Using Technology in Your Humanities Classroom
When to use computers and internet resources—and when not to.
In Neil Postman’s The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, published in 1995, the seemingly clairvoyant social critic explains how “the computer and its associated technologies are awesome additions to a culture.” But, he continues, “like all important technologies of the past, they are Faustian bargains, giving and taking, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes more in one way than the other.”
Twenty years later, Postman’s words ring truer than ever. In my experience, technology has the powerful ability to help teach and illuminate, preparing young people to succeed in a world that champions digital expertise. Still, I try to remain vigilant and make purposeful use of technology, realizing when it is not only unnecessary but may even hinder intellectual growth and development.
Sometimes I choose to implement technology in my humanities-based classroom, and sometimes I choose not to.
With Taking Notes
In my high school courses, I strive to act as a guide-by-the-side, with students engaged in debate and discussion. They use technology, when appropriate, to answer their own questions. Since I rarely lecture, most students don’t feel a need to take copious notes or hide behind a screen. They control their learning. For teachers with larger classes who may view lecturing as a necessity, check out an intriguing 2014 study published in Psychological Science, “The Pen Is Mightier Than the Keyboard: Advantages of Longhand Over Laptop Note Taking.”
I recently spoke to coauthor Pam A. Mueller of Princeton, who explained that laptop note takers often record a lecture verbatim, even when instructed not to, resulting in poorer processing of content. “You don’t have to be selective, you don’t have to think about what [content] means,” she told me. “Whereas when you’re writing longhand, it’s slower, which forces you to process the content more deeply.”
With Self-Directed Learning
Along those lines, I also coach students to think about what constitutes credible information, and where to find it online. This is a crucial skill to master, no matter what profession an individual ultimately pursues. At school and at home, students use the internet to explore subjects that interest them and make sense for the course. As online learning tools advance, I believe teachers will become all the more responsible for guiding students to appropriate sources, rather than teaching material directly themselves. I’m definitely in good company in this thinking. “I think kids in 20 years are going to walk into school and pick their peers for the day,” Curtis J. Bonk, professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University and author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, told me. “And they’ll be coming from all over the world. They’ll just hit a little map, and they might even pick their teachers for the day coming from the Philippines and Singapore and other places.”
It may be true that students know how to access digital library databases, but not all know how to make effective use of them. Repositories like JSTOR, for example, provide access to thousands of academic journals. Unlike in a quick and instantly gratifying Google search, however, students must enter precise keywords to get a successful search result. That calls for preliminary research, and as vast and informative as the internet is, it doesn’t always yield the most academic search results. It’s always a good place to start, but I’m a fan of also directing students toward printed materials. There is still much to be said for searching for books in a quiet library, especially since the internet doesn’t provide free access to much scholarship.
In an increasingly digital age, students must practice more than just academic writing. They need to practice communicating online and using a first-person narrative to promote themselves and their ideas. They need to know what to share, where to share it, and how to attract an online audience. I also teach my students about hyperlinking, which Vicki Davis, author of Reinventing Writing: The 9 Tools That Are Changing Writing, Teaching, and Learning Forever, tells me “can change everything” from how writers footnote to how readers access information. In my classes, I also introduce students to writing opinion pieces. I’m eager to see them share their work online, and I often ask permission to share their work on The Gator, the student-run news site which I also advise.
With the projector on, I often model how I proofread, with students scrutinizing how I write and rewrite a sentence, word, or paragraph before moving on. I try to explain my thought process, as well as why something doesn’t sound quite right to my ear. I then break students into groups of two or three and ask them to edit an anonymous piece of student work to share with the class. Unbeknownst to them, I sometimes throw in sections of my old high school or college essays, or even drafts of articles I’m currently working on. When I reveal myself as the author, students are surprised to see my mistakes and achievements. Students also upload their work online for peers to inspect or comment on. This year I’m excited about incorporating voice annotations, using Turnitin, to offer additional feedback on written work.
How do you think technology should be used in the humanities-based classroom? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.