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Reading on Screens

Posted by on January 27, 2014 | General | 1 Comment »

I have decided to cut back on my use of technology, especially Moodle, in my classes this semester.  For those who know me well, this change might not come as much of a surprise.  It’s true that I don’t own a cell phone, that I only use Facebook as a news feed or a way to keep in touch with alumni, and that I wrote an infamous essay on faculty members acting like students in their use of technology in meetings (

However, I was an early adopter of technology to support classroom teaching.  Even before we had Angel, I had a website with links to articles for students to read, as textbook publishing has always struck me as a poor way to go, given that students pay tens, if not hundreds, of dollars for a book we only use a quarter of, if that.  Once we moved to Moodle, I began using it like a website, with a place for readings and a way for students to privately check their grades.  I widened my usage to include Moodle forums, where students could post thoughts about their reading before class, which enabled me to angle the discussion to areas where we needed more coverage.

I began to question my use of Moodle almost two years ago, though.  I was teaching a two-week course on twentieth-century British poetry for our summer England trip, so I didn’t think it was fair to require students to pay close to one hundred dollars for an anthology we would use for ten class meetings.  Instead, I linked to poems through Moodle for their assignments.  What I discovered when students read aloud from those poems in class, usually on a laptop, iPad, or smart phone, was that they read them rather poorly.  I don’t mean that they didn’t know how to read poems aloud; I mean that they skipped or added words or simply read the wrong words.  When it comes to poetry, especially, every word matters.  If they were unable to read all of the words of the poem correctly, there was certainly no way they could interpret it well.  When students read from paper copies of poems, however, there were few errors.  I’ve seen the same pattern in first-year writing classes and have even found myself struggling with reading as well on a screen as I do when I read print copies.

Last semester, though, students began complaining about the time they were spending on Moodle.  I had continued my use of Moodle forums for reading posts before class in Contemporary Literature, and I thought they were still working well as far as guiding discussion and keeping students accountable for the reading.  One day before class the students were talking among themselves, and I overheard them talking about how much they disliked Moodle.  They were not talking about how it works or doesn’t work; instead, they were complaining about the amount of time they were spending looking at a screen.  They pointed out that multiple classes were requiring Moodle posts, and several of them (including mine) had a significant amount of reading online.  Since they cannot afford to print off all of those readings, they were spending several hours every day on Moodle.  And these are English majors.  They even commented on Moodle on my course evaluations.

I decided my classes needed to change.  I went to 90% of the reading in my Rhetoric and Research class coming from an anthology of stories or a couple of novels, and I’ll look at doing the same for my Contemporary Literature class next fall.  I hated to give up the Moodle posts, though, as they really do seem to help with class discussion.  I’m trying an adapted format for those using notecards this semester.  In my American Novel class, students bring a notecard to each class with a question about the reading and a brief response to that question.  I glance over those at the beginning of class and decide what direction the discussion needs to go that day.  I’m not entirely happy with it, as I have to make that decision rather quickly, which gives me less time to think through the progression of the class meeting that day.  I’ll evaluate how it works by the end of the semester and see if I want to continue.

I’m still not opposed to technology in the classroom, certainly, but I am more skeptical of it now than I was a few years ago.  I think it can be used well, but if we are all using it well, then it can become a burden to the students, which is what I’m hearing from them.  Oddly enough, they seem to prefer reading print when it comes to work for school, even my non-English majors.  Despite the fact that they seem much more technologically literate than we are, they really can only use a few different types of technology better than we can.  I’d rather students spend their time thinking through the ideas from the class than worry about the technology for it.

  1. A couple of responses/comments:
    1. Students will complain about any method we use for instruction–the amount of technology or number of books doesn’t matter.
    2. I agree with Kevin’s observations of student performance. The effects of reading from a screen and using multimedia for instruction, by a student working alone, are not completely understood. Some of the best teaching methods are social and immediate, for example Total Physical Response in language teaching (which is very effective), compared to grammar translation.
    3. The modern human brain is no different than that of our paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors. Technology is not going to change the way we think. It can only help, or hinder, the way in which we access information for learning and thinking.
    4. Technology is useful in the classroom, but only when used thoughtfully. There are many social, cultural, and economic pressures to adopt technology because it’s new–and newer is always better in the western world. Good teaching should resist technology for the sake of more technology. That is point a point I think Kevin makes well.

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