PERSPECTIVES: Teaching With And Against Technology

By Steven Weiland, Department of Educational Administration, Michigan State University

We all teach with technology, even if our digital efforts are limited to uses of Desire2Learn, or another system for managing academic work and communicating with students in traditional, hybrid, and online courses.  But that hasn’t been enough for observers of higher education who see the solution to its problems of cost and access in the digital transformation of teaching and learning. Some see a reformed (or “disrupted”) curriculum featuring MOOCs, others the replacement of the current system with electronic learning in many forms, as in a “University of Everywhere.” Accordingly, faculty members who take up online teaching are in effect “agents of change” who have “bought into a new form of higher education.”

While we await the transformation we can contemplate the results thus far of embracing enough online instruction so that—as reported in a national study last month–nearly 75% of American undergraduates at public institutions are taking at least one online course. “Against” in my title refers to two forms of skepticism about online teaching and learning. The first, the subject of this post at FutureU, is a matter of online course design, instructional stance, and expectations for student and faculty learning in the operations of technology. The second, the subject of a subsequent post, refers to questions of the professional conditions of online teaching, or how institutions see technology in the organization of the curriculum and of faculty work, and its role in the financial structure of higher education.

I think we should be asking more of ourselves as teachers in the digital age in guiding students toward recognition of the uses and meanings of technology. Thus, “against,” means working “against the grain,” as the saying goes, or asking questions of conventional wisdom about online teaching and learning.                                                               

Clay Shirky, Then and Now

Partisans of the digital transformation of education, like other technological “solutionists,”  leave little room for competing images of the postsecondary future. Indeed, for some, the time for asking questions of the online revolution is just about past. Thus, a few years ago the influential NYU media scholar Clay Shirky welcomed “disruptive” technology in higher education, particularly MOOCs, as a version of Napster’s impact on the music industry. “Once you see this pattern—a new story rearranging peoples sense of the possible, with the incumbents the last to know—you see it everywhere. First the people of the old system don’t notice the change. When they do, they assume it’s minor. Then that it’s a niche. Then a fad. And by the time they understand that the world has actually changed, they’ve squandered most of the time they had to adapt.”

It looked like there wasn’t much time to consider how we think about the pedagogical uses of the newest technologies. So, who would have thought that it would be Shirky who now offers one of the best arguments against student uses of digital devices in class.  The transformation of teaching and learning will face some constraints.  Shirky notes the ubiquity of digital devices and the distractions they offer, particularly in relation to academic work. Thus, multi-taskers “degrade their ability through over-consumption” In effect, he confirms Nicholas Carr’s designation of the Internet as a “distraction machine.”

Shirky now sees an unexpected classroom role for himself in directing attention away from technology when it is an impediment to learning:  “Students need support for the better angels of their nature (or at least the more intellectual angels), and they need defenses against the powerful short-term incentives to put off complex, frustrating tasks. That support and those defenses don’t just happen, and they are not limited to the individual’s choices. They are provided by social structure, and that social structure is disproportionately provided by the professor.” For Shirky, faculty and students are allies in creating conditions for learning “where students who want to focus have the best shot at it, in a world increasingly hostile to that goal.”                                                     

Questions of “Best Practices”

When I describe myself as someone who teaches with and against technology it reflects what I have come to believe after more than a decade of online teaching, including five courses I offer regularly in graduate programs at Michigan State. So, I teach “with” technology as a user of our learning management system and as someone who relies on a resource rich hypermedia format in course design.  But, a few years ago I also began teaching “against” technology, in something of the manner of Neil Postman, whose position I represent below.      The growth of online teaching is well documented and standards or “best practices” for course design abound.  The problem with best practices is the effect they can have in foreclosing variations in thinking and action. Perhaps because it represents a novel form of teaching and learning, however much it has grown in the past decade, online course design has come to rely on conventions that express an apparent postsecondary consensus about what is necessary for instructional success and optimal student learning.  Guides to online teaching are remarkably similar in setting out standards for doing the work, in university faculty development programs and websites, and in a host of books. A similar approach shapes the influential national consulting and evaluation service Quality Matters, with its standards-based rubric.

Any feature of course design and online teaching should be considered a best practice only to the degree that it has recognized what it rejects, and how competing claims can find in what is rejected valuable resources for learning for some students. One account of best practices urges online instructors to “think differently” in moving from the traditional classroom to the electronic one. But “thinking differently” might also be applied to what a new or experienced teacher finds in what have become the routines of online courses. Thus, critical thinking, a commonplace in educational discourse, can itself be applied to best practices.

Precisely because online teaching continues to grow, its favored practices need persistent  criticism if they are to represent independent thinking in the design of courses and programs.  Digitally organized education is still a young enterprise. It has been slow to gain acceptance among many faculty members. Credibility and durability in education, as in scholarship and science, can gain from recognition of the interaction of competing claims about knowledge or behavior. Note: The FutureU sponsored presentation I will offer on March 18 features challenges to “best practices” in three domains of online teaching:  interactivity as active learning, the lecture, and screen reading.             

A Second Subject

Beyond the subject and structure of an online course there are the demands of the digital format, which is hardly a neutral medium for teaching and learning however familiar a scholar or scientist (speaking of faculty who teach online) may be with Web resources and using the Internet. And when students enroll in an online course they also encounter specialized cognitive tasks. Many will be familiar, like screen reading, posting to public discussion forums, or collaborating with other students.  Still, what they encounter in any course’s design, or expectations for online learning, is part of what they come to know of the educational uses of technology. That can include how they see their place in the debate about our digital future. This kind of knowledge—essential for critical course design and for students’ understanding of the gains and losses in digital learning, is an urgent and inviting “second subject” in online teaching.

The second subject signifies how online faculty and students go about and understand their online work, with its instructional differences, including reading and composing digital texts, and using the Web as a resource for learning and communications. Any well designed online course includes signs of how the new technologies can contribute to learning. But essential questions about the mind at work in an online course are generally, and understandably, obscured by attention to the academic subject being studied. In effect, the new technologies represent a form of the “hidden curriculum,” an idea made popular in the 1970s and after by MIT psychologist Benson Snyder who identified the “covert [and] inferred tasks” in a course “and the means to their mastery” as “rooted in the professor’s assumptions and values, the students’ expectations, and the social context in which both teacher and taught find themselves.”

Attention to technology as the key to educational reform, is by no means “hidden” in today’s discourse on teaching and learning. But we can hardly look to those who would hide, as it were, what might be sacrificed to the digital transformation. In the most visionary of such statements—like the National Technology Plan promoted by the U.S. Department of Education, projects supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning initiative, or forecasts from the New Media Foundation in its annual Horizon Report–we can see how the latest technologies, as they appear in online teaching and learning, are presented as reasons to rethink fundamental practices. Applying “critical thinking”—a favorite of all educational reformers—to proposals for the universal application of Web 2.0 to learning would mean an approach to online education that incorporates questions of technology into its uses.


The University of London’s Neil Selwyn has made the case for “negativity” in thinking about the uses of educational technology. According to Selwyn, “Unlike most other fields of academic study, educational technology appears particularly resistant to viewpoints that contradict its core beliefs and values.” Teaching “against” technology can be part of what we do, including asking questions of “active learning,” a mainstay of instructional reform from late in the last century that has been institutionalized in online education.

Near the end of his career media scholar and social critic Neil Postman (1931-2003) promoted the idea of “technology education.” That meant not—as is the case on most campuses–how to use hardware and software, but teacher and student learning dedicated to understanding how new media work and how they are applied to education. The very title of Postman’s Technopoly (1992) suggests how the electronic media in particular can exercise control over lives and institutions: “New technologies change what we mean by ‘knowing’ and ‘truth’; they alter those deeply embedded habits of thought which give to a culture its sense of what the world is like–a sense of what is the natural order of things, of what is reasonable, of what is necessary, of what is inevitable, of what is real.”

Postman sought to make visible the essential features and consequences of devotion to technology in education and other domains. Still, while he was a sharp critic of technology (and “technique” in general as a value crowding out others) he did not reject it altogether. The problem is avoiding unwelcome consequences of technology while we capitalize on the best. That requires resistance to the slogans of the “digital age.” Thus, when Postman urged attention to history as a guide to understanding technological change he wrote: “Nothing is more obvious than that a new technology changes the structure of discourse. It does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, by favoring certain definitions of intelligence, and by demanding a certain kind of content.”

In The End of Education Postman presents the case for bringing what is to be learned about the new media into the classroom and syllabus. In effect, assumptions about technology are made visible with narrative. This form of “technological education” would help students understand the story of print and the transition to screens with recognition of how every new technology represents gain and loss. The effort Postman imagines cannot dismiss either the past or the future. His program can help students learn about what technology helps us to do and also the problems it can introduce. Postman appeared to his antagonists to be a technophobe but he recognized the need for a balanced view, much like William Powers. He also turns to history, in his case to exemplars of adaptation to technology who found ways of living with and resisting it.

There is, alas, in the first generation of MOOCs, attention to the impact of technology only to the degree that it is hailed as the salvation of postsecondary education. That’s why it is important to recognize Postman-like breakthroughs when do appear. Thus, in classicist Gregory Nagy’s MOOC on the Harvard edX platform he introduces students to the study of “The Ancient Greek Hero” with a carefully worded plea for “slow reading,” or intellectual and academic habits independent of the attractions to students today of the rapid traversal of online resources. “Slow” means more opportunities for attention to detail, measured thinking, and even a form of pleasure available only when the pace of an encounter with a text suits its complexities. In effect, Nagy  teaches with and against technology.                                                

Conclusion:  A Better Button

Who doesn’t want to practice—teaching or anything else–in the “best” possible manner?  But for something to be best it must be better than the alternatives.  Being “evidence-based” may not be enough if the practices in question are those where evidence is shaped by more questions than can be answered in the routines of empirical inquiry. Plainly online course design can benefit from trial and error, and the experiences of online teachers and technology professionals.  But so too should it reflect the spirit of inquiry that animates academic work, or what we want to know about our roles in guiding students toward best practices of their own in thinking about technology.

Facebook has now introduced a new set of buttons with emoji representing variations on “Like.”  The change is offered as a major advance in “expression” with social media. Not incidentally, the data the new buttons yield will be of great value to Facebook’s operations and bottom line.  There is another button to note, proposed in 2000 by technology pioneer Stewart Brand when the Internet was gathering commercial and educational steam. He worried about the accelerated pace of change in the digital world, and what it denies in thoughtful responses to innovation. What was needed, he said, was a “Not-So-Fast Button.” That is the one that could allow for more faculty participation—from competing positions about online education–in today’s debate about our digital future.


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