My class, my choice.

10 10 2011

On Friday, at the longstanding suggestion of my friends at Milestone Documents, I started playing with Diigo to highlight webpages, namely theirs. From what I can tell so far, the system is simple. Bookmark webpage with Diigo. Highlight web page (in different colors even). Click on Diigo button on your browser for the highlights to show up. There seems to be more that I can do with this, but I know I’ll be using this during discussion sections of Milestone Documents. Call up the highlights and students can read passages which my questions are based upon. I can even leave my questions there through online sticky notes.

If there’s a downside to using this tool, it’s that I’ll have to bring my laptop into the classroom and plug it into the projector because I can’t leave my buttons on the browser of a public computer. However, this doesn’t faze me too much though because I’ve been doing it a lot lately anyways. Indeed, I’ve been bringing the lovely MacBook Pro that I’m typing this on to work pretty much every day already.

I first got the little plug you need to link an Apple laptop to a projector so that I could use my own computer for book talks. Besides classroom stuff, like when I’m describing Zotero (which is required in my research classes), I do most of my general office work and all my writing on my laptop too. On non-laptop classroom days, I bring a 64GB flash drive to class as that’s enough to hold my PowerPoints and movie clips. The wonders of Diigo, however, remind me of how envious I am of those people who have all their teaching materials stored on their iPads and they can bypass their university computer systems entirely every day with no trouble.

The desirability of doing this should be obvious to those of you out there familiar with tech services at my university. The systems we have are very (I mean VERY) slow, old and unreliable. But that’s not the only good reason to bypass university-provided tech. Even those of you with better tech services than ours should consider greater technological independence because most bureaucratic institutions don’t make very good decisions. Unfortunately, they have other goals besides education.

For example, yesterday’s NYT had a very good article about this with respect to math tutoring software for secondary schools. The existence of Blackboard should demonstrate the same phenomenon for higher ed all by itself. Why should I have to use their course management software? You’d think the way in which students interact with the instructor would be the most important choice any teacher could make. Why can’t I make that decision myself?

Most of us probably can make that decision…for now, but how long will that last? A long time ago, I quoted Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors on precisely this subject:

Using or not using the course management “shell” [course management software like Blackboard] is the professor’s choice to make, and, in the case of literature courses, for example, the professor alone decides what books will be required, which editions students will used, and what other readings will supplement the assignments. This balance of authority could quickly change though, if the course-management company also owned the publishing rights to those required books, as well as to academic research databases. Then faculty would have little choice but to use course management software, as it would be the only means of getting access to the books one wanted to teach.

I wasn’t really worried about this then, but I am now as technology is beginning to determine how education itself gets defined. For example, I read this seemingly banal-sounding prediction last night:

Now, also on the information level, we might ask what the motivation is to learn information in school when you have an all knowing device in your pocket? It even knows more than the teacher who might not have an answer to a specific question right away. In such a scenario, what will the relevance of a teacher be?

Again, the ultimate goal of educational futurists everywhere seems to be a machine that will go of itself so that nobody has to pay allegedly expensive professors to teach. Granted, that’s the long run. In the short run, the result of these closed systems will be to lower the skill level of the people needed to run them. This process may be gradual but the result will be the same: (to misquote Big Bill Haywood through David Montgomery) The workman’s brain under the manager’s cap.

It doesn’t strike me as particularly smart to make that process easier. If not for your own good, keep your craft knowledge under your direct control in order to protect the next generation of professors.




3 responses

10 10 2011
Music for Deckchairs

For me, the worry isn’t the technology or the software or whatever it can do – I also navigate the tension between wanting to introduce very engaging, sociable tools like Diigo to students for learning, particularly in terms of primary historical sources that can really benefit from navigational annotation by the teacher, and the stiff and rise averse environment of campus IT that means you can invariably not use these interesting things in IT serviced teaching spaces. This is just daily stuff, trying to make technology work flexibly and intuitively with some degree of intellectual independence.

But I think you’re right that the threat is coming from a different direction, as budget efficiency drivers are starting to make partnerships between publishers and edtech seem increasingly attractive. Taken to its logical conclusion this is exactly what could reduce us to the status of outsourced essay graders in our own classrooms. I do understand the headache and urge to lie down in a darkened room that this brings on.

10 10 2011
Jonathan Dresner

The “balance of authority” question is already unbalanced. Student-Consumers(tm) have a great deal of power to determine technological and content issues, often working hand-in-claw with institutional administrations. There is an initiative, coming out of the Student Government here, to *require* faculty to use the LMS, especially the gradebook, and to *require* faculty to stop teaching new material during the last week of the semester (a gross but popular misunderstanding of our “dead week” restrictions on snap finals). The Faculty Senate keeps swatting these down, but, with tacit administrative support, they keep coming back.

10 10 2011
Jonathan Rees


Students demanding that faculty use any particular LMS may be the scariest news that I’ve heard in ages.

I’ve noticed gradebook-influenced comments myself. They usually come in the form of “Can you tell me what my grade is in this class?” My response [“The formula is in the syllabus so you can do your own math.”] usually doesn’t go over very well, but I do tend to be kind to everyone when I do the math at the end of the semester. I’m afraid that kind of flexibility would be much harder if third parties had access to my gradebook.

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