Teaching, Technology, and the Future of Chalkboard Champions

Colorful Chalk at ChalkboardMany years ago in a language arts anthology assigned as a textbook for a class I was teaching, I came across a short story by Isaac Asimov entitled “The Fun They Had.” This futuristic story described two children who had an afternoon free because their “teacher,” a computer, had crashed, temporarily rendering it impossible for them to complete their school assignments. To occupy their time, the children went up to the attic to explore, where they came across a dusty trunk of ancient printed books. As residents of a highly technological society where every function was completed by computer, they had never seen books before. The find generated a conversation between the children about how students in the past attended schools with other children, interacted on a daily basis with a human teacher, and conducted their studies with print materials. At the end of their discussion, the children concluded that children of the past must have had much more fun in school than they.

The grass is always greener, isn’t it?

I have been thinking about this somewhat prophetic story a great deal lately. I have recently enrolled in an online course at the local university. For this course, the professor lists readings and assignments, which the student is expected to complete, usually through downloading a program and creating a product which demonstrates an understanding of the content and a mastery of the technology. The products are then posted online, where they are then critiqued by peers and graded by the professor.

I know I am not a child, but I find myself craving more. More direct instruction. More guided practice. Face-to-face time with the professor. Human interaction with my classmates that is more, well, human.

While out and about the other day, I became engaged in conversation with a student at a local prestigious private university. I related to her that on the first day of one of my other courses, one that meets for four hours every other week, I was surprised when the instructor commented that she had expected everyone to show up with their laptops. I had dutifully shown up with my notebook, paper, pen, and textbook, and considered myself prepared. Not having taken a university course in about five years, it had never occurred to me that bringing a laptop was now an instructional expectation. That was a wake-up call for me.

The other student told me that she recently took a course in chemistry at her university, and on the first day of class, 24 students showed up. Twelve did not have laptops. The instructor excused those twelve, because, he said, there was no way they could complete that day’s assignments without the necessary technology. She said two people dropped the class that day, and four more dropped it the next week, because they had no way of acquiring the technology. The young lady then told me that the entire course was taught by computer. How is it that a chemistry class does not involve a lab, or experiments, or any other kind of experiential learning?

I’m left to wonder if, in a society where technology is becoming more and more pervasive, there will be space in the future for chalkboard champions?