College 2.0: Teachers Without Technology Strike Back

Jeff Haller, Keyhole Photo for The Chronicle

Mark James, of the U. of West Florida, banned laptops, cellphones, and such in his summer class in English literature. "The students seemed more involved in the discussion than when I allowed them to go online," he reports.
August 15, 2010

Mark James, a visiting lecturer at the University of West Florida, declared his summer course in English literature technology-free—he skipped the PowerPoint slides and YouTube videos he usually shows, and he asked students to silence their cellphones and close their laptops.

Banishing the gear improved the course, he argues. "The students seemed more involved in the discussion than when I allowed them to go online," he told me as the summer term wound down. "They were more attentive, and we were able to go into a little more depth."

Mr. James is not antitechnology—he said he had some success in his composition courses using an online system that's sold with textbooks. But he is frustrated by professors and administrators who believe that injecting the latest technology into the classroom naturally improves teaching. That belief was highlighted in my College 2.0 column last month, in which some professors likened colleagues who don't teach with tech to doctors who ignore improvements in medicine.

Many low-tech professors were extremely distressed by that charge of educational malpractice. (They told me so in dozens of comments on the article and in e-mail messages.)

After interviewing a few of them this month, it seems to me the key debate between the tech enthusiasts and tech skeptics is really over broader changes in colleges, and anxieties about the academy being turned into just another business.

Teaching is not car assembly, the skeptics say, in that there's no objective checklist to follow. Nor is it brain surgery, because there is no agreed-upon group of vital signs to check.

"I see teaching as more of an art, and a relationship thing," said Mr. James. After we talked it out for a while, he settled on the metaphor of a carpenter's workshop to replace that of a doctor's clinic: "Let's say I want to get a really well-made table. I might go to someone who knows the old-style way of making a table, and I'm willing to pay a lot for that," is how he put it. By extension, tech-based learning feels more like IKEA—a lower-price, build-it-yourself option.

In that way, some professors see emphasizing the benefits of chalk-and-talk methods as defending their craft against pressures to cheapen it.

"This is where we have to ask, What kind of education do we offer?" said Mr. James. "We're preparing citizens that need to be able to communicate with each other. Knowledge isn't always something that's able to come out nicely packaged."

In Defense of Blue Books

When Barry Leeds explains why he makes his students write papers in blue books instead of on computers, he quickly recalls a favorite professor from graduate school. That was a long time ago—Mr. Leeds is 69, an emeritus professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, and he took that course when he was 22.

His professor made students write short papers and then gave extensive feedback, which forced them to hone their arguments and express themselves more clearly. And he made them write out the papers in longhand, in blue books, during class. "There's something about the immediacy or exigency of it," Mr. Leeds said. "When I took those written exams, I found that I made connections that I didn't know I knew—it shook up my brain cells like a supernova."

So today Mr. Leeds requires his students to write short, in-class papers. In blue books. By hand. Just like his favorite professor did.

How do today's students respond? "Once they're done kvetching about the blue books, they ultimately tell me for the most part that they found that it was a revealing experience," he told me. In other words, Mr. Leeds manages to get good teaching evaluations with an old-school method. And he feels that the students emerge with the same kinds of dramatic revelations that he experienced nearly 50 years ago.

His teaching has changed and evolved, though. For his favorite Hemingway course, he has dropped some books that didn't resonate, and he spends more time on ones that students connect with. At first he lectured for most of each class and left five minutes for questions. Gradually, based on students' response, he turned classroom time into more of a discussion.

"There's the danger of becoming like the ancient mariner and telling the same tale again and again and again," he said, adding that he knows of professors who cling to their yellowed lecture notes. "I have to safeguard against getting too hidebound and giving the same presentation each time."

He's never felt pressure from administrators to try blogs, wikis, or any other technology, although he said he "resents" what he sees as a lack of recognition of the time teaching takes. "There's an overemphasis on scholarship and research and only lip-service paid to teaching," he said.

So even though his classroom is low-tech, he feels that his teaching skills are honed by the trial and error of years at the podium. "It's just like you wouldn't want to go to a dentist who just got out of dental school," he said. "You'd like them to practice on someone else for a few years."

Wariness of Fads

Jason B. Jones, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut who helps run the ProfHacker blog, on The Chronicle's Web site (and thus enthusiastic about the promise of technology), said he understood why some longtime professors are wary of the latest gadgets in the classroom. After all, ed-tech fads have come and gone.

"There are still braces on the walls from where they had the last technology that was going to transform education—that was the TV's," he said. "Just about every semester I almost crack my head open on one of them." The television sets once supported by these metal brackets were long ago removed.

Some professors who are receptive to new technology attend the latest workshops and then decide it just doesn't work for them.

That was the case for Joanne Budzien, a postdoctoral lecturer in physics and engineering at Frostburg State University, who attended a session on using "clickers," devices that let professors instantly quiz students. The students click small remote controls, and professors can display the results on a screen.

"My classes are very small—I have at most 24 students, and it just seems impersonal to put up a question and use a clicker," she said. "I can just have a raise of hands, and I can call on them and say why do you think this and why do you think that."

Still, she remembers professors from her undergraduate days who put little effort into teaching—and she doesn't want to end up like that. "One would tell a joke that was way, way, way out of date," she said. Others' idea of a technological upgrade was taking their old transparencies and using them in the same way as PowerPoint slides.

So who's right? Fans of both old and new teaching approaches say they that have the students' interests at heart. Perhaps a better question is why there is a digital divide at all when it comes to teaching.

Some commenters have argued that tech enthusiasts lack research to prove that their methods work. In fact, reams of research have been produced, much of the results showing gains over those old-school methods. Some of the work is cited in a recent government report on the future of teaching, the "National Education Technology Plan 2010.". Teaching experiments seem to deserve more attention than a flip dismissal.

Yet professors who worry about a move toward assembly-line education should be at the table as well, checking for oversteps. As one commenter on my last column put it: "Problem is, higher education in this country has rapidly taken on many of the qualities of business corporations, with instructors being expected to serve a student clientele in whatever way that is convenient for that clientele. Coming along as a student, I learnt a great deal from some 'boring' professors."

Both old and new approaches will probably have to live together on campus for many years to come. So why not get to know each other a bit better?

College 2.0 covers how new technologies are changing colleges. Please send ideas to or @jryoung on Twitter.