I have an hour or two to wait for my departure flight, and since the Las Vegas airport as free wifi and accessible outlets, I’ll spend a minute or two reflecting on NCTE 2012.
I attended mostly technology sessions–okay, I attended only technology sessions. But I had to prioritize: most of my time was spent in meetings and doing work for our department. After going to sessions led by Will Richardson, Bud Hunt, Troy Hicks, Sarah Kadjer (a who’s who of English Ed Techies), I was left with one dominant impression about the integration of technology into the English language arts: namely, that the resistance to digital technology (we like books! down with computers!) has disappeared. Completely. I know that my choice of sessions has shaped this conclusion, but when tech gurus like Will Richardson can fill a room with cheering English teachers, you know that the tide has shifted.
That makes 2012 an interesting time to teach. Tablets and smartphones are flooding into our classrooms, sometimes purchased by school districts and sometimes via a BYOD–bring your own device–policy. The widespread use of these devices has generated its own high-pitched rhetoric, not unlike the grand claims during the early years of the wireless/laptop revolution. In fact, I think we are at the peak of inflated expections of the Gartner technology hype cycle. During this stage of technology adaptation, there is lots of hyperbolic talk about the kinds of changes that a given technology can bring about. I am by nature wary of these claims, and because many of them were presented in the sessions I attended, I want to critique at least a few here:
Being Networked is Always Better than Being Alone
This idea came through loud and clear in the argument made by Will Richardson. Richardson has blogged since the beginning, and when I first started reading his stuff in the early 2000s, I was impressed by his efforts to connect purposeful instruction in his content area (English) with the emerging technologies he championed. Since then, many things have changed in the digital world, and Richardson is undeniably correct to observe that we are more networked than ever before–Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, SMS, online gaming, and other forms of social media connect us to each other, all of the time, so that many teens are sending 200-300 texts per day.
But is this really a good thing? Yes when we can draw on our networks to learn more efficiently or pool our talents. But what about reading? What of the critiques of our connectedness–Sherry Turkle’s sociological and psychological arguments, for example, or the emerging field of attention studies? What about the criticism launched by software theorists such as Jaron Lanier, who argues that our devices and their programs box in and narrow our ways of being human? Why can’t we stop for a moment to assess the real effects of these tools before we embrace them?
Production is Always Better than Consumption
Another mantra from the tech sessions I attended. Two of the sessions, for example, featured backchanneling, the practice of holding an electronic discussion during a more traditional delivery of content. So, while a the main speakers were talking, a multiuser chatroom via Today’s Meet (web), Celly (SMS) or a similar backchannel platform was opened for audience members to raise questions or summarize salient points. The result is a kind of constant chatter that goes on while the presenter is, well, trying to present. Backchanneling seems like a really cool way to get instant feedback from students, especially when you can show their thoughts onscreen. But I’m also wary of the way this kills the personal connection between the speaker and the audience. Eye contact is kind of important, after all, and you can’t make eye contact when you’re staying at your smartphone.
I liked some of the comments that were backchanneling during my talk critiquing Credit Recovery Software. But I’m also just a little proud that the transcript showed a slowdown in the chatter during my ten minutes on the stage. Egomaniacal? Maybe. But I told a good story and people were listening, not thumbing in SMS messages. And again, at least some research on the most-lauded skill attributed to the Millenial Generation–multitasking–suggests that we are most successful when we take on a single task at a time.
How is More Important than Why
Last point of what is becoming a long post. When I started advocated technology in the late 1990s, I took pains to connect new digital tools to the purposes and methods of effective English instruction. In writing about blogging, for example, I’d emphasize the way it offers students a real audience and a real purpose for writing, two things that composition theory had long claimed were critical to meaningful writing instruction. I tried to link the deep immersion of playing a video game to the experience of reading literature, using the reader response theory of Louise Rosenblatt, the semiotics of James Gee, and the research findings of Judith Langer. If I couldn’t really connect an emerging technology to what teachers were already doing, or what they wanted to do, I stayed away from it.
Because I could never quite figure out how to do this with Twitter (except to suggest it is an excellent way to watch real-time events unfold), I never really got into it. When mainstream, tradition media started quoting really superficial responses from anonymous tweeters, I even said that I hated Twitter .
I don’t hate Twitter. I just dislike it because it never gets theorized or put to the test. It’s just “cool” to tweet your classroom announcements or set up a class hashtag to allow students to tweet during their reading or homework assignments.
My guess is that students might help each other on homework by using Twitter, but the idea of students pausing during reading to Tweet their responses doesn’t make pedagogical sense to me. But many teachers are learning how to Tweet and not why they might consider doing this, and what might be compromised by their decisions to do so.
Okay, okay. Plane pulling in. This rant makes me sound like an old, old man. As Grandpa Simpson once said, “I wore an onion on my belt, as was the fashion at the time.” And it makes me feel conservative, something I never like. But maybe taking a kind of stance here isn’t so conservative, given the widespread acceptance of digital technology tools (It’s good to Tweet! Go Tweet!). Maybe that’s radical.