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More letters from alumni about Teaching with technology

May 2, 2001

While I applaud Princeton's move to develop a sophisticated center to support instructional technology, it seems from the article (cover story, April 18, 2001) that the center is not really offering anything to teaching that differs fundamentally from traditional methods.

That is: Technology seems to be viewed as the "presentation medium" for more, and more engaging, material, with the added benefit of being accessible at all hours and from many locations.

The metaphors of teacher as scriptwriter and technology staff as cinematographer reinforce this paradigm, which relegates "technology" to a subservient role in the course as a mere means of disseminating information. The possibilities afforded by hypermedia and communications technologies are much greater than just giving teachers a more powerful blackboard, and I would love for Princeton to take advantage of them.

One obvious one is the capacity for two-way interaction (or, better: non-teacher-centered interaction), so that instead of envisioning technology only as a means of presenting material, instructors might use it to involve students in exploring the subject and in collaborating with their classmates to do so.

To design such courses, instructors will need to adopt different approaches toward their material, and develop assignments in addition to delivery methods that take advantage of these new textual forms (hypertext, multimedia, multiple-user). But even more importantly, instructors will need to rethink the material itself in light of what emerging technologies are showing us about our world.  These technologies imply new modes of understanding, and cutting-edge teaching (such as Princeton prides itself on) will have to be aware of and play upon them as they arise.  The most progress pedagogically has been made in fields where the connections are more obvious, such as computer science, engineering, and cybernetics; but the implications extend to such diverse fields as biology, psychology, sociology, economics, religion (interestingly, this week's Newsweek features a cover story on "neurotheology," with its roots in cybernetics), and literature.

Testimonial to the latter: I have taught poetry in a networked classroom for several years now and have found it highly illuminating to teach T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land using MOO-space (a multi-user, object-oriented hypertextual environment) for class discussion and student research and writing.

Using this technology highlights the specifically hypertextual elements of Eliot's poem and by implication literature more generally. I now try to incorporate those general insights when I teach literature in more traditional environments, and so the material I teach has changed even without changing my syllabus one bit. While McLuhan's dictum "The medium is the message" may be a bit too extreme, it's true that the medium affects the message profoundly.

To teach using new mediums without substantially revisiting the material of the course seems to be missing a great chance to advance understanding. To take best advantage of instructional technologies, both technology staff and faculty will need to understand them at fundamental levels.

At present, it appears that the tech support staff function in the same way as stage managers or lecture-hall techies – absent from the designing of the courses they help present.

But just as electronic sound amplification and image projection (among other innovations) changed not only the way teachers teach but the content of their courses, emerging electronic text technologies are sure to do the same.

I hope that Princeton will put its considerable resources not just into developing online materials but into developing informed courses and teachers as well, especially those remaining in the classrooms on the stones-and-mortar campus, not just in the growing virtual one.

David Barndollar '88
Austin, Tex.

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