Pedagogy and Technology

It’s not PowerPoint, it’s about the Pedagogy! 

Philip A. Pecorino

Queensborough Community College, CUNY

Fall, 2004 


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Adopting and adapting educational technologies associated with computers and the internet for use with instruction is often transforming not only how we teach, affording new ways to address old problems, but also turning attention to some of the basic issues in teaching focusing the educators on the pedagogy itself, its design and its efficacy. 

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For Alfred North Whitehead the art of life is “to live, to live well and to live even better” (The Function of Reason, 1929).   For educators the art of teaching is to teach and to teach well and to teach even better.  This motive is the driving engine to pedagogic research and experimentation and for development and reform.  Pedagogy and the “technology” employed by educators have changed over time as much as the basic techniques and delivery mechanisms in many other fields have changed   But, we are now at a point in education where we have a unique set of technologies that is driving pedagogic development as much as being employed by it.  PowerPoint, the internet and course management programs are causing some fundamental reflections on what educators do and how best to do it more than any curriculum based or pedagogically based initiatives whether it may be writing in the disciplines and across the curricula or collaborative learning or problem solving approaches that are intended to impact pedagogy in essential ways to increase the efficacy of instruction.  The educational technologies are often offered as an aside to the efforts of pedagogic development, but lo and behold,  those tools are now impacting the tool wielder in ways unimagined by the creators of those tools.  Who knew?  The teaching tools are changing how we teach.  We may have reached a point where along side of looking for a tool to do what we do better, we have tools that make us think about and then do what we do better. 

There are several recently emerged and ongoing threads in the discourse of the community of educators concerning the value of using educational technology-the newest toys of teachers from K to 12 and then on into higher ed settings.  There are serious conversations over where financial resources are to be directed and often it appears to be that funding must go either to the toys or to more serious pedagogical development and basic teacher training.  Another thread in the myriad of conversations has to do with concerns over the potential loss of what has been valuable in non-electronic modes of instruction in light of what appears as the continuing advance of an irresistible wave of adoptions of technologies as soon as they become available.  But it just may well be that there are false dichotomies and exaggerated concerns at play in the discourse.  This may be so because, if and whenever the adopters of the technologies stay focused on the pedagogy, it is more often, and almost always, the case that technologies both permit and encourage more effective instruction and little or no loss in what was most valued in the more traditional mode of instruction. 

Educators have probably used tools along with techniques from the very first attempt to teach something.  From gesturing hands, to sticks scratching in the dirt, to rocks scratching on cave walls, to boards and chalk, and then to better boards and better chalk, to even more boards and even better chalk-dustless-who would have imagined!  Then comes along grease pens and whiteboards and still more boards and pens and of course, Xerographs and dittos and photocopies and the print shop!  Communication technology is constantly evolving and teaching institutions are making it available to faculty.  This will continue, as we will not be asking to regress any time soon.  Already there are many faculty members who could not conceive of doing what they do with their learners without the use of certain technologies that they have very quickly come to take for granted whether that be chalk or website presentations.   

What is significantly different now is that with electricity there came slides and projectors and then overhead projectors and PowerPoint !   PowerPoint, the transitional phase, the transforming device.  But why?  Well, for PowerPoint there must be a computer and with that computer there comes the realization that it is not the computer at all but the internet that is important.  Duh!   From 2000 to 2002 I would survey my students to determine how many had computers at home connected to the internet.  In the last semester that I did this now unneeded survey a show of hands in one class indicated that the majority totaling more than 90 % did have such.  I inquired of one student who entered the room after the show of hands survey and he indicated that he had a computer at home.  I then asked if it was connected to the internet.  He immediately gave me a look and uttered quite forcefully, “Duh!”  I was thus enlightened that the personal computer was, for most of the world who do use it, not of much value, perhaps none at all, if it was not connected to the world-wide wealth available through it.  PowerPoint is the transitional technology.  It is the device-the mechanism-that opens the door to the vast array of possibilities for reorganizing what educators do when they are teaching.  It is not PowerPoint itself that is the turning point but the wealth of information through PowerPoint’s connection with the computer connected to the internet.  PowerPoint leads the instructor to realize how much information can be made available to the learners through the devices.  The formula? PowerPoint +computer + internet=websites + discussion boards + possibilities for considering a variety of learning styles and differences in skills and backgrounds. 

PowerPoint has been with us now for a decade and employed in many different settings.  It has been noticed.  Thee has already arisen numerous critiques of PowerPoint usage and discussion of the cognitive style induced by PowerPoint presentations.  It bears repeating that it not PowerPoint itself that is being commended here but what it signifies and that is a link to a vastly more powerful array of technologies and greater amount of information than any technology has placed at the use of an educator.  This is so because PowerPoint requires a computer and computers are connected to the internet if they are worth having around.  It is to be noted the dangers or drawbacks of using Powerpoint are not insubstantial and educators need to be mindful of them so not to takes steps backward when intending to do otherwise in so far as improving the efficacy of instruction.

So it is not the cell phone but the network, not the tool but the information accessed by means of the tool and what is done with it: our interacting with the information and reorganizing it and transmitting it thus transformed by our purposes and needs and values.  It is the work we do with the tool that is that which is valued.  The tool is and must be that which has only an instrumental value.  Otherwise we lose much of the impetus for research and development for even better tools.  In the case at hand the work is teaching and learning and those activities are the criteria by which we assess the tools, their worth and the need for even better tools.  It is about the potential of the tools and then rapid realization of the potential. 

But just what good is it, all this technology?  Here are a few examples in terms of problems faced by instructors and examples of the added value of an information transmission device. 

 Varying Backgrounds and Skills 

What to do when students have varying amounts of background information that is either necessary for or enhancements for the basic instruction?  Take time to provide the necessary for those who do not have it and bore the others? Allow for the enhancements for those with the background knowledge and let it go for the others?  Class time is precious and carefully husbanded. When the educational technologies make transmission of information easier that in turn allows educators to provide more for those who need it.  The usual problem that instructors face with learners of varying backgrounds and rates of learning is more readily dealt with by careful use of the technologies.  Instead of  “teaching to the middle” and hoping that those who are slower will somehow get what they need and assuming that the quicker, brighter learners, most definitely will do so, an instructor devising a clever instructional design can provide access for learners of varying backgrounds and learning styles to what they need in terms of learning experiences to assist them in achieving the common learning objectives for the entire class.  This is so because through the computer and websites and PowerPoint presentations connected thereto instructors can provide for so much information, drills and exercises with immediate feedback that are very effective in learning.  The electronic machines are infinitely patient with the learner in presenting information and permitting and even encouraging the learner to review it over and over again.  The computer can provide a variety of modes for the instructor to interact with the learners either individually or in groups while working simultaneously with the entire class.   As unfortunate to observe but true nonetheless, some learners need to be enticed, attention held and entertained.   The “bells and whistles” of a PowerPoint presentation along with the many animations and special effects possible on websites and multimedia presentations can secure the interest of learners acculturated through the electronic media to fanciful animated shows.  

Lack of Common References and Cultural Background 

With an effective instructional design educators can reduce assumptions about the “givens”, those elements of knowledge that were to be presumed for the current instruction to proceed most effectively with the subject matter at hand.  Now the educator can provide for the essential components of the prerequisite knowledge set using the technologies. 

Socrates’ “givens” were the epic poems and the plays and the materials that served as the basis for the culture of his time. They were for the most part transmitted orally.  Socrates could assume his audience/learners had the knowledge of those tales by which Greeks were educated, their paedia.  Socrates could not read nor write and yet he was most well educated through the oral exchanges becoming a full participant in the life of his people.  His contribution was not in transmitting information.  His reputation as Philosopher and as Teacher was through his efforts to develop the thinking skills of others, hoping thereby to achieve the object of his quest: knowledge of the essential components of a life that would be described as being in as many ways as possible a “good” life.  In the Meno Plato indicates a Socrates using a stick to trace geometric figures in the dirt at the feet of the interlocutors.  He does so to engage the mind in reflective thinking and to develop that thinking.  Of course as midwife to ideas Socrates was attempting to deliver more critical thinking out of the minds of his audience, not transmitting but leading out of the learner a capacity, a potential: educating.  In his pedagogy he made many references to elements in the common cultural heritage in the oral tradition.  He could take as a “given” that his “students” had considerable working knowledge of those elements.   Plato depicts Socrates spending no time in rehearsing those tales that were the transmitters of knowledge and values now used as instruments to provoke reflective thought.  The dialogues contain no summaries of or footnotes for the “literature” of the day. 

Today educators can not assume much at all as common to the knowledge base of learners in advanced technological societies.  This is particularly the case with classes formed of a diversified group of learners.  They often vary in their background knowledge, their cultures, their religions, their sources of information and their level of intellectual development.  This is more often the case in any urban setting and in any college or university with admissions processes striving for diversity as either an aesthetic value or some pedagogic enhancement.  The resulting situation is that the instructor can take as little as possible as a “given” and instead must present that which is needed as background and previously- in a time long gone-taken for granted as known by the students.  Here is where the educational technologies have great value.  As information technology technologies they make available to the educator a vast amount of information that can be presented in and out of the classroom to the learners.  The student can access what the instructor deems as important and even necessary in the classroom and out of it through the computer at any location with access to the world’s information cornucopia: the internet. 

Having the information-educational technologies provide what was formerly taken as a “given” as well as other needed information to the learners then permits, facilitates and encourages the educator to focus on the learning, the development of the thinking, the heart of the enterprise. The focus of teaching and of education is not the transmission of information it is rather the development of the wide range of thinking skills with which information is organized and evaluated and applied effectively to situations and then on to producing more information, some of which is accepted as knowledge.  Education often involves the transmission of information but it is at its core more than that.  The transmission of information is made so easy by the technologies that education can focus on what is done with that information: how it is assimilated, analyzed, criticized, arranged, tested, used, etc..  The instructor who once thought of the role of instructor as information transmitter who would assess learning by measuring what information was retained will possibly think of the technologies as threatening as they can easily be employed by institutions to transmit information and assess quantities retained.  An instructor who focuses on the learning of what is important about the subject matter is not threatened by the technology but can use it to perform the often tedious transmissions that are propaedeutic to learning.    

This providing of the former “givens” is not only the case with the arts and literature but it applies as well to mathematics and the sciences.  The technologies can rapidly present and make available for subsequent reviewing truly unimaginable amounts of information and even drills and exercises for original appropriation by learners or review or for focusing the learner as preparation for the new learning that is being encouraged through the execution of the educator’s lessons now set within a more comprehensive instructional design.    

So it is about the pedagogy.  The technology can shift the focus of educators from the instructor presenting to the student learning: from the instructor centered approach to the learner centered approach.  After the class has been designed and constructed, it is taught.  It is then that the instructor becomes a leader, coach, and assistant to the learner in developing the skills of information acquisition and arrangement and evaluation and application.   With the technologies the educator can have more direct contact and supportive interaction with the learners.   

So with the technologies available we now have the traditional face to face, lecture and blackboard modality of instruction along with web-assisted and the blended or hybrid mode and the fully online asynchronous mode.   Soon faculty will conduct classes without using any of the electronic technologies about as often as they go an entire semester without distributing duplicated documents. 

Preserving the value in the past practices 

In the use of the new technology care must be taken so as not to lose what was valuable in the previous modes of instruction and interaction of educator with the learner.  For example there was a value in learners taking notes while the instructor was presenting information.  The learner would make appraisals of what was most important to note. This was an important part of the learning process and it should not be thwarted or lost when the new technologies are employed in instruction.  The instructor using the technologies to present information will be challenged to develop techniques to denote what the instructor thinks of as most important in what is being presented and for the learner to recognize that denotation and make similar appraisals while assimilating the information even while using even more technology for simple capturing or recording.  From pencils and pens and paper and notebooks and pads to hand held computers and information storage devices the learner progresses with mechanisms for retaining information but none of that is learning.  How the information is taken down and in and stored must involve the learner making appraisals and seeing connections and relations.  The educator is duty bound to insure that those necessary steps in appropriation of information as part of genuine learning take place.  As it has always been this is one of the basic challenges for any teacher whether working with chalk on boards or PowerPoint on websites. 

"It’s about the pedagogy." 

William Jefferson Clinton was kept on point by his political handlers in his successful attempts to capture and hold the presidency with the now familiar phrase- become refrain, "It's the economy, stupid!"  Well for those looking to achieve some goal or to capture some prize in their use of educational technologies or through their participation in various initiatives involving educational technologies perhaps a similar phrase might serve well to keep folks focused, "It’s about the pedagogy."  

At a time when money is scarce at all levels of education there may appear to be a choice as to whether or not to direct funding on either educational technologies and on course management systems or on a concerted faculty development effort to improve teaching and learning.  This dichotomy I believe is quite specious because of the qualitatively different nature of the current educational technologies now available to and being used by educators in more and more innovative ways. 

I have taught over three dozen classes that are fully online (asynchronous) in which I never meet face to face with any learners and over two dozen partially online classes (hybrid or blended) where I meet for an hour or so every week or so.  I have used three course management programs and created my own academic websites in support of my instruction.  So what!  From this experience I have learned a few things about what is important here and it is not the bells and whistles of the technologies. The increasing variety of instructional modalities is not the real important matter.  What have me occupied nearly every single day are not matters that are technical or mechanical but are pedagogical.  What my colleagues ask me for assistance with are not matters that are technical or mechanical but are pedagogical.  These are the heart of the matter: what are our learners learning and how can we do it better: the efficacy of our instruction. 

The real issue for our colleges and universities with a focus on education is how to most effectively use those technologies with our learners.  What my colleagues want is assistance with how to use what is available to them to accomplish what they want to do. They do not ask for much assistance with the programs or devices.   None who are so interested in the use of the technology for instruction are so dense that they can not learn the mechanical details of the programs (software) that are involved.  That is simply a matter of time on task. As faculty learn the technologies their next desire is to learn how to use them most effectively to do what it is they want to do with them: teach.  As the number of faculty involved in their use increases so to the need for and now demand for support with instructional design and course management and development.   

I have witnessed faculty talking about and demonstrating how they use some piece of technology in their classrooms many times.  I have seen faculty quite willing to demonstrate or show some clever use of PowerPoint or websites and computer research techniques.  I have seldom witnessed faculty willing to talk about the structure of their lectures or their lesson plans or even their clever, sometimes entertaining, asides and anecdotes and other devices to attract and maintain attention or to illustrate and underline a point.  It is not simply the newness of technology.  Slides have been available for some time but they have not encouraged faculty to share what they do with them with colleagues.  What is it about the latest wave of technological innovations that turns faculty into conversants over their teaching methods and pedagogic devices?  The Power!  The technologies make available such an enormous amount of information and make transmitting that information so easy that it empowers instructors to present more and to present it in more attractive ways and to present it on different levels for people with differing skills, backgrounds and learning styles. Previous to the advent of the new digital technologies faculty would be quite reserved in making inquiries into the teaching styles or pedagogic designs of members of their own departments let alone in other disciplines.  Now I have often observed inquiries being made to faculty in another discipline concerning their use of these technologies and such inquiries are met with a willingness to share rather than circumspection of the inquirer.

Course management programs run apace with PowerPoint as engines for pedagogic development forcing faculty with little or no formal study of pedagogy to rethink what they want to do as instructors and how they go about doing it.  Arranging for a well designed course in the online mode or even presenting materials through its use for web assisted or blended classes has faculty thinking about basic pedagogic issues.  It has made me and some of my colleagues accept the use of pedagogic jargon that we previously had little but disdain for: objectives, outcomes, learning units, assessment, management, etc...  Any faculty member who seriously considers using the educational technologies begins to think about the various factors that contribute to good instructional design and effective instruction.  Beyond the jargon of contemporary education and the SOTL there are the basics of teaching and learning as the instructor actually experiences them.  The technologies can provide many ways in which the instructor can assess effectiveness. 

Learning how to be an effective instructor using the technologies makes one a more effective instructor whether in an online class or a traditional class.  There is a “spill over “ effect that I have read about concerning others reporting their experiences, experienced for myself  and observed with others.  Instructors who use group learning exercises in online classes or components of classes will often carry that over into their face to face classes.  Instructors who provide for sample quizzes online then start offering them in the traditional classes.  Faculty who accept email queries from their online students start accepting email from their in-class students.  Faculty who begin to recognize different learning styles in their online students in constructing learning modules or exercises start taking those styles into account in their traditional classes.  

So, I do believe that learning and using educational technologies, such as a course management program, prompt both individuals and, through them, their institutions to then focus on the pedagogic issues.  This is what I see one college after another doing.  I think of it as a natural progression for instructors and educational institutions in an age of rapidly expanding information and educational technologies.  I expect resources continuing to be directed toward the adoption and adaptation of educational technologies and course management programs as part of a concerted faculty development effort to improve teaching and learning.  It is not simply a good thing.  It is a necessary thing for any educational institution to do.  There is a vast literature reporting on and analyzing pedagogy and in particular pedagogy involving the educational technologies as part of the exploding field now known as the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL). 

Educational technologies and course management programs are tools.  Tools come along and are refined and eventually many, even most, are replaced by even better tools.   Educational technologies, including course management programs, will continue to move far beyond what they are now.   Educators should, must and will forget about the specific educational technologies and course management programs.  The focus should, must and will remain on what we want to use the tools to do and how best to do that.  Both the effective features of educational technologies and course management programs and their restrictiveness and failures can prompt attention to be given to where it first should be: the effectiveness of the teaching and learning.  With that concern the right tools will be found, developed, used and then further refined or replaced and so on and on. 

Most Significant Issues: 

Here are some of the most perplexing of the issues that I now think about: 

1) What technologies and what instructional modalities are best suited for what type of learners?

2) How do we best identify the various types of learners considering a host of factors that include: learning styles, abilities/disabilities, habits of mind (cognitive mindsets), background knowledge?   

3) If we could determine an answer to the previous question, how would we go about arranging for the provision of instruction in the modalities most suited for the various types of learners?  

4) How would we best identify the faculty who are most suited to offering instruction in one modality over another? 

Concluding Observations:

Faculty have a professional obligation to improve upon the effectiveness of their instruction. Faculty need time and resources at their disposal to pursue pedagogic assessment and research and development to improve the efficacy of their instruction.   Faculty need to be observed, evaluated and rewarded for their pedagogic efforts along with their work in their discipline. Most institutions do not provide for near enough for their professional educators as educators as they do for them as scholars and researchers in their disciplines. The educational technologies currently available and being adopted by faculty are forcing those involved with them to consider the pedagogy involved. Faculty themselves are starting to recognize their own more general responsibility to research and develop more effective pedagogies than they are currently using-The explosion in the "field" called the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL).  Reports of the successful adoptions of the technologies forcefully illustrate the need for institutional support for faculty seeking to use them effectively. Unfortunately institutional support for faculty who are exploring ways to utilize the educational technologies is not yet adequate to meet the current need.  Most colleges are still a long way from recognizing, let alone adequately responding to that need. Higher education does not have the infrastructure of support for faculty to successfully carry out their dual responsibilities as educators and as members of a specific academic disciplines.  Thinking of the educational technologies as being distinguishable from basic pedagogic development is part of the reason for the lack of attention to the  current need.