Crutches

I’ll never forget my first class session ever of “Teaching with Technology.” It was my first semester in the doc program at UVA, and this was the first day of the class I was teaching. After going over the syllabus and other course┬ámaterials, I tried to get the class to discuss their beliefs about using technology in the classroom. Most of the students made general statements about how they thought it was important because technology is such a part of our society. Everything was going pretty well until one student piped in and said, “I think technology is great as long as students don’t use it as a crutch.” I had no idea the can of worms that statement would open up. The rest of the semester seemed to be a battle between me and crutch-dom. PowerPoint was perceived as a crutch. Inspiration was a crutch. Digital storytelling was a crutch. The Internet? You guessed it.

I guess if one were to follow this line of reasoning completely, everything could be interpreted as a crutch. I mean, Socrates thought printed text was a crutch because it eliminated the need to set everything to memory.

I’m being a little sarcastic, but was my student totally wrong? She had a legitimate concern that students would forgo learning certain skills or knowledge because of their dependency on technology. The first thing that comes to mind is spellchecking. I have graded countless papers with substitutions of “there,” “‘their” and “they’re.” I make that mistake myself because I don’t take the time to proofread properly.

I recently had another experience where technology was a crutch when my family and I moved to a new city. In the past, I would keep a map of the city in my car and learn the roads as I drove around. Initially, I would make a lot of U-turns, but eventually I would learn the city inside out. Well, this time we had a GPS, and we used it for everything. The upside of using a GPS is that I never got lost (almost never) and I was pretty much on time to everything. I experienced much less frustration learning a new city than in the past. This week, my wife went to visit her parents for a couple of weeks and took the GPS with her. I didn’t think this was a big deal until I tried to get from the downtown to my office yesterday. I was utterly lost, and nothing around me looked familiar until I arrived on campus. Why is this? Because I had been staring at the GPS for two weeks instead of looking around me.

Is it possible our students do this? They can get so focused on the tools they are using that they lose sight of the big picture. This is why the role of the teacher is so important. Teachers can structure activities in ways that make the learning objectives the focus, not the technology. They can also scaffold technology use in such a way that students learn without being dependent on the tools.