More Face-to-Face, Less Face-to-Screen

Brian Taylor

February 03, 2011

The university where I have been teaching for the past four years prides itself on being technologically up-to-date and environmentally conscious.

New students and faculty members receive laptops, and many efforts are made to educate all of us about emerging technologies. The university, in seeking to reduce its use of paper and to decrease the number of cars on our largely commuter campus, has encouraged instructors to use online course-management platforms like Blackboard.

As new faculty members in a newly created writing institute, my colleagues and I were encouraged to include "21st-century literacies" among our learning objectives for students. Because I had dabbled in Blackboard, I decided to see what would happen if I made it more central to my course—both as a way to promote those literacies and, frankly, to come more fully into the 21st century myself.

My students and I shuttled back and forth between our physical classroom and our online home on Blackboard, where we kept and retrieved all of our stuff. I posted assignments online, and students uploaded their papers from their computers. I experimented with the paperless option, which meant downloading student essays, saving them in a file, using the track-changes tool to give feedback, and then e-mailing the papers back to students. It took many hours, and now that I have learned that reading on a computer screen can be about 25-percent slower than reading on paper, I understand why.

In our discussions, instead of writing their first thoughts about a topic in their notebooks, they recorded those thoughts in a dialogue box online. In the old days, we would read those thoughts aloud from the notebooks. But being citizens of Blackboard meant that—in class or not—we were able to view all of the other responses and papers and give peer feedback online.

Students could access the assigned readings by clicking on a readings tab and viewing or printing the files. From a Web-links tab, they could instantly access Web sites I had linked to the course. Discussions and responses to films and readings, some of which might previously have occurred in the physical classroom, happened online. When we were together in the same room, I spent a lot of my time at a computer console in the corner, directing the Blackboard show when it came time to explain an assignment, discuss a reading, or evaluate a paper.

For their midterm and final projects, students wrote and published traditional-style essays on Blackboard, designed PowerPoint presentations, adding links to blogs, Web sites, and videos, and created a final electronic portfolio.

Using Blackboard gave us easy paperless access to all of the texts produced and used in the course—whether that was archives at the Smithsonian, the syllabus, or one student's response to another student's essay. But that access via computer screen cut down on the face-to-face contact that is the lifeblood of a traditional classroom.

My ideal class—students sitting in a circle, or around a seminar table if we're really lucky, discussing, reading aloud, exchanging hard copies of student papers—had become, in a sense, a figure of nostalgia. It was something I did with students "back in the day."

These days we would often sit in a circle, but even when we were engaged in a discussion that didn't require consulting a laptop, students would inch up those screens and attempt to engage in all manner of online shenanigans (instant messaging, Facebook, poker, YouTube, and the like). That forced me, the former caring, supportive, "I write with you" professor, to take on a bad-cop role and immediately arrest the inappropriate use of the technology that I was, ironically, privileging in the course.

Gradually it became clear that, given the choice, most students preferred to live online, rather than engage with actual humans in a classroom, even when there was a seeming sense of community or camaraderie among classmates. Being online all the time had become learned behavior that was hard to give up, even for only 55 minutes.

Technology is supposed to make life easier, but I found that maintaining a separate Web site for my three courses—posting assignments, creating links, keeping up with their online responses—was the equivalent of teaching a fourth course.

More disturbingly, a subtle shift occurred in my focus vis-à-vis student writing. Reading their papers became a second priority, after first making sure that everything was up to speed on Blackboard (really, a less-than-user-friendly platform that has prompted my colleagues to experiment with others, including Ning, Moodle, PBworks, Blogger, and Google Sites). Something as simple as checking to see that students had done the writing—which, in a physical classroom, just means collecting their papers—is more time-consuming online.

I was spending a lot more time with the "interface" than I had bargained for, and it was compromising my face-to-face teaching.

Classroom innovations typically arouse enthusiasm from would-be innovators and knee-jerk skepticism from the old guard. I remember, back in the 60s, when the prospect of television in the schools was cause for alarm. When I was in third or fourth grade, I brought an article to school about how teachers would be finished once TV's were rolled into the classroom. And of course, as a kid, I was intrigued by the prospect of spending hours in school watching TV. Neither scenario played out. But clearly, the uneasy suspicion that new technology might somehow replace us, make us less human, or make traditional ways of knowing obsolete, has been around for a long time.

The flip side of technophobia is the kind of unexamined technophilia that welcomes everything new and different, whether or not it improves life or teaching, or the lives of students and teachers. I want to find a place, a stance, somewhere in between, a both/and strategy that allows my students and me to, dare I say it, extract the best of both worlds.

I can remember how intrigued I was when e-mail came onto my radar for the first time in 1990. A student in one of my writing classes at the City University of New York wrote a literacy autobiography in which he rhapsodized about sipping his morning cup of joe while reading his electronic mail. Electronic what? That was long before there were more than a billion e-mail users worldwide, so I can't imagine who he was getting the mail from (Al Gore?).

Twenty years later, I have an app-saturated iPhone and 301 friends (and counting) on Facebook, I'm typing this on a MacBook, and submitting the manuscript online. But what I'm wondering is this: Because technology plays such a huge role in our lives when we are not in school, is it really necessary that we duplicate those experiences and environments when we actually have the opportunity to connect in more direct and immediate ways in a synchronous classroom?

How can I learn to teach with technology in a way that doesn't compromise the feeling of community, engagement, focused attention, and sense of personal responsibility that I value so much and want my students to value, too?

I heard a comedian on satellite radio the other day talking about the mysteries of text-messaging. The punch line went something like this: Why are you bothering to type a message with your thumbs when all you have to do is press some buttons and talk on the phone? Texting is like towing a jumbo jet behind your car to travel across the country.

In reassessing my use of Blackboard, I don't want to succumb to a fear of change that would prevent my students (and me) from taking full advantage of the benefits of digital technology. But I also don't want us to become so preoccupied with the technology itself that we miss out on the connections we might make by simply turning to the person next to us.

I'm not going to completely abandon Blackboard or a similar online platform, but I am going to make sure that, at least while we're in class, we spend more time face-to-face and less time facing a screen.

Sharon Marshall is an assistant professor at the Institute for Writing Studies at St. John's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.