Is there such a thing as a toss-aside course?

I used to hear from students that my technology course was commonly regarded by their advisors as a class they should “just get out of the way early.” I don’t think the advisors were referring to my course specifically, but rather the required technology course in that program in general. The course is primarily taught by grad students, so there isĀ  a new instructor every 2-3 years. I don’t think the faculty members even try to keep up with who is teaching the class every semester, unless the grad student takes the initiative to meet the faculty.

Most of my students enjoyed my class and would make comments about how much they learned. I think this is the case for most educational technology classes, where most of the students have never seen technology modeled well by their teachers or professors. Their expectations coming into the class are pretty low, and this isn’t helped by the attitude held by most of the advisors that it is a toss-aside class. In some ways these pre-existing attitudes act as a barrier, but I think more often than not they created a perfect opportunity to blow the students’ minds and help them completely reframe how they think about, and hopefully use, technology in the classroom.

Another common theme, beside the belief that they would have to endure my class until December or May, respectively, is that I was going to teach them how to do a bunch of stuff. I would always ask them at the beginning of the term what they expected to learn from the class, and their responses were almost unanimously, “How to makeĀ  a … ” or “How to use … program.” This is important, but I don’t think I ever heard someone say, “I want to learn how to support learning in social studies (or any other content area) through technology,” or “I would like to learn how to plan a technology-based lesson.” Technology was typically regarded as the thing a teacher adds in at the end, throws in for a diversion or uses for his/her own productivity. This context is a fertile ground for discussions on student learning, content, teaching strategies, classroom management and student engagement. Students were so focused on the how question, they rarely considered the why question. Why should teachers use technology? Is this even the right question? Maybe a better question is, what do I want my students to learn, and what are the best resources I can use to help them get there? What would motivate my students to want to get there? What do my students learn on their own when there are no teachers, parents or grades in the picture, and how do they learn it? You can hardly ask a question like this, framed within the context of the 21st century, without mentioning technology. Clearly, there needs to be a change in the way technology is thought about and presented in schools of education, and I think a lot of programs are moving in that direction.

So, to answer my own question, no I don’t think there is any such thing as a toss-aside course. The approach and delivery may need some work, but the content — the big idea of technology’s role in teaching and learning — is just as important as it has ever been.