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Teaching Thoughtfully with (and without) Technology

This article was originally published in the Fall 2000 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, Teaching Forum.

By John Rakestraw

The first time I entered a university classroom as an instructor, I carried a wealth of classroom experience with me. I had spent many years as a student, and during that time I had observed many different teachers do many different things to enable (and sometimes stand in the way of) the learning of their students. As a beginning teacher I didn’t think very carefully about all of these experiences, but many of the things I did as an instructor in those early years drew on my experiences as a student.

To pick one simple example, when I approached a chalkboard to illustrate a point on my first day of class as an instructor I had behind me years of many teachers using the chalkboard in a variety of ways. Some of them brought their students to the board regularly. Others reserved it as a surface on which they would write the main points of a lecture. Still others used it to collect and then organize student comments during a class discussion. When I entered the classroom on my first day of teaching, I hadn’t thought consciously about all of those different teachers using a chalkboard, but their uses still informed my use of the board as an instructional tool. I picked up on the medium of instruction even while I was focusing on the content of instruction.

The chalkboard example can carry another point. Some technologies are so deeply ingrained in our teaching practice that we’re reluctant to think of them as technologies that we choose to use in teaching. That’s because we find it difficult to think of teaching without them. Their use is so pervasive that they’re considered to be part of the teaching itself, rather than a use of technology in teaching.

However, there were several things I didn’t see any of my instructors do that many of today’s students see. I did not see any of my instructors turn on a personal computer to show students a web site that might provide useful information. Nor did I see an instructor use PowerPoint slides to enhance a lecture presentation. Nor did I see an instructor set up an electronic bulletin board discussion area.

In short, when I began as an instructor to use these new technologies in teaching, I was working largely in the absence of models. It was natural, therefore, not only to model my uses of new technologies on uses of old technologies, but also to seek some models from uses outside the academy. The first syllabus I put on the World Wide Web was, for the most part, an electronic version of paper course syllabi I’d been handing out for years. The first on line discussion forum I hosted for a class was a rather clumsy attempt to recreate on line the same sort of free-flowing discussions I had facilitated to good effect in face-to-face encounters in the classroom. I realize now that it was clumsy in part because I hadn’t thought carefully about the many different factors standing underneath a strong classroom discussion. Such factors might include the recording and structuring of student comments on a chalkboard. It might also include something so subtle as an encouraging glance at a student on the verge of jumping into the discussion.

My not thinking carefully about what underlies a good classroom discussion was especially problematic in light of the fact that many of these new technologies are used rather uncritically in other areas. Thus, for example, the online discussion forums that many professors are using in the classroom are also used outside the academy by students and others in decidedly non-rigorous ways.

All of this leads me to one of the more interesting characteristics of current discussions about using new technologies effectively in education. As we think and talk about how to use these new technologies in teaching, we often move rather quickly into thinking and talking about how to teach. These reflections and discussions, it seems to me, are important whether we decide to use a particular technology or not. I’m convinced not only that we should use technology for the sake of the teaching rather than for the sake of the technology, but also that our discussions about technology in teaching are most rewarding, finally, when they lead us to new insights about teaching.

Where will these new technologies — and others yet to be developed — take us in teaching and learning? How will learning encounters of the future be different from those in classrooms today? No one knows. I will suggest, however, some caution in assessing the full effectiveness of these new technologies and their impact on teaching on the basis merely of the way we are using them today. Imagine an attempt to assess the impact of the automobile on late 20th century culture on the basis of what the Model T could and couldn’t do in the early 1900s. Far better, I think, to continue the exploration and use of these new technologies, being careful to consider how and to what extent they facilitate good teaching and learning.