October 2nd, 2015

Taking the Tech Out of Technology

By:

students at computer

Discussion boards. Google documents. YouTube videos. TED Talks. Khan Academy. These are just a few of the many resources some of us have used in our ever-growing arsenal of techie tools. We want to stay on the cutting edge. The Sloan Consortium (now Online Learning Consortium) predicts this trend toward an increased usage of technology will continue into the foreseeable future. So we continue to hone our skills, taking advantage of an ever-increasing array of technological options. We attend conferences, exchange ideas with colleagues, read up on the latest innovations—all in the interest of keeping our teaching on the technology edge. But I sometimes worry that we may have gone over the edge.

Recently I presented at one of these technology conferences. I started off talking about the essence of technology from a theoretical viewpoint. The audience’s eyes glazed over as if I were presenting sociological theory to my Monday morning class. I moved on to suggest specific tools for the classroom, and when I did, something strange happened. Heads bowed in unison as everyone feverishly wrote or typed notes. I got the message: they wanted tools—exciting and cutting-edge tools!

Many of us are looking for tools that add ease and efficiency to our teaching endeavors. I admit to bursting out of conference sessions myself stoked with a new armament of tools ready to be used in my classes at a moment’s notice. Nothing could stop my infatuation with tech tools before my experiences in Virtual College.

Virtual College, run by the college where I teach, aspires to enhance student learning with cutting-edge technology. Virtual College has been given the resources that make state-of-the-art technology available to our students. I was asked to coach faculty who are teaching in this Virtual College. So I decided I’d start out by doing what any good coach would do. I’d get to know the faculty and the students they serve. I created surveys and sent them out. When they came back, I coded the data and ran tests. I couldn’t wait to get the results. Faculty and students would tell me what technologies worked well, and I would recommend more widespread use of these in the Virtual College. However, after combing through the results, one theme emerged, and it was not at all what I expected.

Technology is great, but it is only a means to an end—it is not the end! That theme kept percolating through the data. Students wanted and needed something more out of their courses, and it wasn’t technology. They wanted instructor contact. Students wanted to know they could talk to their instructor, get feedback, and perhaps engage in a level of social (albeit professional) bonding. So what originally turned out to be a tool-seeking expedition in the name of good course development ended up being something more fundamental and basic—social connection. And faculty wanted the same thing. They wanted to know how students were progressing in the course just like students wanted to know how they were doing in the course.

Somewhere along the line, our excitement over the latest technological tools has started focusing on the wrong thing. The excitement ought to reside in the praxis of teaching, not the use of technology. I see many of us at a crossroads of sorts. Do we invest our time, energy, and other resources in technological tools, or do we invest in teaching? Somewhere in this chasm of choices lies the answer. A blend of teaching practices, technology, and basic human contact just might be the recipe needed. I don’t think this should come as a surprise to us. We are indeed social animals. No matter what new technological bells and whistles become available, I expect that teachers and students will continue to need and cherish those moments of connection.

Samuel Buemi is an instructor at Northcentral Technical College.

Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 28.5 (2014): 1. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.