and use content is different from the technology that delivers it. And while it’s generally acknowledged that technology changes at a rapid rate, what is less well recognized is that students change with it.

Ten years ago, using course blogs, wikis, or online discussion forums to teach was an exciting innovation, which students embraced. Online platforms gave students a structured way to prepare for class discussion, to think through ideas about the reading without the pressure of a high-stakes assignment, to interact with their classmates without the stress of face-to-face discussion. Online writing gave me timely glimpses of my students’ emerging ideas, around which I could structure class activities and frame paper assignments. Blog posts and discussion fora had the power to liberate the subject matter from the potentially deadening rote conventions of “discuss this text then write a paper about it.”

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