In my rush to embrace new tech, I forgot about my students

We must fight the urge to want to play with shiny new toys even more than educate our classes, says George Justice

March 29, 2021
A computer technician gets lost in wires and wishes he had kept things simple.
Source: iStock

Educators seem split about educational technology. Some fear and loathe it, spinning visions of a platonic symposium of face-to-face back-and-forth between a grizzled teacher and his (always “his”) devoted acolytes. Others go tech-crazy, imagining ways in which technology can magically provide students with knowledge − and the means to demonstrate and test it. The latter − and I’m in that category myself − might just want to play with shiny new toys even more than educate their students.

I am indeed fascinated with educational technology, and although I was sorry when my classes last spring were suddenly moved online, I also saw opportunities to try out new things. Sure, my classes moved to Zoom, and the novelty of that platform’s Brady Bunch talking head layout entertained me for a few weeks. But Zoom quickly stopped feeling like “edtech”; it just became a natural way to continue class conversation and maintain personal contact with students.

I was instead looking for the holy grail: a technology that could combine interpersonal communication, research and writing; a way in which those three categories − often separated in the literature classes that I teach as an English professor − could reinforce each other.

THE Campus resource: top tips for selecting and implementing new technologies

With the summer to think about and employ technologies for the coming academic year, I evaluated several products that would, I hoped, make the asynchronous classes I was scheduled to teach take on the immediacy of in-person learning with the reflection and research that an asynchronous format might enable.

My institution, Arizona State University (ASU), is a leader in implementing educational technology for both on-campus and off-campus students. (We even now eschew the antiquated term “online education” in favour of “digital immersion”.) But even though we’re leaders, we rely on “learning management systems” to structure and conduct our classes.

ASU uses Canvas, which I have found to be better than Blackboard, which we used until a couple of years ago. But these systems are really designed, as their category describes, for “management”. And I believe the word “management” to describe the antithesis of “education”.

I lit on Beagle Learning, a platform designed to foster student enquiry rather than simply deliver education. In essence, Beagle Learning, developed by a team associated with ASU faculty, operates something like a mind map. Students ask questions, and answer questions, embedding peer-reviewed research obtained through the library, YouTube videos and pretty much any other kind of document to support those answers.

The professor’s role can help to shape the direction in which the enquiry and the answers go − but the learning can be truly student-centred. Figuring out how to ask the right questions − and how to answer those questions − could be (as I believe them to be) more important than obtaining the supposedly “correct” answer. Reflection is built in as an essential element in learning.

The Beagle Learning sales reps were eager to show not only how enquiry-based learning could work but also how the platform could integrate with Canvas to enable faculty to manage the course. Beagle Learning includes artificial intelligence elements that can automatically assess the quality of questions asked and help students and faculty create a more effective, enquiry-based environment for the class.

I didn’t want to integrate Beagle into my Canvas class. That felt like accommodating the perfect socialist state into multinational capitalism. No, I was going to go Beagle all the way! Students would work individually and together, asking and answering questions about the individual books I would assign and the big topics for the class. I didn’t need AI assessing student work.

Really, I thought, all students would end up with A grades based on the energy and integrity with which they took responsibility for their own education. This would be Ivan Illich’s de-schooling in practice! All enabled by a learning technology that looked deceptively simple on the surface, but contained ways in which research questions, and research, could come obviously into the foreground.

Then I went to a webinar. And a presenter offered research suggesting that students were overwhelmed by the number of different learning technologies that zealots like myself were finally getting to use. I did my own bit of reflection and realised that my rush to adopt this particular new technology was based on my fantasies rather than addressed to my actual students and their actual needs.

THE Campus resource: tips beyond tech for leading with humanity online

So, at the last minute I not only ditched my ambitious plans, I decided to double down on technologies the students were used to and could understand. Also realising from my son, a high school student, that tests were ridiculous in online environments in which students could look up the answers, I simplified student work and how I would assess it. I boiled class down to Canvas (for conveying information and collecting four short essays during the term) and Yellowdig (a social media-like discussion board that feels more natural than the discussion board in Canvas).

I’m still interested in what a platform such as Beagle might provide to reorient university education to student enquiry, student research and student-focused presentation of ideas. But right now, especially in an asynchronous class, my time as a teacher is best spent structuring information in a way that students can access easily (Canvas) and interacting with them as deeply as possible (Yellowdig).

When I get back into the classroom in the next academic year, that streamlined approach will characterise the in-person classes I can’t wait to teach: we have books, we have conversation and we have writing. Maybe, in effect, I’ll be a technology-crazed instructor hoping to achieve the platonic symposium.

George Justice is a professor of English at Arizona State University, specialising in 18th-century British literature and the practice of higher education. He is also the principal of DeverJustice LLC, and his most recent book is How to Be a Dean.

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