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Boredom in the Classroom: Is Technology the Problem?

The answer, unsurprisingly, is complicated and certainly not clear cut. This question came up again as I read about the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s article on José A. Bowen, the dean of the Southern Methodist University‘s Meadows School of the Arts, and his desire to remove computers from the classroom.

However, it is not computers in and of themselves that Bowen disapproves of, but rather some professors’ use of PowerPoint. Bowen argues that many professors employ

“the slide-display program as a crutch rather using it as a creative tool. Class time should be reserved for discussion, he contends, especially now that students can download lectures online and find libraries of information on the Web. When students reflect on their college years later in life, they’re going to remember challenging debates and talks with their professors. Lively interactions are what teaching is all about, he says, but those give-and-takes are discouraged by preset collections of slides.”

This point seems like a fine one; however, the issue seems to be less about PPT and its alleged inadequacies (as lampooned quite well by Edward Tufte) as it is about what student expect and define “education” to be, as well as how professors integrate technology into the classroom.

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If professors simply use PPT as a way to avoid thinking of creative ways to present and discuss the class material, then that is potentially problematic. However, it seems that in many cases, these professors are conveying their lectures via PPT in response to student demands and expectations. Later in the article, Jeffrey Young paraphrased a typical student response to professors whose presentation style diverges from the standard lecture as being incredulous: “I paid for a college education and you’re not going to lecture.”

This type of response — one that posits that the ideal manner of learning occurs via a didactic presentation style — seems to drive the use of tools like PPT, perhaps especially at a private institution like SMU. While the article mentions that students found “seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions” the least boring, those are also the presentation styles which put the greatest onus on the students. Unsurprisingly, the article goes on to note that “the biggest resistance to Mr. Bowen’s ideas has come from students, some of whom have groused about taking a more active role during those 50-minute class periods.”

Ultimately it seems that PPT is not the root of the problem, but rather the symptom of a broader, consumerist definition of education. It seems that the emphasis should be on what students should expect out of a college education (or any education, for that matter) — which, ideally, revolves around being intellectually challenged, engaged, and constantly growing. In all likelihood, PPT is appealing because it is controlled, passive, and predictable — both for the student and for the professor. I’m certainly not a huge fan of PPT and try to avoid using it as much as possible, as in my experience the projection of words onto a screen turn students into uncritical, slow, inefficient Xerox machines. Not only does PPT not encourage engaged participation, but it also seems to make students’ note-taking skills regress (e.g. to the point of rote copying. However, I should note that that Eric Rauchway makes a compelling argument about the practicality and appropriateness of PPT in many lecture-style classes. Clearly, the issue of PPT and its uses cannot be viewed in a purely Manichean way.)

However, for Dean Bowen to advocate removal of technology from the classroom seems to be an over-reaching, and wrong-headed reaction. The problem isn’t the technology; it’s the way in which professor and students think they should use the technology. If one’s presentation method doesn’t cohere with the tools being used for note-taking, then one should consider what other tools and resources might exist that would improve the engagement and participation of the students. I certainly know that when I’ve had classes with only a few students who had laptops, and I continued to present material as if everyone had paper and pencil, those students with the laptops quickly became detached from the material and were drawn into the various temptations of the Internet (e.g. anything more interesting than me talking…hard as it is to believe.)

Therefore, it seems worth considering, particularly if these SMU students are using laptops and want to be engaged with technology, whether other types of technology — especially participatory and interactive technologies — might better serve and engage the students. Rather than issue blanket proclamations about how “technology is boring to students” (yeah, we know that good teaching can be done without it. In fact, we’ve known about those techniques since before 399 BCE when Socrates received a death sentence for his all too engaging teaching methods) and computers should be removed from the classroom, it seems worth considering how technology can be harnessed to keep students engaged and actively participating even in a format, the lecture, that seems inimical to collaborative discourse. (University of Texas at Dallas Professor Monica Rankin’s “Twitter Experiment” is perhaps the best known example of using these participatory techniques in a lecture-style class. Perhaps the SMU crowd should hop on I-35E heading north and see what they’re up to in Richardson!)

Ultimately, while I’ll likely continue to remain circumspect of PPT and try as much as possible to avoid using it, my opposition to it centers less on it being problematic because it is “technology,” but rather because my use of it (and students’ expectations of how they should engage with it) seems to stifle intellectual development and valuable student participation. Nevertheless, I do believe that there are many technologies and resources that do exist that can enhance and further engage students in ways that pencil and paper cannot.

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One thought on “Boredom in the Classroom: Is Technology the Problem?

  1. Pingback: Learning Styles, Shmearning Shmyles? | The History Channel This Is Not…

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