Sunday, November 9, 2014

Seasoning Your Lesson with Technology

The proliferation of machinery and electronic gadgetry in and around the classroom has been a real blessing in teaching and learning. I can remember using a mimeograph machine to make multiple copies of something for the whole class; also saving my nickels to go to the library because they had the only copy machine around and if I wanted something copied out of a book for my own use they charged me a nickel a page. I've used record players, filmstrips, cassette tapes, slide projectors, and 16mm films in the classroom. My personal favorite was/is the overhead projector. They were all good in their day but there was a high level of clunkiness involved with most of them (looking at it from our current vantage point).

Today I can use projectors that work with wireless wonder alongside my computer, tablet, or phone. I have PowerPoint and Keynote and other programs that make presentations come alive with an endless variety of typefaces and animation. This is a big step forward and, all in all, a boost to what we as teachers do. I love using maps in class and can now bring up an endless stream of maps of everything and every place.

However (that's just a glorified 'but' and you could probably see it coming), these things have to be used with caution and restraint. I constantly talk to students before and after classes I visit and I hear some variation of this common refrain: "I'm so sick of presentations on the screen". Last summer I taught at a conference for 4 days and after the second day's class a young woman came to me and said "I must thank you". She was urgent and sincere. "Thanks for not using any presentations on the screen. Thanks for talking with us and not turning your whole lesson over to the screen."

Here is my list of cautions and concerns about the over-use of screen technology:
1. Just because it is available doesn't mean you need to use it all the time.
2. If you spend more time creating your screen presentation than the rest of your lesson, it's too much
3. If you find yourself skipping over slides during your class presentation and muttering "we don't need this one, we'll skip this one," then you've made too many and it has become intrusive.
4. If you put up large chunks of text and have students read them aloud you are putting everyone to sleep.
5. If you have become so reliant on technology that you can't teach without it then you probably need to refocus your priorities.

Technology has a tendency to go bad and not work for us. Even old technology can hold us in its grip. One summer I taught at a conference with a colleague and we were checking out our room assignments prior to students coming in. As we walked into his room he looked around and immediately panicked - there was no piano. He played and sang as part of his teaching (and was really good at it) so when he realized there was no piano he said "I can't teach here". I said "You are a teacher - what do you mean you can't teach here?". "Without a piano I simply can't teach." Well, he had become the slave of that level of technology and it hampered his teaching.

Here is another extreme example. Once I was supposed to go to a training meeting where some new materials were being introduced. I was excited to go but was unable to at the last minute, so the next day I called some colleagues to see what I missed. All of them were envious that I had missed the meeting. Here's what happened: the presenter distributed the material, about 80 pages worth, then proceeded to put each page up on the screen - the same pages that everyone had in their hand - and have someone read aloud what was up there. He did that for almost all of the 80 pages and it took about 3 hours. They said that he would occasionally comment about the importance of a particular page or passage, but mostly it was just a reading.

That is bad training and that is poor teaching. When I was in high school there was a group of students that were the Audio Visual guys - the AV crew. They were the ones to bring a movie projector to a classroom and set it up and make sure it ran. Today, everyone is their own AV crew but when you allow that assignment to become bigger than your teaching assignment something has gone wrong. Over-reliance on technology puts it between us and the students, or between the material and the students. It is as though we have moved the screen (or the piano) to the front and moved the teacher to the background. The teacher needs to be a presence in the classroom, not merely an AV accessory.

Technology is just seasoning, just spice. It should enhance, not dominate the lesson. Just as a cook periodically tastes the soup as it is simmering to know if the taste is right, we should do the same on a regular basis. Is my technology usage taking over the class or is it used discreetly enough that it really adds to the mix? Am I wise enough to just use one map quickly to illustrate a point, or one quote to do the same? Most people think that if one quote is good then 10 are better. Today's free tip: successive quotes on the same subject are not better than one good one that hits the point.

Use technology wisely. Be grateful for it and employ it well but don't let it take center stage. Let it enhance the lesson, but don't let it overwhelm you and the students.

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