What Walls Need Tearing Down?


Michael Bugeja’s opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Reduce the Technology, Rescue Your Job,” struck a nerve today.  He started by noting that for “most of this decade, professors embraced the pedagogy of engagement, wooing students via technology and ignoring the costs because traditional methods, from textbooks to lectures, purportedly bored students who multitasked in the wireless classroom.”  He then noted the massive cuts occurring across higher education, and suggested that these “facts alone merit an immediate technological and curricular assessment, or else hundreds more professors and staff members could lose their jobs in the coming weeks and months. You may lose your job.”

Bugeja raised the valid point that too often technology decisions are made without factoring in true costs, but he then suggests that teaching centers (like the one at which I work) are part of the problem for pushing the use of technology for teaching and learning.  His final paragraph reads:

  • “I challenge anyone objecting to these arguments to look in the eye of secretaries, janitors, adjuncts, advisers, and professors of eliminated programs and say that avatars, clickers, social networks, and tweets—and the pedagogies, IT expenses, and teaching centers supporting them—are more important than feeding their families. To believe we can afford both indicates how incapable many of us are of making the difficult choices that the times require.”

It would be easy to dismiss this article if I did not think that his way of thinking was not reflective of many in mainstream faculty.  I have seen a number of faculty in higher education, as well as teachers in K-12, who see technology as an evil.  In many ways, they want to wall off their classes from the outside world.

That image of a wall is particularly relevant today, the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.  President Reagan has always been one of my favorites, and one cannot think of him without hearing his exhortation:

“Mr. Gorbachev…tear down this wall!”

That is the line most remember, but I like his comments later in the same speech, in which he stated “this wall will fall. For it cannot withstand faith; it cannot withstand truth. The wall cannot withstand freedom.”

Bugeja’s comments to reduce technology in order to save jobs ignores the realities of a changing world…much as the Berlin Wall did.  Technology in and of itself is not evil, and technology integrated into education is opening minds, not closing them.  The participatory web and open access to information has created freedoms that never existed in the past.  Those freedoms directly and positively impact learning.  As Derek Bruff noted in a comment to Bugeja’s piece:

“…point out that Bugeja has focused here on the cost of instructional technology, but not on the benefits to student learning. There’s plenty of research that shows that student learning is positively affected by instructional methods that involve more active student engagement before, during, and after class. Technologies that support or facilitate such instructional methods are certainly worth exploring, if our goal is student learning. When conducting a cost-benefit analysis, it’s only appropriate to spend as much time thinking through the benefits as it is thinking through the costs.”

“…if our goal is student learning…”  Well said, Derek!  If one shifts the microscope from technology to student learning, one might find many traditional classrooms in trouble!  President Reagan made his speech in 1987, and during that same period, Chickering and Gamson developed a seminal work on teaching and learning, their Seven Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Instruction.  They synthesized fifty years of research on teaching to develop these principles:

Good practice in undergraduate education:
1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
3. Encourages active learning.
4. Gives prompt feedback.
5. Emphasizes time on task.
6. Communicates high expectations.
7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Rather than cast technology as an evil, I would suggest that technology is a powerful tool that encourages contact between students and faculty, provides avenues for reciprocity and cooperation among students, creates new venues for active learning, enables more timely and prompt feedback, and gives new opportunities to keep students on task.  High expectations can now be communicated in multiple ways across social media that students are using, and these diverse and multiple paths respect the talents and new ways our students are learning.

We certainly need to be fiscally prudent with taxpayer and tuition-funded monies, but now is not the time to build walls and isolate our students from a 24/7 wired world.  Instead, we need to actively help our students create the learning networks that they will need to thrive in the 21st Century.

So to Mr. Bugeja and others who agree with him, I say “Tear down this wall!”

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5 thoughts on “What Walls Need Tearing Down?

  1. Reread my article and respond by thinking critically rather than defensively in that our school is teched up more than others, only we don’t rely on our budgets to underwrite that. We rely on external funding. Do it and you’ll serve both students and the institution. Don’t do it, and you’ll be used by corporations.

    Also, our students have all manner of gadgets on their person, so nobody is isolating them from the wireless (not “wired”) world. Moreover, your hyperbole of “Tear Down This Wall” reflects the thin-avatar skin of your argument. Rather, counter my argument by requiring your peers to put on teacher evaluations whether students, for example, found clickers useful. After all, we do that with textbooks.

    Fact is, my own research suggests that one caring adviser with an open door (rather than your wall) retains more students than any of the typical attempts to engage them via technology, which is programmed for revenue generation.

    Educators in particular should be working with their computer science counterparts and applying for NSF grants to develop true educational technology rather than relying on budgets to underwrite corporations draining our budgets in a time of real crisis.

  2. Michael, you make some excellent points, and yet what I am most struck by is the fact that technology has allowed a conversation to start between someone who published in the Chronicle and someone who blogged about it. Our students do come with computers in their pockets, and I think that it is our job to help them see how those devices can be used for networked learning, just as I am learning from those who connect with me via this blog and other social media.

    Yet, as valid as this conversation is, your point is well taken that the wider conversation is not occurring routinely on campuses regarding decisions on technology purchases. But as Larry Lessig noted last week at EDUCAUSE, it certainly is in our power to change that – by what we adopt and what we do not.

  3. I know I’m responding to a bait here, but as long as Michael Bugeja continues to provide evidence for his arguments that shows he is unfamiliar with the educational research on teaching with clickers, I’m glad to continue to point to that literature.

    There have been a number of studies of student perceptions of and reactions to clickers, and the results have been consistently positive. For instance, see these studies: http://is.gd/4Tzpk. Students appreciate the interactivity and anonymity that clickers provide, and they like receiving rapid feedback on their learning, including knowing where they stand relative to their peers. These findings occur again and again in the literature.

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