Saturday, February 25, 2006

Teaching with Technology: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose

In the past five years since I began teaching on the Internet, my struggles with creating engagement with my Distance Learning students have brought mixed results. It is easy enough (but very time consuming) to create community by the use of discussion boards and forcing students (i.e., issuing grades) to reply to each other’s posts, and barring technological difficulties, it is not too hard to get some pretty good, teacher-directed chat sessions going.

The funny thing about chat, however, is that students often wander far afield on their own, sort of, you might say, holding their own sidebars during the class/chat time. I cause my students who do not attend the “class” sessions to read the chat logs and present me with a summary, and sometime these summaries are a little bit snippy in that the offended students point out that a lot of the chat is off-topic. I’m not really opposed to this, and in fact, Marilyn Cooper and Cynthia Selfe say this is a good thing, because the computerized environment, in which the teacher is not totally in control, allows students to alter the power structure a little more in their own favor, where real learning might take place (857).

In fact, I enjoy the humor and the banter and the “poking [of] fun at the gravity with which the subject matter is treated in the classroom” (857). And I also enjoy the imperative that teaching with web-based technologies brings to the instructor to produce, as David Jaffee puts it, “some deep reflection about teaching, learning, and the respective roles of instructor and student” (233).

So I am a little annoyed with myself that now I have switched to Breeze as the platform to hold my Internet class sessions, my students seem more serious and attentive. Breeze, which I love because it frees me from typing and revealing in print to my students my terrible spelling and butchered syntax, has actually caused me to switch back to a lecture mode, in which I find myself doing most of the talking while my students listen attentively and politely.

That said, the response I’m getting from my students is very good. Because I can record the sessions and have those who can’t attend view the recording and write summaries, I’ve been able to monitor the feedback, which includes statements like “It’s really nice to hear your voice and view you as a real person.” Or, “You were really able to clarify some issues I haven’t otherwise been able to get my mind around.” Such anecdotes aren’t a formal study of course, but I’m sensing that even my Internet students appreciate what ever replication of the traditional classroom is possible. So, in a nutshell, hats off to Breeze.

I know that for myself, I’m much more comfortable in the visual and aural environment, where I can do little dog and pony shows with PPT and web pages in real time, without being tied to a keyboard, where my typing skills (just like my blackboard writing skills) are really atrocious. And the nifty little “polling” feature (much like classroom clickers) is a real crowd pleaser.

But I do find it amusing that as the technology advances, it is enabling me to revert to more traditional classroom practices. Apparently, as the French like to say, “Plus a change, plus se la mem chose.” Or, as we say somewhat less elegantly on this side of the Atlantic, “what goes ‘round comes ‘round.”

In any event, I’m looking forward to sending my students a little anonymous online survey at the end of the semester asking them what they think of the switch from chat to Breeze. Watch for the results in this space in early May.

Cooper, Marilyn, and Cynthia Selfe. “Computer Conferences and Learning: Authority, Resistance, and Internally Persuasive Discourse.” College English 52.8 (December 1990): 847-69.

Jaffee, David. “Virtual Transformation: Web-Based Technology and Pedagogical Change.” Teaching Sociology 31.2 (April 200): 227-36.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Faulty Causality

Okay – I promised a blog entry some weeks back on rhetorical devices that are meant deceive, particularly the commonly used device know as “faulty causality.” I would have gotten to this earlier, but I’ve been so depressed over the terrible referring during the SuperBowl that I’ve been avoiding all responsible behavior for several days since.

However, with the Winter Olympics just around the bend, promising lots of theater and beautiful visual images, I’m starting to be able to get my mind around the things that really matter again. I slept well last night, ate well today, and managed to say a few words to my wife, so recovery is sight.

So I will try to focus what few brain cells survived and recovered from last Sunday night’s debacle on the issue at hand, which is how cause and effect arguments can easily be deceptive misleading, and worse. I would particularly like to point to an article by James K. Glassman of the American Enterprise Institute that ran recently in the Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette under the headline, “Tinker with Bush policy at our own risk.” Aside from the fact that the AEP can be counted on to publish self-serving interviews with its own people purporting to show plenty of “progress” in Iraq, the article is a fun read because it argues very simply that President Bush is obviously on the right tract because there have been no terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11. Glassman even goes on to claim that efforts by Congress to change the way we interrogate prisoners, not to mention the way we eavesdrop on American citizens without court ordered warrants, should not be tampered with nor even questioned, since these tactics are clearly working so well.

That’s a nifty argument, but it is also a dishonest argument because it is based on a faulty premise – that the cause claimed in the argument indeed is the one that created the effect.

To illustrate, let’s try this: snap your fingers. What happened? I claim, and you can not really disagree, that when you snapped your fingers, no elephants appeared. Now snap your fingers again. What happened? Again, no elephants appeared.

So if I claim snapping your fingers keeps the elephants away, who is to argue?

I rest my case.