Saturday, October 1, 2016

Teaching unplugged

During my lunch date with the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education yesterday, an article titled “Why all humanists should go to prison” caught my attention. The author, Alex Tipei, describes how teaching at a women’s prison in Indiana has made her question if the high-tech model of higher education that incorporates social media, PowerPoints, YouTube, Google Maps etc. into nearly every class has trapped us in a technology driven, money spending, training intense model of education that has lost the essence of good teaching and learning somewhere along the way. She writes:
“At the prison, however, technology-driven pedagogy wasn’t an option. I had to eliminate the technologies I already relied on, rather than introduce new ones. I began to question why I had used specific tools in the first place. Had I depended on lecture slides to help my students follow along? Or were they there to keep me on point? Did videos add to the course content or simply fill up discussion time? If they did augment the material, were there other ways to arrive at the same place — means that refrained from directing everyone’s attention to a screen rather than to one another?”
Do you know why you use certain classroom technologies? Sometimes I feel like the PowerPoint slides that I recycle from year to year with a few updates here and there are a crutch for both me and the students – I use them to keep the lecture on track and students know that all the most important information that will be on the test can be found in those slides. Does my reliance on this simple tool prevent me from developing more interesting, interactive, engaging, and thought provoking discussion tools for the classroom? Maybe I would be a better teacher if I chose to unplug every now and then and instead tried to focus my energy and prep time to be ready to facilitate classroom discussions that encouraged participation by all students. 
What would it look like if all the money we spend on technology and training for how to use that technology was instead spent on true faculty development that helped us become outstanding teachers that could teach anywhere - unplugged or connected to the world?

What does your teaching look like? Is it unplugged or do you rely on technology in the classroom? What are the advantages and disadvantages of either approach?


  1. Anna, thank you for this thought provoking post. Excellent points are made for teaching without technology. I especially took note of the line about directing students’ attention to a screen rather than to each other. I strongly believe that important learning takes place when students interact with each other, especially when a team is encouraged to take new knowledge and apply it, for example, in problem-solving that requires multiple perspectives. Working together also helps develop social skills, staring at a screen does not.

    When teaching lecture classes, I use PowerPoint slides in nearly every class meeting. When I started teaching, there is no doubt that I used the slides as a crutch. Over the years, I have tried to decrease my dependency on PowerPoint slides. Specifically, I have eliminated almost all text on my slides, and use them mainly for illustrations, photographs, and diagrams. Some courses, like human biology or anatomy and physiology, require graphics. Trust me when I say that drawing is not my talent.

    Google Docs enables students to work together, one of my objectives, on one presentation. YouTube videos demonstrate content that can’t be easily grasped otherwise. Clicker systems and polling tools keep students engaged and provide assessment feedback in real-time. Technology can make learning fun, yes I said fun, once you get past the learning curve for using it.

    I can imagine teaching totally unplugged, but I’d prefer not to. Technology is an exciting tool that can be used to promote learning, but like any other tool, it can be used badly. It’s up to us as educators to figure out when to use it and when not to, and how to use it to the best advantage. That’s the challenge.

  2. I'm with you Dianne - it is an interesting thought experiment to teach unplugged, and I could definitely change a lot of what I do, but in the end, I like having access to YouTube to explain complicated 3-D processes, PollEverywhere for instant assessment, and live cams for looking at different earth processes or habitats. Oh - and I don't know what I would do without Google Maps in Climate Studies. Technology definitely has a place in the classroom - but not for it's own sake. Technology should be a tool that is used to enhance teaching. The line about directing students' attention to the screen rather than to each other also made me stop and think that we really need to make an effort to take students' attention AWAY from the screen and help them learn how to interact respectfully with each other.

  3. In the "good old days," we used to teach "unplugged." I believe the current technology and (current) students have caused the change. If you teach "unplugged," these days, student complain that your classes are boring. I also think if the current technology were available in the "good old days," many teachers would have used it (for different reasons e.g. innovation or being on the cutting edge).

    Safro Kwame