24 June 2005

- Where IT is, there teaching will also be -

Last summer I wrote about my experience taking some Instructional Technology courses. It seems that IT has become an issue again. New Kid points to an article in the most recent Chronicle by Patrick Allitt. Allitt basically says that IT sucks. New Kid does a great job of dismantling the article, pointing out its many rhetorical sleights of hand. Among other things Allitt lays responsibility for poor student writing at the hands of IT—well actually it's all the fault of the computer. Of course, I exaggerate; but I exaggerate in just the way Allitt exaggerates. (Like Camicao, I also admit to loving a good rant, so I enjoyed Allitt's essay even if I found it a gross distortion.)

Faculty have been complaining about student writing for as long as I've been in the field. I'm sure we've been complaining about student writing since the beginning of time. Personally, I've seen a general if slight improvement in student writing since I began teaching. I believe this has largely been due to technology, in particular the widespread use of email and IM, both of which encourage students to think about how they present themselves in writing. I'm sure blogging will further this trend—assuming students blog on a regular basis. No, student writing isn't perfect. Yes, it still has a long way to go. I'm sure it will always have a long way to go. Actually, the biggest problems I find in student writing are thinking problems: poor sentence structure, poor word choice, disorganized paragraph and overall paper structure, the lack of a clear thesis statement—all of these result from muddled thinking and/or from the student not being sure what he or she wants to say. In my experience, it's generally been the case that if you fix the thinking problems you fix the writing problems.

I very much doubt that such problems lie with PowerPoint per se. Those faculty abusing PowerPoint would no doubt abuse the chalkboard, the overhead projector—hell, the speaking voice itself. To my mind the issue isn't really about technology at all but about the effective presentation of the material. That's why I so do love those PowerPoint reformers who try reducing good use of PowerPoint to a pithy list of "do's and don'ts" presented in oh-so-proper Powerpoint form. First off, these so-called reformers have clearly so internalized bullet-point thinking that they apparently have great difficulty breaking out of that form of thought. Second, they confuse transparent use of technology with effective presentation of the material. Certainly, the two often coincide. But while bullet points make the technology of PowerPoint almost utterly transparent, it's not at all certain that such transparency always (or even usually) translates into the effective presentation of the material. Indeed, complaints about PowerPoint suggest the opposite.

As always, thinking about what you want to say and how best to present it is what matters.