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