Sunday, October 03, 2004

The Internet and Canadian Studies

There has been a great deal of talk over the last fifteen years about how computers and new communications technologies are going to revolutionize higher education. Frankly, I don’t see that revolution occuring. If you take my Canadian Studies courses, you’ve noticed that I do make use of web-based delivery systems for things like this blog, course syllabi and readings, and other information students might need. It might surprise students to know that faculty periodically feel that they are under a great deal of pressure to make use of new communications technologies in the classroom under the assumption that all their students are so much more computer literate than they are. In my experience, this isn’t true. In the humanities, at least, in my view, students and faculty make use of the internet and computers for basically the same reasons: they allow us to communication (primarily via email), find information (through internet searches or remote access to a library), and prepare work for submission (writing essays, etc.). According to those who argue that computers will revolutionize the classroom, these limited number of uses are only scratching the surface of what we can do with the computer. Yet, this seems to be the level of computer use with which most students are happy. Moreover, it seems to me, most students don’t want to lose the personal dynamics of the classroom. If students had wanted to take their courses purely on-line, they would not have come to Mount Allison University.

What, then, are the ways in which I make use of the computer in the classroom? I see the computer and other new communications technologies as tools that can extend or facilitite our engagement with Canada and Canadian Studies but are not substitutes for other, more traditional approaches to education -- dialogue, questions, reading, thinking -- carried out in more or less traditional ways (seminars, lectures, books, visiting faculty with questions, etc.). In this regard, what I seek to do with web-based learning and the delivery of course material is to extend a traditional approach to post-secondary education; not replace it. This blog, for example, allows you, as a student in Canadian Studies, to pick up on topics with which I might not have dealt in what you feel is sufficient detail in class. It allows you and I to explore different issues, perhaps those that were not addressed in class. It allows me to respond to on-going events (as Canada is always changing but courses do have fixed material they need to address). And, it allows you and I to open up different dialogues about different subjects in Canadian Studies. Here, in this blog, I can take more space to lay out my ideas on subjects like technology and post-secondary education in a way that, I hope, makes my views and the approach I take in class more transparent.

What this amounts to is this: the use new communications technologies in my classroom is limited in the sense that it is designed to complement what strikes me as a fairly traditional approach to post-secondary education. When I compare your classroom and what goes on in it, to the classrooms in which I sat in the 1980s and early 1990s, I don’t actually see a lot of difference. The key difference, it seems to me, is not one of fundamental change -- some sort of cultural revolution caused by NCTs -- a change in degree. Used as a tool, the computer does not fundamentally alter what we are doing; it makes our life easier and that is the use I make of it. I provides different fora, perhaps more accessible to some people, in which issues related to Canada can be addressed. It provides a more efficient way to edit term papers and to store and retrieve research file. It provides easier access to some resources (others, of course, need to be accessed in the old fashioned way at the library).

Used in this way, I think the computer and the internet can be remarkably useful in learning about Canada: it can provide easier access to material, faster communication if you have a question, more effective editting tools for your work, a different (and, hopefully more effective) way to distribute course material. All of this is good, and it is the reason this blog is on-line. It is, however, a complementary relationship to a traditional approach to post-secondary education; not something revolutionary.
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