More on the classroom crisis (4/5)


Being Part 4 of a series of posts on the endemic crisis of attention in our classrooms. You’ll find the previous three here (#1), here (#2) and here (#3).


[1200 words]

Who you gonna trust?

This jumble of expectations makes digital literacy a tricky goal. I’ve spent years teaching undergrads basic concepts that lead to some degree of digital literacy. I started out in the usual way, with students taking notes on their laptops, texting on their phones and experimenting with applications on the built-in iMacs. When I challenged long-standing assumptions by banishing screens and keyboards, there were drawbacks for some, such as not having class notes stored and searchable on a hard drive. But my pre-ban and post-ban experience, along with the test results at the end of the course, has given me ample opportunity to compare the two styles of learning. One is staring at one or more screens, the other is paying attention to what the other warm bodies in the room are saying, me included. The paying-attention model wins hands down.

This outcome may be surprising given that we’re examining how the Internet works in a Communication Studies course in an all-Mac computer lab housed in a structure that was originally called TEL, aka the Technology-Enhanced Learning Building, until a rich donor bought the naming rights with his $10 million. Common sense —not to mention force of bad habit — might suggest that Comm Studies majors would learn more technical stuff by using the technologies we’re in the midst of examining. Experience proves otherwise.

How did we get into this mess? What can we do, if anything, to fix it? What can we do, if anything, to promote genuine digital literacy in the classroom? 

Removing the barriers to attention is one thing — finding motivational ways to get attention restored is quite another. Students have told me over the years that they spend time in class on the phone because so many assignments and instructors are so boring. That’s life, I say, work can be boring. But it doesn’t need to be mind-numbing. Coming across like a stuffed shirt who has zero sense of humor and doesn’t give a damn about students — avoiding all that is a good starting point. My approach is a variant on student-centered learning, except it’s not about students deciding what and how to learn; it’s about treating them like decent people who have needs, including being listened to from time to time.

Difficult though it is for many students to accept, it’s also about accepting that learning means working hard and knowing how to learn. The increasing trend in North American public school systems, from primary to post-secondary education, is to reduce dropout and failure rates in favor of advancing students to the next level. The arguments for and against this approach are endless, but the fact remains that many students enter humanities courses at university with exceptionally poor writing and overall learning — and numeracy — skills. Any attempt at improving their ability to learn something “new” has to face this reality.

First, I don’t assign textbooks because a textbook invites students to memorize material instead of thinking about it. Memorizing is bad news for learning terms like algorithm or bandwidth because we can’t learn terms of art without understanding them first. A textbook definition is treated as the final word and means students won’t chip away at figuring out the underlying concepts; as soon as the context shifts or a related term pops up, the pre-fab concept turns to smoke. Instead, when students cobble together their own definitions from multiple sources, they’re forced to think and ask questions about what they’re reading. 

Announcing that Wikipedia is our go-to textbook substitute is a surefire way to get attention from students who’ve been told repeatedly to keep the world’s favorite online encyclopedia the heck outta their academic work. Why? Because it’s “unreliable.” And it’s unreliable apparently because the entries aren’t signed and any random dude can just waltz up and edit them at will. The implication is that Wikipedia is yet another outpost in those vast stretches of the Web where people get to say anything and do, fake news being just the latest incarnation. 

I use Wikipedia a lot and I’ve read my fair share of entries that were poorly written, unhelpful, even inaccurate. But Wikipedia has real human editors who’ve developed an elaborate system of checks and balances designed to fix errors and promote quality. Sources are cited. Poor entries get flagged and eventually fixed — or at least debated and flagged some more. So what if some of the material “uses original research” or “lacks inline citations” or “sounds like an advertisement”? The key take-away liberal arts students are supposed to obtain from their studies is the ability to apply critical thinking to what they read and hear. 

Compare this editorial strategy with googling, the alternative research method preferred by many of the educators who denounce Wikipedia. Algorithms may be many things but what they are not is objective or neutral. Certainly, critical thinking can also be applied to a list of Google hits by scrolling through to find the hit that will provide the best answer. But that hit may be on the first page or the tenth, there’s no way of knowing for sure. And Google has done an excellent job of convincing us that the first hits are not only the most convenient but the best for each of us as individual users. To hear them tell it, Google’s sophisticated search ads platform not only benefits their revenues by showing us the items we supposedly want to buy but benefits us by providing custom-tailored, highly relevant “information” in response to our searches. So why bother searching beyond the first page? 

Underlying these issues is a misplaced faith in technology that has afflicted people who should know better. As with many online services, including Google, users see breathtaking engineering as a sure sign they’re getting not just fast, free answers, but really good answers too. And the fact that Google’s search hits are chosen and sorted mechanically — by those ingenious algorithms — only strengthens the pervasive faith in the quality of tech. But if educators don’t want students to put their faith in Wikipedia’s faceless editors, why should they put their faith in Google’s faceless engineers and algorithms instead? 

These algorithmic conundrums add up to a perfect example of what digital literacy looks like in action — and what happens when it goes missing. As a key Internet-related term, we devote special attention to algorithms because they’re ubiquitous yet widely misunderstood. When it’s time to study these mysterious entities, off we go to Wikipedia, whose entry turns out to be quite technical. But it’s still worth reading — in conjunction with other resources. We discuss helpful analogies like a recipe for chocolate cake. We up the ante when my friend the computer scientist visits class and shows us what a living, breathing algorithm looks like written in the Python scripting language — and why he writes it like that to make it do what it does. And we have some fun talk about Al-Khwarizmi, the 9th-century Persian mathematician who inadvertently gave his name to the cause.

Once we’re done with algorithms in this fairly painless way, students see Google and the many other automated areas of their online life very differently — and critically, because they’ve achieved some small measure of digital literacy, the kind they can depend on once the course is over.