Technology as a break from learning.

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The last two or three weeks of a semester are hard. Teachers are making the big, final push to the end, covering those last little bits of the content and getting students ready for the final exam.  Students are getting sick (or are just coming back from being sick), their brains are feeling bloated and their  muscles and minds  are aching for free time.

Given all of these factors,  I find myself cringing when, with three weeks to go in the term, a faculty member emails be and asks if I could come to his or her class and show the students how to blog or use virtual worlds or find Skype partners for class.  It’s not that I don’t want to explain these things. It is not that I am unprepared to do so…goodness knows I have materials at the ready.  Its just that their timing is all off, and this is not the point in the term when technology needs to make a first and perhaps final appearance.

Alas, there are still many teachers who see educational technology as a “break” from learning, as opposed to a different kind of learning.  They call me in to do a presentation, a show and tell, and to give their students a rest from the rigors of the pluscamperfecto by showing them fun and amusing things in Second Life or Google Earth vs an opportunity to see these structures in use in context by speakers of the language.

When technology appears in the classroom, unannounced, at this moment in the calendar, it is not hard to see why some our students dismiss the potential these tools could provide and instead see it as something fluffy and light, something to fill their “weekly lab hour.” Or why many of them just don’t even explore the possibilities at all.  The message that is being sent via the teacher is that ed tech is something you do when you want to disengage your brain and take a break…not  something you do to recharge it.

Many of our instructors dutifully plan a lab “tour” during the first day of classes, where we explain what tools and technologies are available to all language students.  But even that visit to the lab comes off feeling like a detour in the curriculum, and in the confusion of the first week of the term students don’t remember what’s possible.

Teachers  presume, oh so wrongly, that their students will “get” this “technology stuff” quickly and one visit to the lab is all they need.  Just because a student uses Skype to call her girlfriend who is studying abroad, this does not mean that the student knows how to find a Skype partner for studying Korean.  But explaining that and squashing these misconceptions takes time.  And nobody seems to want to make time for technology once that syllabus is written, printed, collated and thumped onto the students’ desks.

We have three weeks before the next term begins. I will begin my emails and begin poking and prodding language instructors about what we offer and how we would love to help them incorporate tools into their teaching. We will plan biweekly methodology sessions that (surprise!) will also include information on tools that can encourage different forms of learning. I will train my student assistants to prepare for the deluge.

But I will also be circling week 13 and 14 of the spring syllabus in my calendar and make a note to anticipate a guest appearance or two as well. Because I know that in the spring term that is when the weather changes, the windows open, and teachers will once again look to technology to be their diversion from the very hard work of learning.

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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