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In your view, how can digital tools enrich learning? What new relationships between student and teacher, student and student, student and educational content, student and educational institution, or educational institution and the world could these tools foster? How?

Update, 4-26-11: Back in February, in this blogpost, I pointed to a 1953 film, Practicing Democracy in the Classroom, as a pre-internet effort to promote a more democratic, participatory model of education. Has digital technology made this aspiration any easier to realize? If you think so, what specific suggestions can you offer for using this technology in the service of a more democratic pedagogy?

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  1. Unknown User (sjh11)

    Digital technology can definitely lead to educational enrichment, but only if it is used in sensible manner.  We are becoming a visual culture, and I think the visual aspect provided by technology can really enhance a learning experience.  I can personally attest to this claim; many science classes now use visual tutorials to help explain a biological process.  Not surprisingly, I always remember the information better when I can picture the tutorial unfold.  In this respect, the benefit of technology in the classroom is unquestioningly beneficial.  I think it can also foster an opportunity for reserved students who are more willing to interact over an online discussion forum than in a classroom.

    I only have two problems with technology in education.  One is that computers in the classroom can be distracting.  It is tempting to check you mail, browse around the Internet or refresh your facebook page every few minutes, even for the most attentive of students.  I think the one charter school in the PBS documentary offered a good solution to that problem (at least in small schools): an overseer can monitor computer use.  But this gets absurd when schools get larger and having someone monitor web control simply could not happen in college.

    My other problem with digital tools for educational purposes is that many less-privileged school districts won’t have access to this technology.  This last problem is kind of just a statement of fact; I’m not even sure if it is applicable to this discussion. I do think the limited access of digital tools should be a consideration when discussing the educational benefits of technology though.

    1. Unknown User (keh23)

      I really like your point about underprivileged schools not being able to access this technology, and I'd extend it to third world countries and the poor around the world. Sometimes I feel we take our ease of access to the internet and all sorts of expensive gadgets to enhance our experiences for granted. We're tremendously excited about being able to share information with everyone, but we have to make sure everyone can actually receive it.

  2. Unknown User (sl27)

    I think technology has the potential to be a useful educational tool.  I think in an environment like this, where students can, on their own time, interact with and discuss the material can enhance the depth of a course and make it more interesting. It also allows a professor to cover more material than can be discussed in class (there are 6 discussion topics available right now!) and allows for on-going discussion over time.  Ideas can be revisited, refined and referenced in later discussions.

    Although I appreciate these benefits, I do feel, however, that nothing can replace in-person interaction.......  Do we really need these "tools"? Are they actually enhancing our educational experiences? making us more intelligent? making us think more deeply?  I am not sure that they are.  To me, higher education is not about quantity, but about quality.  I get the sense that  putting a course on the web might increase how often we interact with course material, but not necessarily how deeply or genuinely we interact with it.  Is it simply progress for the sake of progress?

    I agree with Sierra- computers in classrooms are very distracting and access to resources becomes an even larger problem.

  3. Unknown User (mam34)

    I think these tools might actually be better suited to a high school course than a college one. We have a limited amount of time for each course- about three months. Yes, I agree with Sophia, that it allows professors to cover more material and allows for on-going discussion. But we still only have 3 months. And we don't have a lot of time during class to really bring up anything if we needed to. 

    In a high school English class, however? I think it would be a lot more helpful.In my AP English Lit class, we had a section where three different groups read three different classic plays- Streetcar named Desire, Death of a Salesman and some other play I don't remember. We never did anything with it, never discussed it, nothing. If we had utilized this sort of forum system, it would've been awesome. 

    However, if the tools aren't implemented properly, it can be pretty detrimental. We had a program in my high school, the name of which I don't remember. It was an essay writing website. You wrote your essay in it, and it could grade it per the guidelines of the instructors. It was unnecessary, clunky, and actually gave worse grades than the teachers did. Unfortunately, every English professor HAD to use it, and some even stopped grading, using the program instead. I watched my younger brother do poorly in his English class because of that program. Hell, I'd write essays for him and do poorly, and I was a senior, writing for a 5th grader, who's teacher's grading system I already knew. Because of that program, I'm pretty sure we're doing worse in English overall, just because some higher-ups wanted to utilize a digital tool that they paid too much for. 

    So, I'm rather neutral about the whole thing. I've seem digital-tools-in-the-classroom work well, and I've seen it fail miserably. 

  4. Unknown User (sjh11)

    I just watched the film, "Practicing Democracy in the Classroom".  Aside from being a little weird and really corny, I'd have to agree with Professor Schacht - the film is surprisingly ahead of its time.  Today there's a bit push for reforming our education system based on the new-found awareness that the authoritative classroom management style may not be the best learning environment.  For those who didn't watch the film, the teacher basically allowed the kids to vote on what classroom style would foster the most learning.  They then did some independent reading, split up into groups and spent the rest of their time answering a series of questions they developed on their own.  Apparently they all became not only well informed about Democratic policies, but became better citizens due to their democratic learning approach.  Like I said, it made some good points, but it was a bit corny.

    Although I agree with the teachers approach, it seemed like they almost got nothing accomplished.  It took what appeared to be an entire semester for them to grasp what the word 'democracy' means. Maybe it is a complicated subject, but this approach seemed almost counterproductive in the end. 

    So on to the real question - how can we use this technology in the service of a more democratic pedagogy?  I think that technology can actually mitigate the slow paced learning that naturally comes with this type of teaching style.  If the students had access to blogs, for example, they wouldn't have to spend hours of classroom time meeting with their groups.  A portion of classroom discussion could have also taken place online.  In addition, a Democracy functions best when citizens are well-informed and critical thinkers.  Technology, as we've mentioned a million times, can provide quick and easy access to far more people nowadays - people who would not have had access had they lived before the age of digital technology.  I think it would be worthwhile for teachers to direct students to reliable websites and urge them to pursue multiple perspectives on issues.  Students can then discuss how to appropriately and responsibly  use the internet. 

    These are just a few suggestions, but I'm sure there are millions of other ways to use technology in a way that would make this teaching style more workable than the one proposed in this Documentary.

  5. Unknown User (ees14)

    I watched the documentary as well. This is a random aside but I just have to say this: you can really tell that the way that we speak and communicate has really, really changed since the time the documentary was made. We don't even use the same tones of voice any more! All of the voices sounded so foreign and different - you can actually hear them sound quaint. 

    I have to agree with Sierra in that I think the class took a little bit long trying to figure out what the word "democracy" means. It's supposed to be a US history class and I'd expect to cover a good amount of history. If this class were supplemented with another class that was strictly lecture style, I'd say that that might work better. It's sort of like having a lab section for history, only instead of mixing chemicals together, you'd be going out into the field and doing surveys with citizens, gathering data from the library, and doing actual research. Hey, if science majors have to spend 4+ hours in a laboratory and art majors have to spend a certain amount of time in the studio doing something hands on, then it makes sense to have English and history and other such majors also have something interactive. (Forgive me if you guys already do have something like that...I'm not any of those majors so I really wouldn't know.)

    I don't think that the democratic way of learning would work well in science. I'm taking biochemistry right now and the textbook that we're using is WONDERFUL, but even then, I get lost reading about mechanisms and regulation and metabolism and whatnot. If the professor left it up to the students to learn everything on our own, we'd be in a hopeless mess. I also don't think any of us biochem/chemistry students would learn well from a student teaching us because honestly, we'd just grill him or her to death. "What does that mean? Why does that happen? What's the mechanism? What do you mean, you don't know?" Other disciplines in which the "data" (whether that be literature, an artifact, a historical narrative, etc) is more open to interpretation might benefit from the varied perspectives and the ambiguities of a student presentation, but in science, things are a little bit more firmly entrenched into black and white interpretations. It's hard to shift the paradigm of scientific thought. 

    On the other hand, I'm also doing independent research with a professor, and that's a lot more hands off. I in effect teach myself how to do a lot of things because my professor doesn't have time to spend with me in the lab. The only reason that I can do this, though, is because I'm also taking a lecture course in Biochemistry. If I didn't have any instruction (the autocratic type, I guess you could say), then I'd be hopelessly lost as well. I honestly don't think I'd learn organic chemistry of analytical physics or quantum mechanics or any of those other things if I were put into a democratic setting. 

    But we were talking about digital technology. Last semester, I took a class called "Modern Analytical Chemistry." The class was mostly about instruments and how to use them in analyzing our chemical products. It wasn't too difficult, but I had a hard time understanding how these instruments worked because we only really looked at crude stick sketches of the instruments on the ELMO. When I went to youtube, however, I found a lot of videos that showed me how all of these instruments worked - the companies that put out these instruments tailor their ads for a scientific audience, so when I was watching the videos, I could follow along from things that I learned in class. For an example of what kind of videos I looked at, you can check it out at: (Don't worry--I don't expect anyone to watch the whole thing. It's just to show you how we used these things to supplement what we learned in class.)

    My biochem professor also used youtube to help us understand PCR and enzymes a little bit better. Check out these PCR and enzyme songs at the following links:



    These are actually funny. If you're not in science, the references might be a little confusing, but you can still enjoy the songs. One of them is set to the YMCA theme song. If you are a science major, then you'll appreciate these. :)

    If technology is used to supplement what we're already being supplied with in class, then it's a great way of learning. These songs helped cement our understanding of DNA and PCR. If, however, we were told to bring this to class and teach our peers as the professor watched, I feel like we wouldn't have learned as much. Technology can be used to show visually things that we've been hearing about in lecture or seen only in 2D. My learning in MAC class, for example, really benefited from watching those youtube videos. Science classes can benefit from digital technology because we can now see tiny atoms and molecules and cells and whatnot in ways that we understand them rather than hearing things about them from a power point. Still, I firmly believe that the professor has to do more than monitor groups, particularly in science, because otherwise, the students will be hopelessly lost. 

  6. Unknown User (lah15)

    With the video, I imagine that this was only showing the first two weeks or so of class, so I do believe that they eventually learned about more topics than "what is democracy." However, I do see this as a struggle in a more modern classroom. For the age in question, American education, especially in New York where regents exams persist, is set up in a autocratic style. Teachers are told what students have to know and are then judged on how well their pupils can answer questions on these particular topics. The chances that student interest and state-wide or nation-wide learning outcomes perfectly match up are very slim.

    Another issue that I took with this video, and in some ways with the idea of a digital classroom to supplement the standard classroom, is student commitment. These students were changing essential parts of their personality based on their experiences in one class. They were highly adaptable and able to fully commit themselves to the study of United States history. This was only one class though. If they are this focused on history, are they able to undertake a study of english or science with as much rigor? As I've said in class, I think that having the wiki and the community blog is a valuable experience, but it would definitely be overwhelming if all classes used as much technology. I take great pains to maintain some semblance of unscheduled time in my life, which I believe allows me to preserve my sanity during times such as paper season and finals week. I believe that there is much to be learned from just hanging out and talking with friends or spending some quality time with yourself in a free environment, and the more constantly communitized we become as students, the less time we have to savor being aimless with each other.

    That said, within the space of the classroom itself, I think that having the wiki space has been great. It's nice to be able to have the object of discussion right in front of me and the keep group notes in a public place. The digital technology definitely helps facilitate different learning styles.

  7. Unknown User (sl27)

    I watched the video, and agree with a lot of what has been said.  Like Lauren, I too noticed that the "democratic" style of teaching seemed to require a measure of time and personal commitment that is not always realistic (does a teacher/professor really have the time to monitor the personal issues of ALL of his/her students and meet with them on an individual basis?  I see this as an unrealistic ideal, especially in large schools with less resources and high student/faculty ratios). Only a small portion of students are so completely dedicated to subject material, not to mention applying their education to their own personal growth.  I like the idea- it makes me think about how much I have learned with independent studies that have allowed me to develop and pursue my own questions- but I am not sure how successfully it could be implemented.  I am also not sure that I would be able to handle that level of commitment in a minimum of 4 classes a semester!

    Although as I have said, I am not a huge fan of online discussions, blogs and virtual classrooms, I do think that when these tools are combined with professor mediation and feedback and at least an equal amount of classroom time, they can enhance the learning environment.