I started this post nearly six weeks ago, and couldn’t finish it. I’ve thought about it a number of times since then. But as we reach the night before what would have been UMW’s commencement ceremony, I find myself returning to it and to the sentiments it started with and that have continued to resonate with me since then.
I know that none of us in education were ready for what the last two weeks months have been, nor are we prepared for the days and weeks (and hopefully not months) to come. Maybe we should have been, maybe we could have seen the slow yet practically inexorable movement of the COVID-19 virus from other parts of the world to the United States and eventually to our own locales. But in the end it came and we are dealing with the consequences for our work and our lives, and they are not insignificant. Fighting this virus requires remarkable disruption in the daily activities, the gatherings, the human interaction, that are part of our schools, our social life, our culture. Even in this age of digital-mediated work and leisure, we still live in work and school settings that are inherently about being with and near other people.
In the ten days before Mary Washington made the decision to move to remote learning and send our students home, I spent an immense amount of time with other people. [More time spent than I did in most weeks, let alone one that encompassed UMW’s Spring Break.] And after we moved to our homes and away from campus, I continued to be part of teams working to figure out how my school could deal with the impact of the most serious disease outbreakswe have seen in the world in our lifetime. Initially, it was about deciding to close out the in-person aspects of what we offered, then it was dealing with the fallout of that move (such that our students and faculty and staff were not overly impacted), then it was what would the summer look like if students (and others) were not on campus, and now it is how can we, as a school that prioritizes the residential, face-to-face educational experience, imagine a fall semester that may or may not include students on campus, that may or may not include the revenues that residential campuses depend on to pay their employees and support their mission, that will somehow include social distancing and the latest thinking on public health, testing, contact-tracing, and hygienic practices.
I am blessed to be working with a dedicated, hyper-competent, thoughtful group of staff and faculty and Cabinet members, who believe in our mission, who are smart and dedicated to their students and their colleagues, and it is an honor to Zoom with so many of them each week as we work to build a future for our school and our community in the months and years to come.
I am fortunate to work with a President and a Board of Visitors who ask, over and over again, “what is best for the students?” no matter how difficult or complicated the answers to that seemingly simple question might be.
I am lucky to have a home and a family who believe in the mission of education, a family who has supported all of its members during this stay-at-home order, family members who make each other laugh as we make each other meals and make each other at home in our house.
I am grateful that I am in a position to both teach and learn from our students AND to shape the direction of our institution at a time when nothing is normal. I am constantly aware of the responsibility that is involved in being both a teacher and an administrator at this time and place, and I am glad that most days I believe I am making a difference.
And then today, the day before commencement was supposed to happen, I got to preview the video that will be shared tomorrow with graduating seniors, their families, their faculty, and the Mary Washington community. And it broke me, at least a little. Don’t get me wrong. It’s funny, and heartfelt, and full of terrifically caring alumni, our president, my colleagues, and lovely sentiments. [I’ll link to it here once it is released.]
Maybe I should point out here that commencement is one of my favorite times of the year. It is unalloyed joy. It is a chance to meet students at their happiest, parents at their most proud, the community at its most relaxed. It is a payoff for all of us after the always-stressful spring semester (or even the whole academic year). It is goodbye, good luck, thank-you, and hell, yeah all at once.
And watching that video, knowing that we won’t be donning our regalia tomorrow, marching to the bagpipes, congratulating graduates as they walk the Campus Walk gauntlet of proud professors on their way to Ball Circle tomorrow, well, it broke me. Or at least it broke the dam of emotion that I’ve been holding back these months as we have all worked (students, faculty, staff, family) to get through, to survive (literally) to the end of the semester and school year. And I grieved for what we have lost as a community of learners. And I celebrated with happy tears what we have done together and apart. We are capable of both being sad and grateful, regretful of what is lost and thankful for what has been preserved, sorrowful at what was missed and yet celebratory about the amazing things that have been accomplished.
So, hear the bagpipes, sing the alma mater, hug your loved ones (be they near or far), and grieve what was lost and be grateful for what has been accomplished and what is still to come. And know that all of that is okay.
In a normal year, yesterday would have been the day in the semester when the students in Digital History would present their projects to an audience at the History and American Studies Department Spring Symposium. This is a tradition that began back in 2008 with the first iteration of the class. It was an amazing debut of digital history projects during a day which previously had been reserved for presentations of 30-40 page research papers. It was an important moment for digital history projects in the department and has continued to be a wonderful moment for the students, their friends, faculty, staff, and project partners.
I’m sorry we won’t be able to do that public in-person presentation this year. Nothing about this semester has been normal, but I am happy to share the projects and the students’ presentations on them once again. I am incredibly proud of their work, even as they were pulled away from each other and away from some of the original sources they were working with to digitize, analyze, and share.
I encourage you to check out each of the presentations and the Digital Public History sites that students created this semester.
This post has been percolating for a while as a series of op-ed pieces and studies announcing that handwriting is better for learning or that laptops or other devices are ineffective or that tech shouldn’t be used in the classroom continue to emerge. I know I’ll get push back about this response, but I’ve needed to sit down and write this for a while now (and it’s easier to have these responses collected together so I can point to them later when these studies and think-pieces continue to emerge). [Apologies for the listicle approach to this post.]
1) Those studies about the wonders of handwriting all suffer from the same set of flaws, namely, a) that they don’t actually work with students who have been taught to use their laptops or devices for taking notes. That is, they all hand students devices and tell them to take notes in the same way they would in written form. In some cases those devices don’t have keyboards; in some cases they don’t provide software tools to use (there are some great ones, but doing it in say, Word, isn’t going to maximize the options digital spaces allow), in some cases the devices are not ones the students use themselves and with which they are comfortable. And b) the studies are almost always focused on learning in large lecture classes or classes in which the assessment of success is performance on a standardized (typically multiple-choice) test, not in the ways that many, many classes operate, and not a measure that many of us use in our own classes. And c) they don’t actually attempt to integrate the devices into the classes in question, a point that Kevin Gannon makes in his excellent post on the subject. [It’s possible I have missed one of these studies that actually addresses all of these things and builds in training for students (and faculty) in integrating devices, or maybe works with a population of students that has had access to a robust, integrated (not nominal) 1:1 laptop program for an extended period of time before the study. If I have missed it, I’m sure someone will let me know.]
2) Banning laptops is going to be a big problem when increasingly you have students like those in my local middle school who are exclusively using laptops in all of their classes to great effect and success. More and more students in K-12 are going to be doing that and a ban will be telling at least some students who are used to taking notes that way (who are actually BETTER at taking notes that way), that they can’t use the tools for which they have developed a process.
3) Banning laptops is also going to be a problem because of the trend toward digitized sources: more and more campus bookstores are offering readings and interactive activities in digital form, sometimes because it’s cheaper, but often because it’s easier for them to manage, and because some students want them in that form. Some texts are ONLY being offered in digital form going forward, and many of the ancillary materials publishers are offering only work in digital form. Plus, increasingly faculty (like me, but many others) are assigning readings that are only online or in JSTOR or other online collections. That’s both because of access, but also because of economic fairness. And then, I want them to have copies of the readings with them and it’s not economically or ecologically fair to ask them to print those copies out and bring them with them to class. [In fact, having students collectively or individually annotate class readings with a tool such as Hypothes.is is a powerful way to improve classroom discussion that would be much more difficult without devices.]
4) Let’s be honest with ourselves and acknowledge that banning technology from our classrooms does not help with the general perception in the public that universities, faculty, and the education we offer is not relevant or adaptable to the modern age. [There are obviously many other reasons we seem to be losing this argument about the value of traditional education that have nothing to do with the laptop ban discussion, but my point here is simply that blanket bans on technology do not help the larger perception of academics. I won’t use the L-word, but you know that others do when they see op-eds from teachers about banning tech from classrooms.]
5) I’ve seen faculty suggest that laptop bans just results in students using smart phones more, even when there is a ban on that as well. So then someone suggests (usually jokingly, sometimes not) jamming cell phones. Jamming cell phones violates federal law, so, um, good luck with that.
6) On the point of incorporating these devices into our pedagogy: I want students to be able to integrate the wide array of other sources available to them with what they are learning in my class, and I often ask them to go out and find good sources to answer questions that emerge during class lecture, discussion, and group work. In other words, I work to integrate those tools and their connections to that larger array of information into the class. [Admittedly, it also means that sometimes students will say, “but this other source says something different.” That’s a terrific learning opportunity for us to talk as a class about sources, interpretation, and authority.]
6a) We should be working with students to meaningfully incorporate these devices into their learning. I have no doubt that adding devices that students use in a wide variety of non-scholarly ways outside of class without attempts to integrate them into classes or to teach students to use those devices in academic ways risks ineffective uses of them. I have plenty of conversations with students about how to take notes already. Most of the time their problem isn’t which device (pencil, laptop, phone, quill) they use to take those notes, but how to take them and how to use them to learn based on their own experiences, learning styles, and discipline.
6b) Incorporating devices into teaching will require faculty training and support. I suspect that some (though certainly not all) of the support for these bans stems from the fact that many faculty don’t feel confident in using technology broadly and in particular for academic purposes (for note-taking, for social media, for research and analysis, for blogging, etc.) themselves and so don’t feel confident in having their students use those tools in and out of class. [One answer to that at UMW is our Division of Teaching and Learning Technologies, our Center for Teaching Excellence and Innovation, and our student-centered Digital Knowledge Center, as well as the week-long Digital Pedagogy Lab institute. But there are more and moreoptions out there to get faculty members the development they need to become more comfortable with digitally enabled pedagogy.]
8) Caveat: It’s the blanket ban with which I have such issues. I don’t have a problem with faculty asking students at certain points to close their laptops or put away their devices because the type of engagement at that moment is changing.
9) Caveat #2: When there are devices in the classroom, especially larger ones, a few students will use them in ways that will be distracting. I’m not opposed to strategies or explicit conversations about reducing that problem. It’s the throwing-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach of blanket bans that are the issue here.
10) Finally, having conversations with students about how they use devices more generally and laptops in particular for academic success is important, as well as how best to take notes. I do it with students in my First-Year Seminar in detail, and in other classes in general. My school is working to develop these practices more generally and to support faculty as they incorporate technology into their classes.
Encouraging good learning practices among students (and faculty) is a terrific thing to do. I’m just not convinced that entirely banning one set of those practices and the tools used to engage in them is the way to get either group to develop those practices more generally.
[Thanks to Sue Fernsebner for pointing out the appropriateness of this discussion in the wake of the many pieces reflecting on Seymour Papert‘s life and work.]