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Technology and Teaching

Where do we go from here?

February 08, 2021

There is no such thing as inevitable technology. The most profound lie supporting the ideology of technology is that it (like the fabled “letters of transit” in Casablanca) cannot be rescinded, not even questioned.

Peter Lorre’s character, Ugarte, dies not long after uttering these words, as fans of the film will remember, but we are not going to die by refusing this inevitability logic. No. Indeed, we only live insofar as we do so refuse. Technology is what we make of it, not something that happens to us.

  • By Mark Kingwell

  • 08/02/ 2021

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Peter Lorre in the famous scene of the classic movie Casablanca, 1942.

When I was a boy, which was a long time ago by any standard reckoning, there was a dream that dominated educational sites like the floor wax scented classrooms where I seemed to spend most of my waking life. The dream was the total automation of education, and it had its roots in sources as disparate as the old Manhattan Automats that dispensed with waiting staff by delivering meals from tiny glassed-in compartments, and the wonders of the Space Age, which put men on the moon.

We all thought that an educational forum without teachers was The Future, and there were little hints and feints in this human-free direction of pedagogy. I recall, for example, a “learning system” known as the SRA Reading Laboratory, where pupils read fiction and non-fiction in colour-coded modules, “graduating” from one level to the next, answering comprehension questions after each selection. If memory serves, some shade of green was one of the highest, and I derived unseemly pride from attaining it before anyone else in my class. Note to future historians: Florida psychologist Don H. Parker developed SRA in the early 1950s as an antidote to punishing grading workloads. He then teamed up with a Chicago company, Science Research Associates (purchased by IBM in 1964), which successfully marketed the box of cards and questions to schools across the continent. That included my little portable modular instruct-o-pod classroom on an air force base in Eastern Canada. The system was the grading—and that, my friends, is total genius!

There was another system I remember from somewhat later, known as USSR, or Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading—basically, 40 minutes of free time to read in the afternoon death-throes of middle school. The teacher remained in the room under both of these regimes. I can still visualize slim, bun-haired Miss Wilmot, at J. B. Mitchell Junior High in Winnipeg, at the front of the USSR room, and a young Nova Scotian who supervised my SRA hours—but the idea was that the module did all the heavy lifting. Nobody will be surprised to know that in the latter exercise we handed around books with notorious passages heavily marked-up, including the wedding-day ravishing of the bridesmaid Lucy Mancini by Sonny Corleone in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. Shockage, people: yes, the 13-year-olds among us read things like that! And much more graphic things too, if the internet is any arbiter.

The mid-1970s of my life in education were a simpler time. Aficionados of the form argue that SRA and USSR are not technically “teaching machines”, because they do not operationalize specific outcomes. In his History of Teaching Machines (1988), historian of psychology Ludy Benjamin writes that, “A teaching machine is an automatic or self-controlling device that (a) presents a unit of information…; (b) provides some means for the learner to respond to the information; and (c) provides feedback about the correctness of the learner’s responses”. Tech historian Audrey Watters then asks, appositely: “Is this prescription or description? The shared features in most definitions of the teaching machine [are] automation, feedback, self-pacing”. Exactly right.

We have always sought ways to technologize the curriculum—to game it, in short, as part of the general efficiency imperative—even if many of the technologies themselves now seem primitive, from the far side of the digital divide. Gestetner duplicating machines are steampunk throwbacks from Xerox machines, which are, in turn, slow hard-copy versions of sending attachments by email or via course websites. But they all serve to replicate text without engaging the services of Bartleby or other scriveners. Come to think of it, Bartleby is himself rendered into technology. That, after all, is Melville’s point in this sly novella of refusal to conform to that very same imperative of efficiency. The copyist becomes a machine for copying—until he prefers not to. We keenly desire, and will pay for, systems, algorithms, and mechanisms that will make teaching easier. But these desires are bounded by, and sometimes resisted with, forms of personal-political reflection that demand to know more. Why should efficiency be a goal of pedagogy in the first place? Is technology the solution or rather the problem when it comes to teaching? Beyond the tablet and the stylus, is there really anything “tech” necessary to the scene of learning?

Lately, as the pace of change is apparently swifter than ever, we are forced to wonder—in slow moments of uninterrupted silent thought—what emerging technologies might mean for our curricula. I say “forced” in what will be recognized as an optative philosophical usage. Naturally, nobody is literally forcing us to reflect on our relationship to technology in the classroom or lecture hall. Indeed, most of the forcing in play is the kind of soft cultural power that enables acquiescence, which views technological change as inevitable or even inscrutable, a power called The Future that must be assuaged with ritual offerings of obedience and enthusiasm.

Let me state my conviction for the record: there is no such Future. What is to come is not a bulldozer or steamroller force that will bury the resisters or late adopters in a tarmac of their own obsolescence. The future (no caps) is whatever we together create out of our own possibilities, our hopes, dreams and material circumstances. In French, the nuance is preserved, the linguistic distinction between le future (The Future) and l’avenir (the future, as in what is to come). May I suggest, as Argument One of the present essay, that we accept the force of this distinction and opt for the latter meaning.

Argument Two would then be this: there is no such thing as inevitable technology. The most profound lie supporting the ideology of technology is that it (like the fabled “letters of transit” in Casablanca) cannot be rescinded, not even questioned. Peter Lorre’s character, Ugarte, dies not long after uttering these words, as fans of the film will remember, but we are not going to die by refusing this inevitability logic. No. Indeed, we only live insofar as we do so refuse. Technology is what we make of it, not something that happens to us. Anyone who says otherwise is a stooge for management, a shill of the corporation. We do well to remember that those corporations that deploy educational technology have immense interests vested in making us quake about our own common-sense convictions. That is, it is very much to their advantage if we succumb to the logic of The Future.

Argument Three is then a corollary: there is no such thing as neutral technology. The purveyors of tech want you believe there is such a thing, because that lets them off the hook when it comes to the responsibility of creating features of everyday life. You can use a Smith and Wesson revolver as a paperweight, but that is not what it is for. You can, likewise, use a pillow to kill someone by forcing it over their face, but that is not what it is for. So: heed the point. Restricting communication to 140, or 280, characters is not a neutral act. It is not, any more than print itself is a neutral technology. Please consider the ideas of Martin Heidegger and Marshal McLuhan and Jacques Ellul, not to mention Donna Haraway and Jennifer Egan and Sherry Turkle—who are all here to remind us of these essential insights precisely because of the existence of print messages longer than 280 characters.

But I know, I know: I should stop hectoring and get to the sunshine part. Well, that’s out there, and it’s worth celebrating. There are curriculum technologies that tend to the greater good. There are. A curriculum is itself a technology, in the broad sense, and anything that enhances or challenges a staid curriculum is potentially a good thing. These technologies are decidedly not neutral; what they may be are agents of social justice. Before we go forward, though, we need to glance backward—to the long-lost days of 2012.

It was, according to the New York Times, “the year of the MOOC”. Yes, in the early years of the current century, hopes for tech in education often hinged on MOOCs—an acronym now so relatively old that it needs to be spelled out: massive open online course. Some of these, such as Michael Sandel’s fabled course on justice theory, were massive successes. Millions of Chinese students, in particular, tuned in to hear Professor Sandel outline his views on what is and is not a market-transaction value. And good for both him and them, because he is (a) a wonderful scholar; (b) a lively, entertaining teacher; and, most importantly, (c) a very wise man. His philosophical arguments make the world a better place. Many other MOOCs, most others in fact, languished for lack of interest. My own university created a special vice-presidency to pursue the idea of long-distance or online learning, and even with administrative backing, the practical uptake was negligible. Lots of people signed on for cool-sounding online courses, but very few stuck around for the weekly delivery thereof. (Fact-check: the biggest MOOC platform, Coursera, is still a going concern, an enforced-participation consortium of universities that includes Stanford, Michigan, Duke, NYU, Penn, Edinburgh, and Toronto).

Miracle Theatre actor performing Life’s A Dream, at Trebah Gardens, Amphitheatre Cornwall.

Why the fall-off? My own explanation is simple but may be retrograde: students want to be in physical proximity to each other and to their teachers. Pedagogy is like live theatre: it will not be replaced by long-distance equivalents (which are not equivalent). When I first came to the University of Toronto, I taught at a suburban outpost in a benighted neighborhood called Scarborough. The campus there is a Concrete-Brutalist paradise of 1970s optimism gone sour. There are, predictably, old-fashioned cathode-ray TVs festooned from every corner of every lecture theatre. Here, one imagines, the disembodied faces of top downtown lecturers could be beamed across the 30 kilometers separating lucky city-dwellers from their suburban-loser counterparts. Hail to the future, peons!

No, in fact, the emerging technologies that garner the most uptake are those that enhance, rather than seek to replace, the face-to-face elements of teaching, even at large state-funded schools like mine. Course-website technology, while sometimes annoying, is an easy and effective way to negotiate course business on a daily basis. I can send announcements, including required reading and assignment details, with a few clicks. Students can contact me, or each other, via a simple interface. This is an obviously good thing.

So is, I would say, anything else that enables better interaction between members of a given course, or department. Some instructors favour “clickers”, which measure immediate approval, disapproval, agreement or disagreement with elements of a lecture. In a class with, say, 500 students (such as the first-year philosophy class I taught for a decade), this is simple but potentially effective. Do Thomas Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God make sense? Yes or no? Which ones; take them in order. It is no substitute for a seminar or discussion session, but it is definitely better than shouting into the void of the hall. Or consider shared-reading spaces, where my students can tutor me—and each other—on the range of their own cultural exposure. I would not have considered anime and video games as philosophical source material, perhaps, but why not?

Global learning also involves the ease of connection, at least for those wealthy enough to have keyboards and screens to hand. Online publishing and discussion are powerful tools for change, as are social media (at least sometimes). An online simulation can offer as much insight as an expensive visit to a world where deprivation is the norm. Media literacy is essential at every moment, however, and there is ever the lingering danger that the sexiness of a given interface will override our basic critical instincts. Don’t let it happen, to you or your students.

Other emerging technologies seem to offer efficiency gains at the margin. I mean such things as holographic or AI instructors, grading algorithms and high-speed content-delivery systems. I’m not certain whether these are as important as their makers often argue. Yes, probably all teachers dislike large swaths of grading time; but we also know that our students appreciate the human attention we bring to the task, however onerous it might feel. I recently graded almost 200 final exams in a three-day period, and I was both exhausted and exhilarated by the effort. I felt like I knew that large class better than almost any other I have taught in the past decade.

What I also worry about, of course, are those overarching curricular technologies shilled by large corporations, especially when they pretend to be super-helpful to us under-laborers in the hot harvest-fields of pedagogy. A company called Curriculum Technology sells itself with the following bullet points: “Rapid content development, Scalability, Design simplicity, Integration of leading-edge teaching and learning techniques/technology, Measurable quality, Unparalleled responsiveness”, and so on. I’m left wondering what kind of “scalability” is on offer here and—maybe more to the point—how there is even such a thing as “measurable quality” when it comes to education. These business-school stock phrases are the refuge of the lazy, and the lazy-in-thought.

Relief depicting a scene with wrestlers on a Greek sarcophagus, National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece.

Let me, therefore, offer this as Argument Four: don’t ever let anyone else design your curriculum. A curriculum is an idea, an argument, a statement of belief. It is therefore meant to be challenged, and changed, by those who encounter it. That’s teaching, is it not? To use an old Greek metaphor, we come without clothes to wrestle in the arena of the mind. We possess only our wits and our limbs. There are no tools or weapons that will make this easier, or less revealing. It’s just us here, and our ideas. What else?

I know that the come-naked-to-wrestle metaphor for debate is a little phallogocentric—though, at the same time, it is not, for whatever this may be worth, also heteronormative (on the contrary, maybe). My second-order point in using the metaphor at all is that we can talk about these things now precisely because the language of critical engagement makes such talk possible. When I listen to the linguistic depredations of politicians and professional obfuscators vying for seats on the Supreme Court or rehabilitation in the New York Review of Books, what I hear are not their sad bleats of dashed male privilege but, rather, the smart, funny, exquisitely argued voices of critics trained at our schools to challenge received wisdom, bad logic, and the elisions of dominant thought-power.

Again and again, in this context, I recall Jacques Rancière’s wisdom in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987). There is no emancipation for either teacher or pupil when education is conceived as a series of lock-boxes with special keys that need to be liberated, like Easter eggs in a video game. As Rancière notes of the legerdemain-loving, smarter-than-you style teacher, “having thrown a veil of ignorance over everything that is to be learned, he appoints himself to the task of lifting it”. Which, as they say, is nice work if you can get it. But it’s not really teaching. This is clubby stuff, where entry into the special status of knowingness, and hence success, is purchased by performing well at special tricks. We all know, or should know, that the most popular current tricks are themselves forms of technology: ACT and SAT and GRE test modules, where intelligence can be—hey now!—quantified. Note for completists: yes, yes, yes, I still recall my GRE test scores from decades ago; of course I do, because they helped me get into an Ivy League graduate school. Was that right or just? I don’t know, and can’t judge. I refuse to share those data with you here, even though I easily could, because they mean literally nothing. Nothing.

Teaching, meanwhile, means this: approaching the site of education with humility and grace, surrendering your need to dominate. It means something more searching and authentic than Socrates’ doctrina ignorantia, that studied pose of not-knowing which is actually a duck-hunter’s blind of pure secret conviction. But anyway, no! Come unclothed of your learning to the forum, to the classroom or lecture hall, dear colleagues. Let go of your superiority, abandon your expertise, throw off your post-nominal letters and degrees.

That, and only that, is the technology you need to be a good teacher. And, so, after some shilly-shally, I come to Argument Five: there is no such thing as an expert teacher. There is only such a thing as an honest one. I hope that students are lucky enough to get one of those. I hope you and I are strong enough to be one of those. Kant’s imperative phrase for enlightenment was sapere aude: dare to think for yourself (or dare to be wise, a Latinist might say). No, our motto for twenty-first century enlightenment must be this: docere audet. Have the courage to teach! All marginal gains admitted, no technology can do the job for you.

And I thank you, as all teachers should, for your attention. Because attention is what makes discourse real. Once more: what else?