Technology is not exactly a necessary evil. We all use it, and we all need it. Regardless, it isn’t going away—that train left the station quite some time ago. Admit that up front and life is easier. As Hamlet reminds us, “There is no thing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Milton probably gets closer to the mark regarding our love/hate relationship with technology in saying, “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
We all can make our own use of technology heavenly or hellish. And nowhere is this juxtaposition clearer that in higher education. The race to install the most current, accessible, secure, and effective computer software, equipment, and infrastructure has college faculty and administrators constantly assessing, upgrading, and shifting budget allocations. The demand for cleaner images, stronger processors, more storage, and faster connections on more devices is always on the agenda. Technology use is as important today as articulating learning outcomes and measuring student progress and success.
That students early in the 21st-century are reading and writing more on tablets, E-readers, phones, and computers is a good thing. Actually, it’s an amazing, fantastic, beautiful thing. They have vast information sources literally at their fingertips. And most college students are very comfortable using technology. Almost every college course in America today has at least part of its instruction delivered or stored online in powerful Learning Management Systems (LMSs). Allowing students and faculty to have a virtual space in which to interact is incredibly convenient. Uploading one copy of the syllabus, weekly schedule, and other administrative documents instead of printing out separate copies for each student saves entire forests. So what could possibly be wrong with the mammoth systems, devices, apps, and programs we collectively lump together and call technology?
In a strange and fascinating way, all the characteristics that make technology our can’t-live-without virtual helpmate are the same reasons that we may become discouraged about technology and how we’re all using it—especially our students. For both good and bad, we have constant access, open resources, inclusive forums, rogue change movements, and the risk of compromised identification information—the list could go on exponentially.
What is no different because of technology is our ability to control our response to it. We are still in charge. Just because an email comes in, we don’t have to attend to it immediately. Students are welcome to email faculty at 3 AM, but should not expect an answer until during business hours. When social media and Internet resources are constantly available, we have to be diligent about turning ourselves off—all the forums, messages, newsfeeds, twits, and tweets will still be there when we come back. The disadvantage of never disconnecting from technology is that we have a skewed sense of time. While we may enjoy our virtual experiences and defend games, MOOCs, YouTube videos, TED talks, and cute kitten GIFs as downtime—even educational and enlightening—our constant technology can become addictive and negatively impact our health, sleep, relationships, and ability to think and act creatively on our own. Faculty can use technology effectively in the classroom with phones, clickers, and the Internet, but should assess how using this technology helps students learn. If it does, the use is warranted and even necessary. If, however, technology use is just an interesting gimmick, it may be more valuable to forego the technology and work off the grid.
Problems disconnecting from technology may revolve around expectations from supervisors that workers be available during traditional work hours and beyond. Faculty and students face this challenge as well. Whether the expectation is a true demand or a time-sensitive convenience exacerbates our dilemmas. Open discussion of this problem—face-to-face if at all possible—can set up some respectful limits and foster understanding whether with bosses, students, or even family members.
For better and for worse-but-improvable, technology is here to stay and is no longer a novelty. We all need to reflect and assess how we use technology so it can be the tremendous resource it is and not harmful escape or frustrating necessity.
Dr. Ann M. Pearson is Assistant Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at San Jacinto College (TX), where she’s currently working with Accreditation & Assessment. She was an English faculty member for 25 years, with 7 of those at SJC. She occasionally returns to the SJC English Department as an adjunct faculty member.