Tech Out, Chalk In, Well Almost


This is not so much in response to Mary Flanagan’s  essay, “The Classroom as Arcade,” recently published by Inside Higher Ed,  which features a vivid observation of a student in class who “check[ed] out from a class he likes” to play a role-playing game on an electronic device while others “openly engaged with their Facebook pages,” also in class, though I would say that kind of behavior falls under classroom management–even if students live in a world where technology controls their fingers and eyeballs as if they were marionettes.  But reading Flanagan’s essay reminded me that I had not yet taken the opportunity to sound off on what appears to be the standard practice for years now of equipping every classroom with a computer and an electronic overhead projector, along with either a television or pull down screen to show what is displayed on the computer.

I recall also a former college president making a big deal of having this kind of equipment in the classrooms, touting the fact that this was the way the new generation learned and faculty better get up to speed or they did not need to teach at the institution any more.

I am a big fan of technology, possessing a smart phone, a laptop, a tablet, a thin notebook, and I use email and Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and all the usual suspects.  But I still do not believe that it is necessary to have any technological equipment in the classroom.

I am willing to concede that I am somewhat happy not to get chalk all over myself or have to do that self-conscious slapping together of hands as if that would clean them after squeaking and breaking off chalk despite resolve to write lightly, as I now can draw all sorts of neat things on a whiteboard, though I would think someone would be able to invent markers that don’t leave you gasping or having a legally obtained chemical high at the end of class.  But even a whiteboard encourages unnecessary writing, something of a rare phrase to hear from an English professor’s mouth.

I do not consider myself a dinosaur when I say I continue to have wonderful interaction and learning in my classes while I stand in center, up front, holding the reading material in my hands to be able to refer to it closely and students and I discuss critically what we are reading.  And I have only had one student’s phone go off in class, telling students how I am also addicted to electronic devices, pointing to my shirt pocket from which I pull out my smart phone and show them it is turned off, as I tell them if I can handle the withdrawal symptoms during class, we can all get through them together.

Students get my point and we get through the class, for a moment perhaps living on the addictive activity of truly engaging, making eye contact, even practicing that wonderfully-awkward re-positioning and re-focusing one’s eyes as one goes from text to human being and back and forth (for me it is probably a little more difficult than it is for my younger students).  I notice also when I arrive before class is scheduled to begin that during the semester the students’ engagement with smart phones before class becomes less and less.  It is wonderful to engage in conversation with others and students really can do so and enjoy doing so.

The problem of students engaging with their technology at the expense of the old-fashioned kind of engagement some of us call conversation is that too many of us are reinforcing the students’ behavior of electronic device dependence.  We expect students to act this way.  And, I hate to say it, but some of us even like students engaging with technology so that we do not have to engage with them.

So please, as long as I get to keep my whiteboard in class, take out the computer, and while you’re at it, get rid of some of the fluorescent lights to give one less of a chicken-farm feeding facility ambience or a Wal-Mart atmosphere.

Have book, ability to read and speak, students, what more do we need?

4 thoughts on “Tech Out, Chalk In, Well Almost

  1. This quarter I taught in a classroom with both chalkboard and computer projection—I found both useful, but for different things. The chalkboard is better for explaining things and answering questions, the computer projection better for working through examples of how to write computer programs or scripts for plotting programs. (In neither case am I using pre-written material—for me a lecture is a live performance with audience participation and is inherently improvisational.)

    Incidentally, the secret to avoiding breaking chalk or squeaking is to drag the chalk, not push it. For many people, this requires developing different writing habits, which takes conscious effort for the first year. I used to teach the technique in my “how to be a grad student” course, but now that class meets in a room with whiteboards, not chalkboards, so the students don’t get a chance to practice.

    I find chalk a little better than whiteboard markers—not for clarity or erasability, where whiteboard have a clear advantage, but because the chalk is replenished whenever it runs low, as anyone can see how much chalk is left, but the markers always run dry in mid-talk (especially if students have been allowed to use them—they always wave them around uncapped so that the markers dry out very fast). Chalk is also a lot cheaper than markers, so the department doesn’t run out of chalk nearly as often.

    I do dislike the amount of chalk dust that accumulates on my hands (and possibly in my lungs) after a chalkboard class.

  2. This is why a properly whiteboarded room also has a box kept more-or-less filled with a variety of differently colored markers–it’s the level of the box that is gauged for refilling, not the individual markers.

    Teaching geometrically-motivated math (and all courses I teach are geometrically-motivated, as I’m a geometer) is much easier with the ability to highlight with colors.

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