When I first started teaching at what was then known as the University of Southern Colorado, there were two sets of old maps printed on canvas stored in an upstairs closet which I’m sure dated from about 1960. One set had historical maps for world history. The other set had maps pertaining to American history. Faculty had to drag them out of the closet and move them into their classrooms whenever they had to make a geographic point (and to be fair to today’s student’s for one moment, the last batch of non-digital natives didn’t know much about geography either). I was still teaching the first half of the US survey class at the time so from time to time I had to drag those maps out of storage to make some point, usually about the sheer magnitude of the British Empire.
Then I discovered those plastic sheets with maps printed on them. They went on top of what we around here call an ELMO machine (basically, a flattop projector that displays on a vertical screen) so suddenly there was no need to drag the maps around at all. Not only that, there were pictures of things on those sheets besides maps! Now instead of talking about what a cotton gin looked like (“It’s like a giant rotary mower, only stationary.”), I could actually show a picture of one.
Put off by too many canned presentations where the technology didn’t work, I was late coming to PowerPoint but I’m very glad to be there now. Thanks to Microsoft (I guarantee you I don’t write those words very often), I’m no longer dependent upon publishers for the pictures I want to show in lectures. The entire Internet is my slide library, just as it is everybody else’s.
When Spencer Crew of George Mason University visited us a few weeks ago for our teacher colloquium, I developed a terrible case of slide envy. For example, he had a picture of a clipping of Black Panthers serving breakfast in a Baltimore ghetto. Now I’d been talking about the more nurturing side of the Black Panthers ever since I saw Bobby Seale speak back around the time I was still using an ELMO machine. So he and I traded slides and now I can illustrate that point beautifully!*
I think the nature of the improvement apparent in this anecdote applies well to other educational technologies as well. Certainly, PowerPoint is more convenient than maps. I also have a much better choice of material than I did when I ordered every publisher’s plastic overlays and picked only the ones I liked most. But I think the quality that’s most important here is the increase in instructor control over time. If I get to design the slideshow exactly the way I like it, I know that I am running the technology rather than letting the technology run me.
Let me offer up one more example to illustrate that point. I’ve written any number of times here now about killing my survey textbook and using Milestone Documents, a subscription website with primary sources, instead. This may seem strange coming from someone who purports to hate e-reading, but in fact it gives me much better control over my curriculum than if I used a paper alternative.
Let me illustrate that point with another anecdote: This semester, I’m also using Milestone Documents as a reader for my upper level course on America from 1877-1945. [Best. Period. Ever.] While designing my syllabus last week, I was looking for something about Prohibition because I assigned Daniel Okrent’s awesome book on this subject, Last Call to the class for a text this time around. Seeing none, I shoot Neil Schlager of Milestone Docs an e-mail which said, in part, “You guys should really have the Volstead Act in your collection.” Yesterday, I get an e-mail back telling me that it’s up on the site and ready for classroom use.
Now I’ve sent enough e-mails like that to Neil this last year that they put me on the editorial board over there, but that’s beside the point. The advantage of the Milestone Documents model is that when they get enough documents up there, every history professor can get access to the precise historical materials that they already teach. No extra pounds to lug around that students won’t read anyways. No useless revisions of the text designed solely to destroy the used book market for that particular text. The teacher is in control, and the students can even use their subscription to read around other documents if they’re so inclined.
Hopefully, you get my point. This post is getting a little long so I’ll end it here. Perhaps I’ll make this a two-parter and talk about a few more illustrations of this argument that are swimming around my head at the moment, but I’d like to see what you all think of it first.
* There has to be some way that history professors can get together and trade PowerPoint slides without running afoul of copyright laws. After all, it makes no difference to me if someone else uses the same slides that I do. After all, we should hope that the same students won’t take the identical survey course twice from two different instructors.