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CAUT Bulletin Archives

June 2001

The Wizardry of Mediating Instruction with Technology

Tony Tremblay
The discourse analysts out there will notice first in my title the syntactic fracture from what has now become the fluid "Technology Mediated Instruction." That is intentional. I want to focus on both the action of mediation and the attempts to steer discussion away from that action. "Technology" must therefore be put at the end of a title to be made strange (which, for most of us on the inside of education, it is).

My observations in this piece come from two memorable "learning" experiences in the last year: the University of New Brunswick's incoming director of computing services Greg Sprague's opening component of the Effective Teaching Institute, "How Multimedia is Changing Our Lives," in April 2000, and Dr. David Brown's talk on "Assessing the Impact of Technology on Learning," in September 2000.

Part of the instructional development series at Fredericton's two universities, both presentations were billed as opportunities to "assess changes and impacts," which at least to me suggested some critical evaluation, if not preliminary interventions in the form of questions, assessments, comparisons, implications, and so forth (the sort of thing that reflective professionals would find useful).

What both presenters delivered, however, was overdetermined hyperbole of the sort that tends to ignore evaluation for declaration, specifically, declarations of the speed, power, and wizardry of the machine. Neil Postman calls this the "gee whiz" approach to discussing technology in education, and points out that it is a standard rhetorical strategy used to optimize persuasive bullying while removing that which is contentious from the realm of reasoned debate.

Greg Sprague began by saying that Intel's CEO was "the new guru." Of what exactly, we were not told, though the inference of his importance (whatever it is) was assumed to be clear in both the language and spirit of animation that followed. The flood of new terms alone was impressive: global and electronic revolution, screenagers, e-company (versus ex-company), cyber-squatting, e-solutions, and affordability.

The e-industry axiom -- faster, better, cheaper -- informed Sprague's whole presentation, and without any thought whatsoever to the impact of all this on our learning and teaching environments, let alone what gets taught and learned.

Without reference to the shifting ground, or to those thinkers who attend to that ground (I waited in vain to hear the name Jacques Ellul or Neil Postman or Ursula Franklin or David Noble or even the sleeve-worn McLuhan), the clear messages in Sprague's hyperbole were these: that there can be no debating the importance, indeed the necessity, of technology in the classroom, and that to believe otherwise renders one roadkill on the information superhighway.

I'll admit feeling more than a little uneasy in being told that by a director of computing services, especially at an Effective Teaching Institute for faculty. I'll also admit growing impatience with the positivist assumption that since "business is driving the revolution," we must all fall in line.

I am reminded immediately of Ellul's take on this: "The university has to become a technical school so that each student may instantly fill a position in this technological society. And people are horrified that the university does not accommodate faster and better. These imbeciles are totally ignorant of what the university's role should be, they sneer at the value still attached to the "humanities," at the uselessness of Latin, of history and philosophy. They want the university to be a technical cog in a technological society. Of course, these are the same imbeciles who give pompous speeches on tomorrow's civilization and technological humanism ... In effect, it is quite likely that this adjustment to the technological world will condemn any possible university to death." (Jacques Ellul, The Technological System, 245.)

To make any sense of the underground wiring powering all of this hype, one had to be at the next "learning technologies" presentation by David Brown, in which a regional IBM executive sat next to the previous director of UNB's computing services. Coincidence or instructive recurrence? (Probably the latter, since Brown was quite open in his admission that IBM was underwriting some of the cost of the two-year laptop replacement policy at his university.)

Brown opened his presentation with the comment, "computers save student lives," and proceeded from there to espouse, with merriment equal to Sprague's, the supposedly research-corroborated benefits of delivering instruction via technology. I say "supposedly" because while he claimed that research existed to prove that laptop technology did enhance learning, he also said he could produce no paired or matching-set studies that made the case -- a curious instance of his message embarrassing its own ruling logic. In that absence, all he could do was assure us that it was so, that technology was the answer to an enhanced educational experience.

Foremost among the benefits he identified was the idea that "with (technology-induced) ubiquity, the culture changes." And with that comment and matching PowerPoint slide, Adorno rolled over in his grave.

Moving in that narrow range from surety to declaration -- believing so completely in the authority of technology that one assumes it is a universal panacea -- what these speakers didn't seem to understand is that technology itself changes both the learning environment and the content of what is learned, and that as reflective educators we care very deeply about those changes. Which doesn't mean that we fear change (a position their oppositional logic often forces us into), but that we want to attend to it, discuss it, and feel our way slowly.

Moreover, as scholars of argument and utterance, we tend not to be swayed by rhetorical tricks, meaning that most of us understand that if "e-solutions" are proposed, then non-"e"-problems can be found. If you don't own a spaceship, then getting to Mars is a real problem, especially if Mars suddenly becomes the agreed-upon destination. (Of course, as Ellul, McLuhan, and Mumford would argue, and quite rightly, it is only in owning a spaceship that Mars is a
destination at all.) In such an environment, the complicity of those who make spaceships is rather obvious, more so if they too are the cartographers.

Such is the coercion behind the overdetermined hyperbole of the two speakers I heard. Our lack becomes a determination of what they have in plenitude, an old salesman's trick, and a transparent one to be sure, for the perception that the Internet and technology are solutions rather than media is fundamentally untenable, no matter how slick the sales pitch.

Lest my isolation of these two presentations and presenters is misunderstood, I will conclude by acknowledging that the hyperbole I witnessed supersedes location and individuals. Rather, the hyperbole is a cultural phenomenon that invites (demands!) our careful attention and response.

For my part, I am curious about the pedagogic potentials of technology and have made many adjustments to incorporate technology into my teaching and research. I become wary, however, of the tyranny of non-academics and corporate interests in dictating the terms of education, for that which intervenes or enables (such as technology) also changes. I ask nothing less than to be a partner in this change, and I look forward to the reasoned discussion and what David Solway calls the "slow-zoned" implementation training that must now temper the hyperbole of the IBM sales force.

Tony Tremblay is associate professor of literature and cultural studies at St. Thomas University in Fredericton. A shorter version of this article appeared in St. Thomas's Instructional Development newsletter, Teaching Perspectives 2 (Fall 2000): 8-9.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.