Published on 2016/08/09
Technology and the Liberal Arts: Expanding the Dialogue
Effectively leveraging technology can help educators shift from their “sage-on-the-stage” role into that of a trusted advisor supporting student progress and outcomes.

What is the impact of technology on teaching and learning? While pondering this in the context of the purpose of education, it triggered my memory back to a presentation I gave at a conference a while back. The presentation stressed the importance of letting pedagogy drive any conversation surrounding technological adoption. The interesting thing was one of the responses by an audience member via Twitter, suggesting that my contention was already an accepted practice in higher education.

As a user of instructional technologies—and one who facilitates that use by other faculty members—I can adamantly state that technology and pedagogy are still often seen as opposing forces in institutions of higher learning. This is due in large degree to the impact of the perception of faculty members regarding technology and broader IT structures. There is a lack of communication and understanding on both sides of the equation. Teachers teach, and IT creates tools and mechanisms that allow for teaching in new and innovative ways. However, the terminology employed by both sides is so different as to be similar to throwing two people in a room who speak different languages without an interpreter and expecting them to collaboratively write a letter.

Paulo Freire used the technology of his time (photographs) to facilitate teaching the illiterate to read. His process of showing words and pictures to draw on individual context, experience and memory has led to great advances by Malcolm Knowles, Jane Vella, and others in understanding how learning occurs. While many still contend that technology undermines pedagogy and serves to destroy the individuality of the learner, I would offer a different view, specifically in the context of small residential liberal arts colleges. Here individuality, debate and discussion are celebrated. With small class sizes, professors are likely to have a deeper relationship with students. These relationships consist of formal (in class, office hours, etc.) and informal (dining halls, walking on campus, etc.) interactions.

Technology can be a powerful partner in creating opportunities for the transfer of knowledge and expanding the personal relationships referenced earlier. Too often, the term “guide on the side” is used to represent the impact of technology on the classroom. Using flipped or online materials are seen as ways for professors to only serve as guides for students, rather than trusted advisors and learned scholars who push students to expand and refine knowledge. The former view ignores the importance of dialogue and individual context that helps to create shared meaning and enhance the learning environment.

One example of using technology to enhance the learning experience is as a bridge to create more meaningful conversations and dialogue. For example, students who may not be as vocal or quick to participate during in-class discussions might do so if their initial ideas were posted beforehand in an online discussion. In addition, having these responses can help the professor to frame the in-class discussion and prompt students with differing viewpoints to engage.

Another technology with the potential to impact students on a personal level is adaptive learning. While the term can have varied meanings, I would define it as a set of content with embedded activities that assess understanding as students progress through a concept. This allows students who need extra help and resources to receive it while allowing students who have mastered the content to move ahead in a challenging environment. The real power of this technology is not an algorithm that connects content, learning objectives, activities and hints. The power of adaptive learning is combining it with a student and professor who are seeking to better understand the individual process of learning.

Imagine a discussion during office hours where the professor could see how a student struggled with a particular assignment at the granular level. What choices did they make? How many hints did they need? What concepts did they struggle the most with? The professor could begin the conversation with a quick check to confirm the data and then move on to explore why those particular concepts were so difficult. Now imagine a student who has struggled with a specific concept, but is unsure why. Analyzing how he or she has engaged with the content can help define the proper questions to ask the professor or aid in self-reflective growth.

There are numerous technologies that can positively impact learning. However, it is imperative that the technology is tightly coupled with pedagogical approaches. After all, a 3D printer is awesome, but without a purpose, it only makes cool toys. Unity is a powerful gaming engine, but when coupled with pedagogy can transport a student back in time to view places long gone, creating understanding and providing context to learning. After all, pictures and words in a room would not have taught people to read. The real power came in how Freire combined the technology of his time with the human need to explore, learn and engage in dialogue.

Accepting that technology can benefit learning comes with the very real issue of being able to physically access the material. This is perhaps where the faculty and institutional roles are most important, and where the small liberal arts experience has a distinct advantage. Are there computers available for students to access materials? Is the wireless and/or wired infrastructure able to handle traffic created by online resources? Are there alternative assignments and have they been designed with accessibility in mind for students with learning disabilities? Whereas dialogue is crucial in a learning environment, it is just as important when designing and creating one using technology. Small residential liberal arts campuses have the advantage of having students on campus, which mitigates some concerns for now, but as they explore online options for students away from campus, the location of the learner will become increasingly important.

If the purpose of education is to expand individual minds and allow students to explore and create knowledge, technology is yet another tool for faculty to utilize to enhance the learning environment. However, doing so requires faculty, administration, library and IT staff to communicate and collaborate with the common goal of enhancing the educational experience of every student. First and foremost, technology can only be effective in the classroom if guided by pedagogical concerns, respect for students’ needs, and continual dialogue and feedback. The technologically enhanced learning environment does not eliminate the need for human interaction but rather transforms it into an essential component, bridging the gap between what exists and what is possible.

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