Nine theses on teaching with technology

The following theses come out of my experience with a faculty seminar at CU Boulder on the subject of Teaching with Technology sponsored by Arts and Sciences Support of Education Through Technology (ASSETT). I do not claim any sort of comprehensiveness nor exhaustiveness. There are further things to be said and any number of issues that I have ignored. I do not claim that any of these theses are correct or proven; they are places to begin.

1. We always “teach with technology”

Before there were computers, there were textbooks. Before there was presentation software, there were black and white boards. Before there were word processors, there were notebooks and pens. Before there was print, there was writing. Before there was writing, there was speech. And don’t forget about purposeful images. If teaching involves a passing along of knowledge, skill, etc. in a process that is not simply nor merely mimetic, but involves some sort of abstraction, then teaching involves technology.

2. “Teaching with technology” is redundant

The usefulness of the phrase has less to do with its brute truthfulness than it does with how it informs us in another manner, how it draws our attention to what we have been doing and how we have been previously informed or disciplined. In short, we have always taught with technology, even before we were aware of doing so. Our use of such technologies was mimetic (based on having seen others doing something similar), done without an abstract knowledge of what we were doing. Thus “teaching with technology” abstracts our practices so that we might know them.

3. We never teach “with” technology

Following from the claims above, we must understand that technology is never something that is simply “with” us, in two senses. First, and most simply, if teaching always involves some form of technology (from language to the Internet), then we cannot use “with.” Such would be the equivalent of “I eat with my mouth” or “I see with my eyes.” Without a mouth, I don’t eat. Without eyes, I don’t see. (Or at least not in the ways I am used to). Second, technology is not simply “with” us. That is, technology is neither transparent nor neutral. Technology adds to (or disposes of) teaching in unexpected ways, often in ways that do not conform to our desires or our expectations. Thus technology is not “with” us. That’s not to say that it is “against” us, but rather to say that whatever its allegiances seem to be at any given moment, they have, in fact, no concern for us whatsoever.

4. We need to think harder about what we mean by “technology”

We focus on computers, networks, and course management software. We think about presentation software and, maybe, clickers. We do not think hard enough about (text)books, pens, spiral-bound notebooks, backboards, our language as language, etc. No doubt there is a vast body of research on these matters, but seminars, conferences, and informal discussions on “teaching with technology” tend to focus on digital technologies. There are other technologies at work in the classroom (and outside of the classroom, where a great deal of what comprises teaching in the classroom gets done in terms of prep). Because these technologies are not neutral, because they operate in the classroom in unexpected and sometimes uncontrollable ways, we need to see that, when it comes to teaching, it’s technology all the way down; we need to think about what various layers of technology do and afford.

5. Interdisciplinarity should consist, in part, in recognizing discipline-specific technologies

There are technologies in engineering classrooms and physics laboratories that do not, at present, translate into literature courses or business seminars as technology. “Teaching with technology” effaces such difference in the name of interdisciplinarity, an interdiscipinarity that then only operates at one level of abstraction: the level on which these disciplines already meet (we all use Twitter, or Facebook, or Powerpoint, or clickers, or Blackboard cum DesireToLearn, etc.). What happens when Powerpoint meets the Bunsen burner? When Word meets a wind tunnel? Certain disciplines (cultural studies, philosophy) might be able to make sense of these meetings as objects of inquiry, but such making sense is not interdisciplinarity, but meta-disciplinarity.

6. Technology should be attached to a problem, which it tries to solves

We must resist using technology for its own sake. A wiki does not add to teaching outside of any other context, nor does a blog, Twitter, a textbook, or a pencil. A textbook provides a standardized means of disseminating information (whether it accomplishes this task is another question). A pencil provides a means of “remembering” information as well as providing a means of editing such “memories.” Each technology solves (or tries to solve) a problem, even if it introduces other problems (textbooks go out of date or limit the flexibility of a syllabus; pencils can distract from listening and notes can provide a false sense of security). Teaching with any technology must include a consideration of intended/desired outcomes: what will this specific technology do in this class under these conditions? Is there a problem here? What technology might solve that problem? How?

7. Technology is more than the latest, shiniest thing

We cannot fetishize technology as an end. We should not seek technology for its own sake. We should not listen to vendors of technology explain to us what we might do with their shiny things. We should ask ourselves what we need to do and then think of what we need to accomplish our self-set task. Because technology is not neutral and because it affords some things and not others, giving technology primacy likewise gives primacy to those things that technologies affords rather than to those things that we might desire in its absence. Homer: “The blade itself incites to violence.” The promise of technology all too often becomes bound up in the promise of the commodity: “Buy this software for whiter whites!” “Use this blogging platform and everyone will love you!” “Tweet your troubles away!” Our whites might be fine, we may be loved already, and our troubles might, it turns out, come from the new thing rather than being solve by it.

8. We must not simply instrumentalize technology

We should think about what problems technology might solve, and how, and avoid using technology for its own sake (and thus use it for our own sakes). At the same time, we must also understand the previous theses, and never forget that technology will not solve any problem without creating new ones, or that it might solve a problem in unexpected ways, or fail to solve a problem altogether. Technology should not become an end in itself, but nor should we think therefore that it can ever simply be a means to an otherwise neutral end. The introduction of any new technology to the classroom reorganizes “means” & “ends,” “subjects” & “objects.” The question of who (or what) is in control is complex, but we must never assume that the answer is simply “the professor” or some such.

9. There should be no single theory of “teaching with technology”

Technology cuts across many spaces: in-class/outside-of-class; personal space within class (the laptop screen)/public space outside of the classroom (the laptop screen at the coffee shop). Technology reconfigures memory. Technology is a (non-neutral) product and a (non-neutral) means of production. Technolgies overlap and interpenetrate one another (writing in textbooks and online) but cannot be reduced to one another (a television program on Hulu is not the same as the one on NBC). There is no single thing “technology” that is utterly coherent in all contexts, for all individuals. As such, we should not look for any single answer or even single set of answers to the question of “teaching with technology.”

Tools for thought

I wrote much of the above in the wake of (or under the influence of) the following theoretical texts (and, doubtless, others I fail to recall here).

  • Agamben, Giorgio. “What is an Apparatus?” An apparatus is not simply that device over there, but the things we say about it, the institutions and individuals who use it, the economies that spring up around it, etc.
  • Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works. The “informationalization” of the university (and the concomitant casualization of its workforce) has detrimental effects on teaching, research, and society.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on Control Societies.” While discipline still exists, it has been supplemented if not succeeded by control: the control of the individual through technologies specific to that individual (rather than general to the masses).
  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. How does power interact with bodies? How do we become disciplined?
  • —. “The Subject and Power.” There are not subjects without power and there is no power without subjectivity.
  • —. “What is Enlightenment?” Reads Kant’s answer to this question as a new moment in history. Historical progress is no longer the culmination of some series of events, but an escape from the past. We escape from one power to another.
  • Flusser, Vilém. Does Writing Have a Future? In a word: no.
  • —. Into the Universe of Technical Images. Human history as a history of its means of abstracting the world through images, writing, and other technologies.
  • Golumbia, David. The Cultural Logic of Computation. “Computationalism” (the equation of any number of things with computers) has detrimental effects on thought, society, etc.
  • Kant, Immanuel. “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Enlightenment is the free public use of reason.
  • McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy. What we call the human begins with the Gutenberg technology and the subsequent shift in sense ratios away from hearing what surrounds us and towards seeing what is before us (from our particular points of view).
  • —. Laws of Media: The New Science. All media (by which MM means “thing”) can be understood according to the the following laws: enhance (What does the medium make possible or improve? Search engines enhance our capacities for research.); reverse (How does the medium contradict its own effects when pushed to its limit? Search engines provide so many results that we are lost in the data stream.); retrieve (What older behavior does the new medium bring back into practice? The search engine makes plagiarism easier and perhaps more prevalent.); obsolesce (What older medium is pushed aside by the new medium? The card catalog is no longer useful.)
  • —. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Shifts in media environments involves shifts in sense ratios (the primacy afforded one or more senses over others). We must understand such shifts in order to recognize how different individuals learn differently (via the eye, the ear, etc.).
  • Stiegler, Bernard. For a New Critique of Political Economy. Human memory is more and more frequently embodied in technology. This “grammatization” (the breaking of language or being into smaller and smaller parts) must be thought in terms of a political economy different than that of Marx and the nineteenth century.
  • —. Taking Care of Youth and the Generations. New technologies destroy our capacities for attention and contemplation. This issue must be thought in terms of a general organology that considers 1) human organs (the body and its parts); 2) technical organs (devices; think of organ in terms of “organon”); and 3) social organizations.
  • —. Technics and Time, Volume I: The Fault of Epithemeus: How can we think technology and its evolution outside of humanist concerns and parameters?
  • Zielinski, Siegfried. Deep Time of the Media. Media do not operate on human time scales and are therefore deeply inhuman.

3 Responses to “Nine theses on teaching with technology”

  1. […] Evening Redness, Ben Robertson offers “Nine theses on teaching with technology”: we have always taught with technology, even before we were aware of doing so. Our use of such […]

  2. […] Nine Theses on Teaching with Technology – Thought-provoking, and ripe for adaptation into your own worldview. […]

  3. […] More information can be found here. […]

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