Technology and the Liberal Arts Student

Cedar Key Foods, 2013. Cedar Key, FL

Whenever an article appears about the importance of exposing college students to technology, I cringe on behalf of the university at which I teach. My school has many strengths, including a terrific service-based learning program, strong academics, and funding  for undergraduate and graduate research, as well as for faculty. However, we have no basic technology literacy requirement (see, for example, the requirements at Cal State), and no one expects most students to do much with technology, except for using BlackBoard. Some instructors at my school do use digital tools in the classroom in highly creative ways, often without support from either IT or the administration. But I’d wager that the majority of students–grad and undergrad–graduating this year don’t know how to give a presentation using anything other than PowerPoint. The reasons for these conditions are complex, and establishing a commitment to integrating technology into our research and teaching cannot happen over night.

To remedy this situation, I’ve voluntarily taken a leading role on campus to create learning opportunities for using technology to professionalize, research, and teach. These events are well attended by faculty, staff, and students, and are supported with funding and encouraging words from participants and the administration. People think I’m a “digital humanities” expert, but everything I know about that and engaging with technology in diverse ways has been my own doing. I’m almost entirely self-taught and am still learning. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by some amazing people at my school and the New York City area who use technology to do humanities-based work. I soak up a lot from them.

The inspiration for this post and what made me cringe with frustration was the Chronicle of Higher Education article, “Colleges Must Prepare for a Buyer’s Market.” In it, Jeffrey Selingo proffers questions colleges should be prepared to answer if they wish to attract top students. One of those questions is “How tech-savvy is your institution?” The answer, writes Selingo, is to

forget about whether your college gives out iPads to all incoming students or whether the wireless network covers every square inch of the campus. Students will want to know how you’re using technology to change the way courses are delivered. Be prepared to say how many professors mix technology with their lectures so they can be viewed outside of class, or whether students have an option to choose from a variety of course formats: face-to-face, hybrid, and online. A few potential applicants might even ask about “adaptive learning” software, which personalizes the learning experience so that students focus valuable class time on what they don’t know and breeze through what they have already mastered.

Selingo is right. My school offers few of the options he cites, aside from a small online program.  But as my comments above indicate, his emphasis on the way teachers use technology to deliver course content is only part of the answer. Students will (or should) want to know how they will be trained to be versatile users of technology. They will want to know if they will be taught how to build, evaluate, and use technology effectively, whether for a composition class or an advanced history course. Maybe that does mean handing out iPads to everyone. As many have argued, it’s not about just owning the tool, it’s what you do with it.

Obviously, there’s no iPad-For-All program at my school. But for my composition class this year, I requested a room with computers. My students have used them to collaborate on small projects in the classroom. They’ve written articles together for the class wiki and created Infographics to visualize competing arguments. Together they’ve explored Scrible, A.nnotate, and, of course, Zotero. The computers also offer an opportunity for me to work with them one on one, to help them learn how to search the library databases for their individual research topics. So far, I’ve enjoyed teaching this composition class more than any other.

My teaching methods are designed in part to pre-professionalize my students. William Pannapacker stressed in a recent New York Times article that college students’ professional careers and future stints as graduate students essentially depend on being savvy users of technology. In my composition and literature classes, I lead my students to a big pool of ideas (see also Bamboo DiRT) about using technology for reading, writing, research, and discussion, and basically force them to jump in. Most discover that the water is warmer and more fun than they expected. A former student from a literature class recently thanked me for introducing her to Prezi, WordPress, and other digital tools. She explained that they had been useful in her current classes and that she had helped her father design a presentation for his work, based on the skills she’d learned my class. It was nice to get the feedback, but it also illustrated to me how deeply behind the times my school is in terms of preparing its students for the future. My student shouldn’t have had to thank me for introducing these low-barrier, entry-level digital tools into the course. She should have expected me to expect her to know how to use them. And so I cringed today.

Author: Elizabeth F. Cornell

Elizabeth F. Cornell is the director of communications for Fordham IT, at Fordham University. Formerly, she was a post-doctoral fellow in the English Department at Fordham.

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