Russ Hunt
Department of English
St. Thomas University

What Difference Does IT Make?
an interactive presentation / workshop
AAU Teaching Showcase
UNB Saint John
25 October 2009


Although much has been written about the “revolutionary” impact of the advent of Information Technology, from the infiltration of cheap, convenient copying and email, through The Web and Course Management Systems, to the clicker, the blog and the wiki, there is increasing skepticism about the sweeping claims that have been made for the range or depth of its influence. As with education writer Larry Cuban's dissection of the influence of technology in the schools (showing that innovations have little impact on actual classroom practice), it is regularly suggested that the currently available tools generally simply allow teachers to keep doing what they've been doing: a lecture delivered by podcast or on a video blog is still a lecture; PowerPoint is really just a more convenient way to produce images than the overhead projector; an interactive, online multiple choice test is still a multiple choice test. This session will give participants an opportunity to challenge (or confirm) this view, by proposing some specific areas in which change might, or might not, be occurring in their own teaching practice as a result of technological change, and providing a context in which they can share their experiences with others, and reflect on them.

What it's all about:

This session will employ a Web-based discussion program (called HyperNews) to facilitate written discussion, and at the same time demonstrate some strategies for using such programs to afford and promote such discussion in classroom (and out-of-classroom) contexts.  A maximum of ten minutes will be spent in explaining the structure of the session and posing some specific areas in which participants' teaching might have been changed by the advent of technology; fifteen minutes will be allowed for participants to describe in writing an experience of their own with some specific technological tool, and fifteen more minutes for reading what others have posted (and responding where possible). There will then be a wrapup in which we will look for patterns in the various participants' responses. The Web site will remain live for some time after the conference so that participants can continue the online conversation.

Participants will need to get to this screen and click on the link below, or type this URL into the location window of a browser:

How it works:

You've used technology in your teaching (even if the technology you've used hasn't been all that high).  Take a few minutes to think about a case where using technology has failed to change what you've been doing in any significant way, though you had some reason to expect it to, or hope it would -- or a case where you started using technology and it changed what you were doing in ways you hadn't planned on.

Got it?  OK, Click the "Add" button below. Skip down to "If you are NOT a member," and put your email address in the slot, and your name below that. In the Title box, put whatever might identify what you're writing about.

Skip down to the "Enter your message text here:" box, and describe that case for us. (Don't indent paragraphs; skip a line between them.) Take the time you need to make your case clear; you'll have about fifteen minutes to write.  The window will let you write at whatever length you need.

When you're done, you can identify the "kind of message" if you like, but mainly go down to the bottom of the screen and click on "Preview your message."  You might want now to reread it quickly; I usually find things I want to change at this point. If you do, press the "Back" button to make changes and then preview it again.

After fifteen minutes, I'll invite people to press the "Post Your Message" button if they haven't already.

Then we'll take fifteen minutes for us all to read as many of the messages as we have time for -- and then we'll talk about the whole thing.

What it means:

My experience with IT has been, in general, that I'm usually surprised by the outcomes for my teaching: it's common for the technology to open up possibilities as I use it that I had not anticipated.  My favourite example is from the deep past: when St. Thomas moved from ditto and Gestetner machines (I bet almost no one remembers that) to comparatively lightning-fast photocopiers, my first reaction was that it simply made what I was doing before -- copying course outlines and assignments for distribution to classes -- faster and easier.

But within a few years a number of us were using the copier to circulate student work so that student writer could be folded back into class discussions -- sometimes, in fact, we could walk out of a class with a sheaf of handwritten work, zip it through the copier, and be back in five minutes with the materials for a further discussion.  We found ourselves able to organize the publication of student-written books -- edited, printed, bound, and delivered during the last class sessions. In other words, what looked at first like a simple linear increase in speed and convenience turned into what the catastrophe theorists might call a tipping point, where something entirely new happens.

For a number of years now I've been watching as my own teaching and that of others has undergone this process as we used technologies which, at first, recommended themselves simply as easier ways of doing what we were already doing. When, as a more recent example, we discovered that a side effect of the university's creation of a system-wide set of server directories for individual students was that each student had a space which could serve as a Web site, we began helping students to use such sites as ways of publishing their writing for the rest of the class directly; no photocopying and paper handling necessary.

But this, too, had consequences we hadn't anticipated, leading to online editing, accumulating journals of course work (rather like what came to be called blogs), and the creation of group sites for online collaborative work, which could be carried on between classes, even among student unable to arrange schedules for meetings.

And the adoption of programs like the one underlying this session, which began as a slightly more organized form of email, has become the basis of many classroom and between-class activities which would have been unimaginable without it, rather like the discussion which this session has just engaged in.