Death in the classroom (3/5)


[1460 words]

Too much tech, not enough literacy

The vendors scooping up ed-tech money aren’t all that concerned about what students are watching in and out of class, if only because it’s none of their business. What they have done is take the mobile revolution as an opportunity to persuade college administrators to give the kids what they want. In practice, that means a lot more than just adding wireless bandwidth. It means taking student preferences as the definitive guide in determining how teachers should teach.

Most courses, advise the vendors, should be re-designed to work on mobile so students can learn their course materials the way that makes them feel most comfortable. More mobile access allows them to study in short bursts at the campus coffee bar or anywhere with a signal, rather than slogging it out for hours on end in the library. Parents and educators should pay heed to the creeping implications of this widely praised model of teaching and learning.

Once upon a time we believed that an experienced and dedicated instructor was in the best position to help undergraduates develop skills. But so-called “student-centered learning” stands that model on its head. If students prefer to watch a lecture on their phone when they feel the urge, why should they be forced into a classroom and subjected to a learning experience when they don’t feel the urge? Why be in a classroom poring over the printed word, when you can just look stuff up on Google while sipping a latte?

Google is the operative word as co-conspirator. For millions of college students, Google was a dream come true. They’d been dragging their sorry butts to the library every day, forced to look up sources for assignments title by painful title, then wander through musty book stacks like misplaced monks. No more! Google’s platform wasn’t just free, fast and ubiquitous. It was cool. It was a verb. Don’t search it, google it!  

The happy dependence on Google for search is shared among 4.5 billion active monthly users in over 120 languages. For the college students among them, Google search has helped liberate them from classrooms and libraries, while relieving them of a great deal of what used to be called research — or paying attention for that matter. Hardly surprising that something this effortless became chief homework assistant on campus.

The student-centered model, abetted by Google and other online resources, does away with the conventional wisdom that undergrads are apprentices in the halls of learning who need guidance. They’re treated instead like customers. Technical fields like science and engineering have built-in requirements that make it difficult to wriggle out of learning routines imposed from on high. Engineering grads can’t be allowed to let their bridges fall down. But no matter how much students in the liberal arts mangle Shakespeare or Marx, the world moves on unscathed.

Dependence on technology has seeped into every activity in every corner of campus. The resulting demand on network resources has IT departments in a state of panic. Yet the IT guys can’t afford to indulge their feelings, they have traffic jams to unjam. Of course, they can always seek comfort in the fellow feeling that flows from the prevailing belief system about ed tech. Under that system, everyone — IT departments, students, administrators, instructors and certainly the vendors — sees technology as the solution to everything. Technology is the gift that gets students signed up, helps them learn and keeps them happy. 

The parties are in agreement on one key tenet: the only bad tech is no tech. They are also agreed on a misguided understanding of what it means to be “digitally literate.” This is where the prevailing belief system has taken a leap of faith into a technological twilight zone. No one even has to say it out loud. It’s simply taken for granted that the more students use digital technology, the more they’ll learn and the more digitally literate they’ll get. That happy formula is assumed to apply not just to ed tech, but to personal tech as well.

The learning problem is compounded by conflicting views of what digital literacy means. For me digital literacy is knowing how the Internet and digital technologies like search engines work, along with an understanding of how Internet access is marketed and sold, and being familiar with contentious social issues like privacy and security. But that’s not how the students see it. They arrive on day one in my classes, which are designed to instill a little literacy, in an unusual state of mind. They casually assume they know things about the course material that, it turns out, they don’t. 

Sometime after launching my classroom ban on everything digital, I wanted to get a clearer idea of what students knew from their extensive daily encounters with the usual technologies. I put together a one-page benchmark exercise designed to measure what everyone knew at the start of each course, to be contrasted with what they’d learned by the end of it. I asked about two things, their personal computer configuration and their home Internet setup. The specifiers ranged from the processing speed of their computers to the speed of their broadband connection. 

The reactions to the test at the start of the course were as unsettling as the results. The quiz was set up so that everyone answered what they could, unaided, while still in class, and any blanks could be filled in at home using whatever prompts were needed — vendor homepages, ISP bills, parents, etc. Most students had no idea what most of the questions even meant, let alone what the right answers were. You may be nonplussed as a parent to hear that the young child who showed you how to use the apps on your phone has grown up to be digitally challenged.

Quite apart from the shock of giving up their phones for three hours, the pushback against addressing the literacy problem happens in stages. At first they express dismay at having to learn something “new.” One sign of how skittish some students are about having to learn and retain unfamiliar material is the defensive reaction I’ve heard many times: “I can’t learn this Internet stuff, I have no background in technology.” My not entirely facetious response: “Neither do I.”  

In other scholastic circumstances, the discovery of an initial knowledge shortfall wouldn’t be much of an issue since nobody expects students to know the course material in advance. If you walked into a course on Hegel for beginners, or Arabic 101, with a thorough grasp of the subject-matter, there wouldn’t be much point in paying for all those classes. But for a 20-something who’s had a phone of some kind since they were 10, it’s disconcerting to walk into a class on digital technology and discover they’ve been kidding themselves. They live as tech enthusiasts, and that’s how everyone else treats them, but this enthusiasm doesn’t readily translate into curiosity. They pine for their phone in one breath then say they hate technology in the next — or at least they hate learning about it. 

The benchmark quiz also stirred up signs of a message I would hear regularly from students that the course work we do to get an armchair understanding of digital technology is simply too hard. This always bemuses me, since the way we study technology has well-defined limits. We don’t tackle software engineering or 3D printing, although we do spend some time on numbers, especially when studying the role of measurement in technology. But it’s just arithmetic, no calculus or regressions in sight. Mathematics, it ain’t. 

Nevertheless, complaints about the work go up sharply as soon as numbers appear on the screen or in a reading. Evidently numeracy skills have fallen victim to the liberal educational approaches of the last few decades. And in keeping with the cultural baggage created by trucks for boys and dolls for girls, women students are more likely to stumble over a question involving multiplying or dividing. 

I once asked a student to tell us how many megabits (a million bits) are in one gigabit (a billion bits) — in other words, divide a billion by a million. Even though this was ground we’d already covered, the student couldn’t bring herself to answer, explaining she’d failed her high school math courses. She also mentioned that in a fit of pique she’d once set fire to her parents’ dining room curtains while attempting to do math homework. In a subsequent class, another student saw a table of numbers go up on the screen, raised her hand and announced she was going to be sick. She was only half-kidding. Simple arithmetic makes some students denounce numeracy in a dramatic fashion, even if confirmed cases of arson and regurgitation are rare.