Technology Constraining Practice

It's tempting, in any discussion of technology, to consider first the newest technologies.  As a technology becomes embedded in a culture, it tends to disappear and we forget that it is there.  It just becomes normal.  Photocopiers are so widely used by teachers nowadays, that no discussion of teaching technology even includes them.  But the ability to edit, copy, and paste content on a  computer, print it, and then make multiple copies has profoundly altered teachers' and students' relationships with content.  Where once a single text book was the only show in town, teachers can now customize and adapt content for specific needs.  This was revolutionary, yet is rarely recognized or discussed.  But the photocopier also constrains.  Teachers generally only have access to black and white copiers.  This results in only content that renders well in black-and-white being used.  Photocopiers do a great job of copying text.  This can result in written text being the preferred form of content. A casual glance at a primary school classroom for children who are too young to read reveals a cornucopia of photographs, magazine pages, illustrations and diagrams, all of which can be used to convey information without words.  But even more startling than the variety of non-text sources, is the abundance of colour.  College classrooms are less colourful.  Despite the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, college students are rarely given photographs in handouts.  Is this because photographs are not relevant to their courses of study, or merely because photocopiers can't copy them well?  Do college students inhabit a monochrome world without colour charts and diagrams, because colour cannot convey additional meaning, or because photocopiers don't do colour?  I would argue that, in each case, it is the latter.  The photocopier has influenced the kinds of materials that college lecturers like to hand out.  The photocopiers' preferences have become the users' preferences.  The means of transmission has altered the message. This is precisely the argument put forward by Marshall McLuhan (1964) with profetic brevity when he coined the phrase the medium is the message.

The most important technology any teacher must interact with is the class room.  Again a visit to a primary school is very instructive.  Because social skills and group work are so important in early education, young children sit around a table facing each other rather than all facing the teacher.  Their interactions with each other are given primacy over everything else.  College classrooms, on the other hand, often have fixed seating and benches.  The entire room is designed around the premise that teacher will stand (not sit) and talk, while the will students sit in a fixed spot and take notes.  Such classrooms both presuppose and encourage particular kinds of teaching.  Attempting to engage students by getting them to interact with each other can be difficult in such spaces, even when student numbers are low.

I first began recording classes an putting them online in 2001.  I had microphone pinned to my shirt and a portable mini-disc recorder that I carried in my shirt or pants pocket.  I ripped the audio to my computer afterwards and put MP3s of the recordings on a web page along with PDFs of the slides.   Because students had to synchronize the audio with the slides by themselves, I always made a point of saying the slide number.  That was something I had never done before.  But apart from that small concession, I carried on pretty much as I had always done.  I still made a point of quickly recapping what had happened in the previous class, and I still made a point of moving around the classroom.  When students did in-class exercises, often in the middle of the lesson, and there was no useful audio to be recorded I simply stopped the recording.

Over time the technology has developed and the process has become much simpler for both the students and me.  Nowadays I am able to record the audio and capture the screen at the same time, save a video of the class, and post it to YouTube.  The video is typically online about 20 minutes after the class ends.  A decode ago that took days.  This improvement in technology has altered how I teach in the intervening years however.  I often forget now to do a quick recap of past material that puts the new material in context.  The availability of the recordings obviates the need for this practice, but not the value of it.  I was once notorious for moving around while I talked.  Even in large lecture halls like IT4, I routinely walked all the way up all steps and down again.  But now because my microphone is plugged into the computer, I am permanently tethered to the same spot. Doing an in-class exercise or activity would require me to stop the recording and save it. This would result in the recording of the class being spread over two or more files.  It might also tie-up my machine while the recordings are being saved.  As a consequence I usually save exercises until the end even though research has clearly shown that student concentration starts to waver about halfway through a lecture, making the mid-point the best time to schedule activities.

In my micro-teaching session one comment I got as feedback pointed out that I tend to look mostly at the right side of the room. I found this interesting.  In most of the classrooms where I teach the connection for the laptop is on the left side, the screen is in the middle, and the door is on the right.  When referring to the information on the screen it would be a trivial matter to stand on either side of the screen.  However, because my microphone is connected to the computer I always stay in the same spot and all of the students are to my right.  Bizarrely I have noticed that even when I am in a classroom where the computer is on the right, I have a tendency to stand perpendicularly so that all of the students are still to my right.  The technology I use has altered my interaction with the class and the room, and this behaviour is present, even when the technology is not.

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