On What it Would Mean to Really Teach “Naked”

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

Not surprisingly, given my inclination to think about ways that technology can help education, this week I have received more than a few emails from colleagues pointing to an article at The Chronicle of Higher Ed about a professor at SMU, Jose Bowen, who likes to encourage what he calls, Teaching Naked, or more descriptively teaching without technology. More than a few of these emails seemed to be gleeful: “look here,” “see you and your technology is not all its cracked up to be,” “teachers just need to get back to the basics,” “this guy is doing it right.” (Okay none of those are exact quotes but the tone is correct.) Even the Dallas Observer took a stab at making a connection. Brief Aside: Dear Dallas Observer, I have never said the best way to engage students is by having them “tweet” through class. I would never say something so ridiculous. (I have said that “a” way to engage students might be to use Twitter, or more broadly social media technology, but that’s a far cry from “best.”)

But, what is more striking to me is that otherwise capable intellectuals, ones who are excellent readers, make a career out of analyzing text, seem to have not read the piece by Jeff Young, and instead jump to a conclusion about what it says. Indeed, I would actually agree with Jose, or at least agree with a large part of what he says. The article, and Jose’s take, are not that technology is bad or evil, it is far more nuanced than this. Indeed the nuance is the important part, revealing what I believe is one of the central issues in teaching students today.

Let’s start with the initial premise: Students shouldn’t spend class time looking at boring PowerPoint lectures. Agreed. In fact I couldn’t agree more, PowerPoint is a horrible pedagogical tool, see my ongoing rant. PowerPoint as it is generally used is a poor pedagogical device. Collecting slides, and using PowerPoint as an amped up version of chalkboards and old carousel slide projectors is a really bad use of resources. As with Blackboard though, the issue is not the technology itself, but rather a poorly developed tool that tries to mimic old technology without really considering how the technology might actually change teaching practices.

Indeed as the article makes clear, Jose is not “anti-technology” he is just “anti” the way it is currently used. He uses podcasts and video games to teach. His approach is thoroughly technological. In fact the approach is a really smart one; by using technology he is able to deliver the “lecture” material outside of class time, and save the in class time for discussion and participation. This is not a story about a luddite professor, but rather about a professor who has developed an effective way to use technology in education.

In fact what Jose has done, is allowed technology to thoroughly change the way education happens, rather than just treat it as a supplemental, incremental change. Notice further down the article mentions that it was not that computers were completely removed from the class, creating a “tech free space,” but rather than classroom computers the tech budget is focused on getting professors laptops and helping them create podcast lectures. Bravo! I say. In fact the classroom space described (movable tables and chairs for in class discussion) is precisely the one we are using for EMAC here at UT Dallas.

This is what the Dallas Observer article, and all of those people emailing me this article miss, this approach is pretty close to the one I advocate: use tech to generate more discussion and outsource content delivery. In fact one of the reasons I like Twitter is the way it can foster discussion, especially in larger lecture style classrooms (as the article about SMU doesn’t makes clear they are dealing with 10-15 person classes). Technology isn’t good or bad, but it isn’t neutral either. It opens up new possibilities for engaging students, but if we simply use it to reproduce old pedagogies and student-teacher hierarchies—I’m looking at you PowerPoint and Blackboard—then we fail as educators. Certainly as the article points out there will be resistance, not the least of which comes from the students. Students who have been mostly educated in old instructional ways, sit in a desk face forward, learn the correct answer so you can perform on the test, teach to test etc., will be made uncomfortable by a classroom space where they have to take ownership of their own knowledge production, but that’s the point, to make them uncomfortable, to challenge them to learn better.

But, what really got me about this article is the term “naked,” which actually reveals the problem with the way this issue is being framed. This is probably where I would end up disagreeing with Jose, as I think his term “teaching naked” gets in the way, but to be sure it is far more a problem in the Dallas Observer story when they mischaracterize what he means by “naked.” Because, no professor I know of is actually advocating teaching without technology. Sure, I know a lot of faculty who say they don’t want computers in their classrooms, or projectors, who don’t use PowerPoint and refuse to adopt WebCT, whose only computer interaction with the class comes in posting grades (which they do only because the administration forces them to do it). This luddite teaching philosophy (and lest you think this is a strawman argument please come visit me sometime and I’ll introduce you to some folks), suggests that technology is bad for education and that we need to get back to basics.

But here’s the thing, to really be anti-technology these professors would have to really advocate teaching naked, and I mean that in the fullest sense of the term, as in teaching sans clothing. For, any teaching practice requires technology. Are we to imagine that these luddite professors disallow paper and pen from class? “Students should not take notes in class, the technology gets in the way of discussion.” Are we to imagine that they do not allow books in class? “No books, they get in the way of discussion.” Books, paper, pen, desks, chalkboards, whiteboards, all of these are technologies. In fact clothing itself is a technology, so if a professor really wanted to be against technology he would have to give up his tweed jacket and bow tie, because as a technology this might get in the way of the students learning, instead really go “naked” so as to better connect with the students.

Of course this is an absurd proposition, teaching, communicating, learning are thoroughly technological affairs, there is no learning without technology. The issue is not technology but using the technology well to teach our students. PowerPoint, generally speaking = bad. Blackboard generally speaking = bad. Podcasting lectures, distributing content to students openly in ways they can easily access = good. But I’ll even make the stronger claim here: Teaching without digital technology is an irresponsible pedagogy. Why? The future is digital, love it or hate it. We can argue later about whether or not this is a good or a bad thing. (Hint: the answer is both.) But to educate students, or to attempt to educate students without developing their digital literacy is to leave them ill prepared for their futures. You wouldn’t think of educating a student and not teaching them how to read, digital literacy is this crucial. In the future if you don’t know how to use this technology you will be “illiterate.” The problem with PowerPoint pedagogy is that it uncritically uses technology, doesn’t teach students to reflect on how technology shapes ways of knowing and learning. So, to simply eliminate PowerPoint and “go naked” is to not address the central issue. We can’t go back to “teaching the way it was,” because this will produce a generation of students who don’t know how to critically engage with, leverage, use, resist, these very technologies. Eliminating technology produces not the affect of a more engaged literate student populous, rather it produces the reverse, an ill informed, uncritical, unengaged student populous who will become at the very best passive consumers of the technology being resisted, and at the worst its willing victims.**