Keeping it Real: The Limits of Virtual Learning

Today’s guest post comes from Matthew Mugmon, a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology, and former Departmental TF for Music.

Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t let my students use laptops in sections.

Wait — I’m not a technology curmudgeon. If I were, I wouldn’t have been so excited to attend “The Digital Classroom,” a session at the Bok Center’s Winter Teaching Conference, run by GSAS students Carla Martin (Departmental Teaching Fellow for African and African-American Studies) and Stephen Vider (Departmental Teaching Fellow for American Civilization).  And their presentation didn’t let me down.  For someone who finds it essential to incorporate multimedia into my sections and assignments, I’m always looking for more materials to get my students to interact with. What struck me the most about Carla’s and Stephen’s presentation was just how much material — and software — is out there to help us capture our students’ imaginations, and how easily we can bring it to their screens.

At the same time, I’ve struggled in the past to make technology work in the classroom in a way that isn’t distracting, as Carla and Stephen both warned it could be.  My biggest venture in digital teaching came during the year in which I had the privilege of teaching math to middle schoolers in a state-of-the-art computer lab.  We used Study Island, a website where students log in to do math problems; the program tracks their progress and knowledge and gives them awards for reaching state-mandated levels of math proficiency.  The students loved the instant feedback, the easy interface, and the fact that they were learning from a Web site.

As much fun as Study Island was, though, this early form of cloud-based instruction was a mixed blessing.  Yes, some students were still easily distracted by other sites and video games, but better classroom management could have solved that problem.  More important was that my computer classroom was missing a human element.   My visual learners were learning, but they were still just staring at a screen — and they weren’t engaging with the world around them.  I had stopped using manipulatives and everyday objects to drive home mathematical concepts.  With computers, I was activating my students’ capacity for visual learning, but I was doing so at the expense of their kinesthetic faculties.

So I sympathized with both characters in the role-play that Stephen and Carla performed to kick off their introduction to the vast world of digital resources. Carla was the tech-enthusiast, while Stephen wanted his classroom to remain a pen-and-paper-only venue.  Without YouTube videos of Leonard Bernstein conducting Stravinsky, or course blogs on which students can easily post and discuss key issues to prepare for class discussions (which Louis Epstein recently defended on this blog), my music history sections would be all the poorer.  But as great as these digital resources are in bringing the material to life, I couldn’t shake the suspicion that too much screen-time might actually take some of the life out of our students’ learning.

I carried this ambivalence toward digital learning with me as I moved on to another session at the Bok Center conference, “Teaching with Tangible Things: Museum Collections in the Classroom,” with Meredith Schweig (Departmental TF for Music), Anita Nikkanen (Departmental TF for Comparative Literature), Erin Blevins (Departmental TF for Organismic and Evolutionary Biology), and Andrew Williston, curatorial assistant in the Ichthyology Department of the Museum of Comparative Zoology.  One of the most remarkable parts of this session was when Erin led us through a lesson on evolutionary changes by having us compare — right in front of us — two fish that had been caught long ago but were preserved.  Of course, the preservation of these fish was itself, at one time, a technological feat.  Indeed, every time we bring some resource into the artificial environment of the classroom, we detach it from a context that we’re also trying to understand — in some ways, that’s what technology in the classroom is all about.  But something Meredith said struck me most of all: there was a certain “energy” to having those specimens right there.  It was an energy, a presence, that even a million images on digital archives couldn’t capture.

Those million images wouldn’t have been necessary in Erin’s lesson anyway.  Her point — that with direct observation, we could devise a theory about how these fish evolved — only required these two fish.  If she had tried to show us a million photos, she might have fascinated her audience but obscured her objective.  On the other hand, a perfect follow-up assignment to Erin’s lesson might be to apply a similar approach to images of other animals in a museum’s digital archive. So even though these two conference sessions suggested a dichotomy between digital learning and learning through objects, they ultimate reinforced the same point for me: that whether or not I use digital resources or museum objects, those materials should support concrete learning objectives.

As I continue to teach, I hope to inch closer to that middle ground between the wonder of digital resources and the power of real-world objects.  If I can work that out, maybe I’ll let students use laptops in my sections after all.

3 thoughts on “Keeping it Real: The Limits of Virtual Learning

  1. Good for you for not allowing the technology in the classrooms.

    The distractions aside, we need to remind ourselves that true learning happens when a student ACTUALLY CONNECTS with a professor/teacher.

    Cheers to you!


    • Thanks, ken. For the record, I definitely DO allow technology in the classroom. My point was to be mindful about how technology is used.

  2. I hear that within the next few years the Textbook as we now know it will be gone. Replaced by digital representations of them. I for one think this has it’s plus and minus side to it. On the plus it’s easier for children to carry an iPad or digital copies on a reader to school. On the minus side there’s something tangible about opening up that new book the first day of school. It just smells new, it feels new, because it is new.

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