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The Problem with Learning Technology

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Image: Pupils with counting-frames in classroom, circa 1930 (Dutch Nationaal Archief)

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.”

While the pedagogical potential is still there, students now approach such online assignments with grim doggedness. For many students, online informal writing has become just another rote component of a literature course, too similar to what they are expected to do in other classes, not helpful enough to hold their interest. Not only have these platforms lost the aura of immediacy and creativity that they once had, but students have little desire to add an intellectual online persona to the profiles that they cultivate across multiple media. They text, they Snapchat, they Yik-Yak, they swipe right or left on Tinder, they seek advice on Reddit, they connect on LinkedIn, they have mixed feelings about Facebook, they tweet, they have well-formulated reasons for using or eschewing various means of online interaction.

Some faculty are able to harness that social-media energy to their learning goals, with Twitter hashtags, Facebook study groups, judicious Reddit mining. More power to them. But to get a student to sit down with a piece of literature and to make some sense out of it?

It now seems important, as it didn’t 10 years ago, to keep things simple: to focus on the humans in the room, the literature we’re reading, the tools that help us make sense of the texts. Students experience much of their contact with other people by making things happen on a screen. What feels fresh and immediate to them now is a real conversation, in real time, over pieces of paper that can be held in the hand.

I’ve gone back to in-class writing assignments and to handouts that they can find online if they need them later, but that they first experience in print. Quiet students who hang back in conversations get regular opportunities to hand in questions and concerns that they don’t want to air out loud. I read aloud, a lot, and have become more attuned to the difference between rapt and bored silence -- the way the energy in the room changes when frustration becomes curiosity or vice versa, the significance of a shared experience of the text that can become its own data point.

Yes, we use devices on occasion to define unfamiliar words or track down allusions. I send out email blasts every week with relevant articles or videos attached. We have no textbook this semester; instead an online binder of links guides students through free and authoritative online sources (particularly Poetryfoundation.org) to the poems we print out to read and discuss in class. Formal papers get uploaded to the learning-management system to streamline recordkeeping and grading.

The classroom as a space for human interaction has become a luxury in higher education, and I am keenly aware of my privilege. It may be reproducible online where there are no alternatives: one instructor for fewer than 40 students, and with time to read and comment on frequent writing assignments, form individual relationships with students, and create a sense of shared community. Even so, an intimate and interactive class like this is not cheap or scalable or reducible to a set of readings and prompts that can be deployed with equal effectiveness by an interchangeable roster of instructors. Real-time human interaction is precisely the feature of such classes that students value, particularly students from other majors completing general-education requirements through literature courses. Such students are all too familiar with content delivery that is scalable, reproducible, and characterized by a large lecture hall, and they are grateful for an alternative.

A good literature course develops students’ capacities to think more carefully and accurately about what they read, to discern and articulate fine distinctions, to recognize the many different interpretive levels on which they engage with a literary work, and to draw meaningful connections between the literature they study and the world they are coming to know better. The skills that students develop through literary study are useful and marketable. But they have become luxuries in academe because they can’t be packaged, bought, and sold within the content-delivery model that makes money for learning-technology companies, and that many institutions of higher education have become convinced is the only model for learning.

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