Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Technology as aid, crutch and impediment

This session met at 4:00 on Friday and was well attended by about 35 or 40 people. We started out by trying to move the chairs into a circle, but they were attached to each other and there were cords for the projector that we risked interfering with. In the end we had a kind of combination circle in the front, and people going all the way toward the back doorway. We ran out of handouts fairly early, having brought only about 30 (for a discussion that was intended to have 20-30), since there seemed to be many handout-grabbers (people who don't attend, but collect the handouts whenever possible).

There seemed to be two lines of thought with regard to the technological aids/crutches/impediments that are coming our way these days. One is to immerse students and the class in them, teaching them how to use them properly and existing in the world that uses them. The other is to prohibit them from all tests and exercises in which a student's actual ability is being evaluated. The second one has been called a Luddite perspective, but those teachers were clearly watching out for their students' skills, and were not motivated to take the crutches away from their world altogether; rather, they just wanted the students to develop skills in the absence of crutches, so that they would do better when armed with them.

There was general outrage at plagiarism, wikipedia, online translators, grammar-check and tech-correctors, etc., all of which make the writing teacher's job more challenging. It was pointed out that when students were instructed in how to use Turnitin, a large number of last term's papers came up, but that they commonly didn't see a problem with using last term's papers anyway, until they were told otherwise.

My own tirade against grammar-check and where it is going was met with surprise, but I couldn't really gauge how people felt about it as one of the things that basically obscures a student's true abilities, and makes it harder for a teacher to actually assess what that student has mastered. One teacher mentioned "spell-check surrealism" as a name for words I have called something else, altered by spell-check to become some inappropriate but correctly spelled word. Grammar-check continues to be under the radar of the average teacher, I imagine, since we don't see it being used actively in our own lives; it's hard to imagine what it is actually doing in our students'.

With every mention of technological problem encountered by the teacher, a "Luddite" would declare their tests, essays or class exercises to be free of that kind of technological interference; however, others equally sincerely pointed out that since that kind of technology would still be around tomorrow, it would be better to just teach students how to use it properly and live with the results.

Transcripts show teachers concerned about a wide variety of technological innovations and their effects on language learning; one mentioned "tripping across web 2.0" while another mentioned a free community-based paper-sharing service, wepapers.net. There was wide distrust of cell phone technology and what was being done in classrooms; this was the first appearance of the Modernist/Luddite split (see above). It was agreed that spell-check and grammar-check require training, to be used properly; even Wikipedia needs to be explained and introduced. It was mentioned that students feel pressure to write well and to use tools they don't know how to use; thus we're programming them to plagiarize to some degree. It was also mentioned that even databases are updated so rapidly that it is difficult for writing teachers to keep up with even the simplest technology that is needed to do traditional research. How does one keep up? It's up to us; we're on our own, and it's a rapidly changing world out there.

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