Vol. 15 : No. 5
The Writings of Guy Bensusan
More than a Tool
Over the past decade or so, ever since technology has, according to some, "raised its dreadful specter over our institutions of higher learning," I have been hearing the same phrases repeatedly:
"As professors dedicated to our disciplines and the training of our students, we are philosophically opposed to allowing technology to dictate what we do in our classrooms, and we cannot allow those who push technology to turn us into insignificant servants of the machine. Technology is just a tool, and tools are intended to be used for the benefit of humankind, meaning that the humans must control the tools and not the other way around."
At first glance, this defensive didactic diatribe negatively rejects the use of new tools, even though these thoughts do not represent the thinking of a majority of teachers. It elevates pedagogy over andragogy -- that is, the professors refer to disciplines and training and who is in charge of the classroom and who has possession of the students. The phrases above subordinate tools to whatever humans may want to do with them. They elevate anthropocentric "human choosing" to a higher good, thus sounding more like a plea for Renaissance Humanism than a current appeal for rational balance in a forthcoming and complex millennium. Interestingly, what is not mentioned are learning, learners, learner-centeredness or lifelong learning.
As one delves further, we find a superb de-construction to play with, dis-assemble, re-construct and learn from, as we have often done in our learning-centered course in Humanities by using The Ladder, The Hexadigm and Bias models, which are described in Chapter A-2. But rather than argue over the various points, attitudes, tautologies and implications, which does not in any way prevent the inexorable and perhaps inevitable evolution of the tools being castigated by traditional teachers, let me instead describe to you my recent journey of discovery into how two-plus-two can produce much more than four.
The electronic and cyber technologies have become more than mere tools; by being variously combined, they open new paths to learning in ways that I would otherwise not have been able to explore. An example may serve here, but it will require a bit of background. I have been teaching at Northern Arizona University since 1963, and when I first arrived, my contract stipulated I teach general Humanities courses for a Liberal Studies purpose and History courses for degree programs. The Dean of Continuing Education asked me later on to take those courses off-campus by driving to far-away and culturally different areas of Arizona, where I would teach with Navajo Indians or Borderland Mexican Americans.
I experienced two different worlds. On campus in Flagstaff, 7000 feet elevation, at the base of the San Francisco peaks towering a mile above us and surrounded by Ponderosa Pines for miles in every direction, we were a small state university in a non-metropolitan area, highly multicultural in our student body, coming from all over the US as well as from overseas, though less multicultural in our faculty. We were more remote from big-bad-city problems, feeling the effects of the Sixties even less profound than elsewhere.
As I looked into the multicultural faces in my courses, and being a foreigner and international student myself (despite naturalization), I had no difficulty in finding ways to use the students' cultural diversity to illustrate ideas and realities in our humanities and history courses. It naturally meant that I needed to know students individually and where they were from, although it was not all that simple, as they usually tried to blend together into the commonality of dress, and college life.
In my efforts to teach courses about the evolution of the Southwest or Mexico, I could have focused only on information, but I had the good fortune to find in the classroom descendants of Indians, Hispanics, Blacks (as then called), plus Mormons, Pioneers, Miners, Ranchers, Cowboys, Sheepherders, Loggers, Scientists, Freighters and Railroaders. These people and the experiences of their predecessors were a wonderful resource and we put it to use productively in our discussions about centuries of cultural evolution along our Greater Southwest Border. The learning principle was that the course would be about past information, but also involved perceiving it through the various eyes of those who participated: winner, loser, bystander, latecomer, historian, worker, man, woman.
At the same time, with my off-campus teaching, I traveled into places where the students were rather more "monolithic" than heterogeneous. When I taught Humanities courses at centers on the Navajo Reservation, for instance, I would drive two hundred miles to a small school in a quiet, colorful sandstone local, at a crossroads with one gas station and some hogans, where all the students were culturally traditional Navajo. When I taught in the mining area in the mountains southeast of Phoenix, I would drive two hundred miles in the opposite direction to interact with small-town students whose livelihoods depended upon the mines; their longstanding historical traditions derived from Spanish and Mexican times, as well as from more recent Anglo developments and modernizations.
Yet another divergence was when I taught in the Mormon ranching and logging areas of the Eastern Arizona mountains, or in small towns three hundred miles to the south along the border with Mexico. The diversity of the Flagstaff classroom was not found in these separate locales; the relative homogeneity of perceptions and attitudes, so different from what I was used to on the main campus, did not help me in my effort to extract multicultural perspectives from the students as we studied our arts and cultures subject. This, of course, did not mean that these students were not diverse within their own confines, or that they were any less capable and creative, but rather that their geographic and economic surroundings and essential cohesion put them in a different vantage point.
While these contrasts of ideas added greatly to my teaching experience and were helpful to my growth in awareness about the need to help students examine their own biases as they examined subject matter, and while I could make references from the podium to the diversity of opinions and analyses of topic which occurred elsewhere, my ability to explicate bias diversity to the students was actually just one more dumping of stuff upon them by their teacher. They could intellectualize about multiplicity and diversity, but it was not what they were themselves experiencing. I dearly wished that I could have created and taught a course that would allow us to enter into the vast variety of cultures in Arizona by putting everyone on a bus and using the bus as the classroom, similar to what we did with Semester at Sea. Actually, I offered this concept as a university proposal, discussing it with several people in different administrative positions, but while we all talked about what a great idea it was, it never got off the ground.
Then, along came television, Interactive Television! The tables were turned! Instead of students coming to us as regional individuals who lose their regional discernibility in the "uniformitizing" classroom, and instead of us taking a bus to visit regional sites in successive sequence, a fresh and unconventional perception arose from interactive television and "split" technologies. We could all come together on the screen, meeting each other in a manner that still kept us separate in our distinguishable ways. The huge television screen could be divided into rectangles, each of which held a classroom. At first we had two, then we went to the four or Quad-split, and on to the Nine or Nano-split and who knows how many we may eventually be able to encompass as we go onto wall screens and other new technologies?
In other words, as a result of building our NAUNet microwave circuit from Flagstaff to a hub in Phoenix and then to distant Yuma and back by five hops from tower to tower, we created a situation whereby those students no longer had to come to Flagstaff nor did I have to travel to their classroom. The students could remain where they were, in their local classroom, a short drive from their homes or work, and so could I. As we added other sites to Kingman, a town one hundred fifty miles west of Flagstaff, and to Holbrook, one hundred miles east, we achieved much more than a bigger audience of NAU students for the traditional talking-head teacher to transfer his or her information to. It was an "interactive" technology; we called it Interactive Instructional Television (IITV). It was now possible for us to accommodate many groups of persons who could talk with each other over great distances, contributing in the process their own cultural information, one to another and site to site.
I was both intrigued and challenged by the potential. Teaching as well as taking an IITV course required a different set of skills, starting ideally with the paradigm shift of learning being more central than delivering information. This meant I now had to design a different set of principles upon which to formulate my courses. It meant I had to set aside what I had previously done and come up with consolidating principles which the students could learn and apply them to the information which I previously had lectured about. It meant I had to transfer my course content information to them before class.
Almost instinctively I knew in general what had to be done and how I should do it, but the specifics were less clear and besides, one cannot turn everything over at once. The transformation process took several years and many details had to be worked out. But I kept learning new things by simply doing them, while my wife, Gwendolyn, intrinsically a part of the whole process, helped me to establish, subdivide, construct and then turn into colorful visual form the many classroom principles and tools which came to be the perpetual decor at the front of the classroom. These are described in Chapter A-2.
Much of this formulation took place during 1994 and 1995, after I had spent five years in this new way of helping learners through interaction. Since then we have added more and more classroom sites to NAUNet. We expect to have twenty-seven of these at the end of 1997, and for the Spring 1997 course in Southwest Arts and Culture, we will be linked to fifteen classrooms around the state at the same time: all of them visible by all students at all sites and at all times (the many spirits being willing, of course, and also if debilitating lightning strikes do not disable our towers! -- another subject for a different book).
How does this innovation of fifteen simultaneous classrooms on-line open up new paths to learning? Most states contain ethnic or cultural varieties from French and Spanish to Swedish, Thai, Chinese, and so on with which to enrich learning capabilities. In our large state of Arizona, the fifteen classrooms are spread out from border to border, East and West, North and South. Some are near Mexico, others along the Colorado River, yet others in the high mountains. Some are mining towns, agricultural areas or agrarian, others are retirement havens and resort areas. No two communities in this array have exactly the same cultural, social or economic conditions, while their flora, fauna, weather, access and ethnic concentrations and ratios are just as highly diverse.
This is a genuine bonanza, an Eldorado for a creative teacher! Pick a field -- how about botany? Let us create a botany course using the resources that are located at each of the classroom sites. Yuma is in a xerophytic desert, almost at sea level. There are palm trees and cacti, transplanted eucalyptus and poplars and creosote bushes. Tucson, at two thousand feet is a higher desert, with some similar plants but many others, such as Saguaros, growing at higher elevations. With each ascent from four thousand to seven thousand feet we gain a different assortment of plants and trees. Temperatures drop as altitude increases, making life in mountainous Flagstaff distinctly different than that in near-tropical Yuma or the central desert around Phoenix.
Imagine how a learner-centered teacher can put such botanical diversity to use, so that the students may seek out and learn from resources in their respective communities, serving as teaching aides or helpers by taking photos and bringing them into class to show to other sites on the television's pad camera. They can also bring in botanical or geological examples or historical artifacts to share via TV with all classrooms. These can be compared with those from other places, making direct juxtapositions possible with the technology of split screen viewing. The effects of elevation, rainfall, location, weather, geology and their impact on plant life can all be demonstrated and compared to all classrooms at once.
As a teacher, if you had wanted to offer all this information to all the students before television was available, what would you have had to do? It would require countless miles of travel to all parts of the state, extraordinary amounts of time and money, collecting, research, and recording -- to say nothing of the preservation needed to bring in fresh plants and other botanica for demonstration. Contrast the difference in the professor's conveyance of the information when each piece must be handed around in a class or held up at the front of the room for everyone to see. How much better is the view on a big screen television with zoom lenses and spotlighting; everyone sees the same thing at the same time for as long as is necessary for learning. The subject is up close, easily manipulated, and quickly exchanged for a higher variety or quantity of examples.
Many other subjects can be handled in the same fashion in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and other fields of study, anything where geographical differentiation is significant to the study of the subject. For example, Arizona has twenty-two Indian tribes, one or more of which are near each classroom site. Consider the possibilities for the Anthropologist, the Socio-Linguistics Investigator, the Dance Historian, or the Researcher into Native Wedding Ceremonies or other rites of passage. Consider the cross-field possibility of team-teaching between, for instance, an Archaeo-Astronomer and a Professor of Indian Literature specializing in Sky Myths or Creation Myths. Or comparing and contrasting Native ways of healing, interrelating them with how mainstream medicine believes various maladies should be treated. The possibilities are endless.
For my own venture into this, I plan to create a basic Theme and Variation approach to Arizona Arts and Culture by focusing on four different areas: painting, architecture, museums, and Chambers of Commerce in the fifteen different sites. My job as professor will be to provide some overall views about how the art of painting in its various forms evolved in Arizona over the centuries, with the varying influences from the pre-Conquest era, changes brought in by Spain, adaptations by local artists in regional diversity, the new influences of Mexican nationalism, the arrival of Anglo Romanticism, Naturalism, Realism and Modernism, plus the ethnic revivals, current contemporary styles and other influences of today -- more or less as it would be presented in a textbook.
At the same time, I will ask students at each site to visit local galleries and painters and see what is to be found in their community. The students will take the over-all theme from what I have presented and shown, and then compare and contrast with what they have found in the locales where they have gathered examples. From these interactions, in which we are all fellow-learners (since students will be showing me things I will not have previously known that locals are already well-aware of), there will emerge a rather new vision of the topic, in far greater detail than might be found in a textbook, and of far more profound worth as learning than anything I could do alone.
I plan a similar approach with other topics. In architecture, for instance, it will be possible to compare buildings from all of the historical periods in an overall generalization, while each community will be focused upon one or two periods, which will not be the same as those visible in other locations. Moreover, especially in the days before electricity and air- conditioning, the methods, styles and approaches to architecture took into consideration significant matters of geography, climate, temperatures, rain or the lack of it, and so forth. Actually, we will probably learn more about the land and how people related to it from our architectural study than from painting. This will lead to other conclusions in the course.
Museums, the third area, will take us in another direction, since museums tend to reflect both the general approach to museology of the era and also the specific community image selectivity that the contributors to the museum wish to accentuate. There will be the matters of funding, organization, leadership, decision-making, training for docents, and how the board of directors wants the emphasis to be presented to the public. My job here would be to describe some of the history of museums in formulating the imagery and stereotypy about Indians and the Southwest, the influence of the Smithsonian and its precepts, the rise of emphasis on Pioneers, Ethnic Groups, Economic Developments (such as mining and cattle), as well as the influence of tourism upon the development of parks, national, state, community and private -- to which one must add, Tribal.
Finally, the fourth section, involving Chambers of Commerce and Tourist Bureaus will continue the same pattern, with my emphasis being statewide and reflecting influences from the national and regional pictures. Students, on the other hand, will have direct contact with their local groups and can bring to class brochures and other paraphernalia calculated to attract people to town: where they will eat, sleep, buy things and visit local attractions. This clearly varies from one community to another among the fifteen, as some rely extensively on "snow birds" or winter visitors, others on cross-border traffic with Mexico, also influenced by the dollar-peso exchange rate and the ease or difficulty of getting across, and yet others creating special pageants and shows to attract large numbers. From the Indian perspective, in many towns Tribal Gaming Casinos are a provocative and competitive feature, considered by non-Indians to be taking money away from them.
There should be plenty to discuss and learn from each other, but the most important aspect I am seeking is how the total cooperation between teacher and students is going to work as I travel to each site for a week in order that all students will have equal access to me, and so that I can be on hand for their questions in formulating the research design and follow-up, as well as advising on their assignments. I am also looking forward to the use of our cameras in ways that will let us know through juxtaposition on the screen just where each group of people is located and what their surroundings are. All we have to do is train our cameras out the window of the classroom to be able to contrast the several inches of snow in Flagstaff with the orange and yellow citrus on the trees in Yuma! With all the other sites in-between it should be an interesting application of our new tool of electronic wizardry, Interactive Instructional Television.