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September/October 1999
This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 5 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE. See for additional copyright information.
An EDUCAUSE publication


Learning during Downtime: Transforming Technological Breakdowns into Educational Opportunities
by Norman Weinstein

The knock on my office door was unusually enthusiastic. One of my students entered bearing glad tidings: her composition class had just been cancelled due to a computer glitch. Her writing lab had quickly emptied as her instructor had failed to prevail against two dozen malfunctioning terminals. She brought her news immediately to my attention because recently in her humanities class we had debated the place of technology in higher education. Technology had no place in a composition class, in her scheme of things, and this event was fresh ammo in our ongoing debate. I was about to quickly concede that a low- or no-tech version of freshman composition might be best, but then, at the risk of sounding absurd, I asked her why the instructor had not continued the computer-assisted writing class sans computers. Frankly, I had no idea where I was going with this line of thinking: the course was wholly dependent on properly functioning instructional software. She looked at me with a touchingly empathetic glance appropriate for a genteel madman.

In the back of my mind was Mark von Wodtke's book Mind over Media: Creative Thinking Skills for Electronic Media (1993). In his book the author, an innovative educator and landscape architect, had instructed students in how to cultivate new mental habits in order to optimally utilize technology. Von Wodtke had inspired me to imagine how guided fantasies and metaphor-making could be brought to bear on learning situations oscillating between the technological and the nontechnological.

Let's examine these ideas in the context of a freshman composition class. Imagine composition students tackling the task of writing a vividly descriptive paragraph without overreliance on adjectives. Learning how to do so through the use of word-processing offers the advantage of quick and simple word and phrase deletion, relocation, and substitution. Yet I have repeatedly observed that even though word-processing eases the writing and editing tasks in this and manifold other ways, it also creates some curious problems. For example, words can lose a sense of weight, substantiality, presence because they are so fluid, mutable, flickering.

Let's return to the scene of a writing lab filled with dysfunctional terminals during a lesson in finding alternatives to adjectival orgies in descriptive prose. Suppose our instructor rose to the occasion by distributing colored pencils, erasers, and paper to his or her students. And imagine the instructor asks the students to use the pencils to color the words -- assigning, say, a brown pencil to every noun, a red pencil to every adjective, an orange pencil to every verb, and so on until their writing assumes a Technicolor (non-techno-color?) display underscoring how various parts of speech contribute to effective description. Too many words penciled in red would graphically reveal adjectival overkill. Alternatives could then be colorfully presented by the instructor.

This writing exercise could be translated into electronic form as soon as downtime ceased in the lab. The color values could be assigned, using a graphics program, to every word. This would constitute a laborious task, perhaps, but students would be reminded of the occasional advantages of low-tech graphite! The result would be a crisply beautiful printed essay with an artful display of words glowing with the impact of a rainbow. Nevertheless, both the penciled and the laser-printed texts would accomplish the identical objective. Both would use color as a tool in developing perception of how word types function in descriptive prose. But the pencil version is an exercise in how to use low-tech means when high-tech tools fail to function properly and how to transfer the learning back into a high-tech format when possible.

Another example of a low-tech writing lesson usable during a high-tech meltdown could involve using post-it notes in conjunction with transparent tape on paper. Students would work on a single paragraph of prose describing an apple brought to class or (for advanced students) a print of apples painted by Cezanne. They would first write a draft in pen, then put every word and every punctuation mark on separate post-it notes and place the notes on a blank page. The words and marks could now be repositioned or moved a la WordPerfect, but this exercise offers a learning opportunity unknown to word processors. If students are asked to locate the words in their paragraph, they will have a difficult time moving or repositioning the words without drastically altering their intended meaning. The students could then apply tape to certain words on post-it notes, thereby creating a class of words less fluid and mutable than their untaped cousins.

Such an approach helps students realize that word-processing programs create the potentially dangerous illusion that all words are equally weightless and insubstantial. I have seen numerous student compositions revised for the worst due to the exhilarating ease of pressing buttons to delete and drop and drag. With the post-it and tape exercise, the computer user becomes aware of the possible overuse of a tool designed for quick and easy -- but not necessarily thoughtful -- writing.

My intention is not to impress you with the number of "Rube Goldberg" measures that can be improvised when technological tools fail to function. There is a more significant issue here. I would like to see both students and faculty learn to imaginatively travel between physical and virtual worlds, through learning exercises easily transferable from one world to the other. Such a capability would serve well in downtime.

The most technophobic student can be taught to imagine designing an effective CD-ROM. What would occur in a freshman composition class if students were asked to write an imaginative essay about the most exciting, educationally fulfilling multimedia experience they could have? What kind of music animation could be used? Could speech recognition be used, so that students could talk as well as type text? Could intelligent agents dance across the monitor to suggest revisions? How could Internet connectivity and hypertext be entertainingly brought to bear? Students need not know Visual C or HTML, need not know anything about the how and why of computer technology, in order to conceive of such a program. Their fantasies would contain the seeds of actual and potentially effective learning tools for the future. Sitting in front of a dead terminal is an ideal setting to activate imagination, which is certainly a more profitable use of the moment than grousing like a lifelong Luddite.

Conventional word-processing programs assume that all of us write on a desktop, a most questionable assumption. For example, this essay is being written on a breakfast bar. Salt and pepper are closer at hand than vertical files. Clearly, writing can happen anywhere, and as a writing teacher, I encourage students to not feel chained to a desk in order to compose. What might happen if we asked students to dream of a word-processing program with alternatives to the desktop model? Again, students wouldn't need to know anything technical in order to create a fresh metaphor to graphically represent their ideas. They could use pencil and paper to draw an initial screen of such a program. One of my students was a cave explorer. I can imagine that his imaginary word-processing program would be based on words etched on Lascaux-like walls. The toolbar might have a button marked "save for 10,000 years," a prehistoric feat the digital world still strives to attain.

The breakdowns that are common, even inevitable, in technologically assisted learning need not be viewed as embarrassments but instead can be seen as opportunities to flex one's creativity. To be "wired" in the broadest sense can, perhaps should, imply the capacity to live and learn well while "unwired." Catastrophic Y2K fantasies serve as reminders of our widespread fears concerning our capacity to cope during downtime. Technology used imaginatively need not foster a mindless dependence on its flawless performance. The processors and lines of code, metaphorically speaking, are in us. Our mind's eye is a blinking monitor that continues to scan as long as we're breathing, even during that quasi-downtime we think of as deep sleep. Increased technological reliance throughout our classrooms and the world beyond our campuses will never eliminate the intricate dance between the physical and the computer-mediated worlds. We would do well to shuffle between them with graceful mental ease.

This dance between two worlds will make our perception of the physical environment more cyberlike; likewise our cyberworlds, when shut down for repairs, could be perceived as anchored in the stuff of the physical world. A "delete" button is related to a lifted post-it note as intimately as a colored pencil is to a button establishing perimeters in a graphics program. The poet Wallace Stevens noted that to best appreciate winter, "one must have a mind of winter." Perhaps to best appreciate educational technology, one must have a mind capable of rejoicing in the creative opportunities presented when the technology fails. To best appreciate technology, perhaps one must have a mercurial mind, able to leap between aesthetic and technological mindsets, between poetry and computers. Poets have long dabbled with word color. Laser printers can literalize their pursuit. Poets traditionally are masters of metaphor. Graphic user interfaces are simply the metaphors of designers who commercially impose their metaphors on us. Why not work to cultivate our own?

Was my student convinced by my line of argument? Not at all. Metaphors are for poets, she insisted. She intended to become a programmer. I asked, "What will you do during those moments on the job when your technology lets you down?" The answer arrived without a tinge of irony: "I'll daydream."

Norman Weinstein ([email protected]) is a widely published poet and critic who has written about technology for Wired magazine and MIT's Technology Review. He is enrolled at Boise State University in a doctoral program focused on educational technology.

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