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What does it mean to “improve” with technology?

By Jeremy Cunningham
August 6th, 2015

The generally agreed upon role of technology is to improve society. What’s not agreed upon is the definition of improve.

Often, this debate is divided by age as various generations struggle to imagine parts of their life experiences being altered or discarded. As a relatively young individual, I have typically been a new adopter. Technology has always made sense to me because I have been immersed in it since birth. Yet, I may have crossed a threshold. A recent development in educational technology has me feeling like a curmudgeon who wants students to “do it like I did” because “that’s the way it is done.”

An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Meg Bernhard outlines a new web platform called zyBooks which presents itself as an alternative to textbooks. One of the platform’s creators, Frank Vahid, wants to combat the phenomenon of the “wall of text” that students face. The platform is interactive with its reader and seeks to change the student experience.

At first glance, I loved the idea. As a student, moving through the mountains of text required for success can be daunting, tedious, and, many times, unfulfilling. As a teacher, the sense that most students simply do not complete the required reading is a painful reality. Anything that improves this dynamic sounds valuable. Yet, as I read the piece, I became hesitant about its full scale adoption.

The opening line of the article discusses the difficulty of staying awake when assigned long and dull textbook readings. The creators want to “engage” students. Furthermore, zyBooks eliminates the need to flip between texts to find answers to questions.   All work is embedded in the platform right where its required. This new learning experience fundamentally changes student work.

Engagement can be a difficult topic to navigate. In its ideal usage, engagement prompts a professor to intentionally design materials that reach their students. In its worst form, an emphasis on engagement places all responsibility on the material rather than the students themselves. If responsibility for pursuing challenging material and applying oneself to an unwanted task is taken out of the academic process, then student growth is hindered.

I, like other students before this current generation, were forced to process through volumes of text. To the detriment of our eyesight, but the benefit of our minds, we read things that may not have been directly related to our work but provided a tangential benefit. Furthermore, we learned how to simply organize information and determine what was required. That’s a critical skill across all areas of life, particularly in an age when the volume of accessible information is growing exponentially.

I have no doubt that zyBooks earnestly seeks to improve the learning experience. The product sounds interesting and I stand by my original reaction of intrigue and appreciation. But, as technology moves forward, have we fully defined what we are trying to improve? Answering this question requires establishing concrete goals and definitions within the learning experience; those may differ across subject matter and instructor.

As I write this, I realize generations before mine are laughing at me. They asked these same questions as Google started doing much of our searching for us. Perhaps zyBooks is the next step in educational technology and I am just another curmudgeon looking at the next generation with a mixture of doubt and scorn.

Read Meg Barnhard’s original article here: http://chronicle.com/blogs/wiredcampus/web-platform-seeks-to-give-students-an-alternative-to-the-wall-of-text/57099

About the Author:

Jeremy Cunningham

Jeremy Cunningham is a part-time instructor at Washtenaw Community College and Cleary University where he teaches composition and communication coursework. He also teaches English at Mason High School. He holds degrees in literature and education from Miami University, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan State University. Outside of work, Jeremy dedicates his time to his wife, Darcie, and daughter, Ruby.


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