Should we be using EdTech surveillance tools because of the pandemic?

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When we made the switch to online because of the pandemic, I imagine we all were asking ourselves: “How can students learn under these circumstances, and how can I possibly teach well?” Now that we’ve adjusted somewhat, I think now is the time for us to consider another consequential question: Which technological tools might be harming the educational environment of our virtual classroom?” In particular, is it a good idea to implement automated electronic surveillance of our students in this time of crisis?

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Efficient teaching: how to use the course management system

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A wise friend of mine once advised me: the most valuable resource is our own time.

Consequently, I have emphasized efficient teaching tactics. Efficient teaching is effective teaching that doesn’t take a lot of your time. There are many routes to being an effective teacher, and some of them require far more time than others.

Many have advocated using web-based course platforms to increase teaching efficiency.

I’ve been a user of Blackboard, Moodle, and WebCT, with varying levels of experience. These are course management systems (CMS). A CMS can be mighty powerful once you’ve learned how to use one. All kinds of activities in your class can be conducted smoothly within the CMS. Some folks call them the LMS, with the L standing for learning. (I’m not going to imply that by managing a course online, I’m actually managing learning, so I’ll stick with CMS.)

If I were asked for advice how about how to use the CMS efficiently, what would I say?

Ditch the CMS.

I wouldn’t be equipped to recommend otherwise, because I have no idea how to use the CMS efficiently. If you’re not running an online course, then I don’t see why you’d need to a CMS unless you’re looking to lose time and make yourself miserable.

If you really learn how to use a CMS, by making an investment, then it can pay off. If you’re not ready to make that investment, don’t feel bad about it. If you’re using a CMS, and it seems like a time sink, don’t feel bad about dropping it.

I’ve seen others use the CMS effectively and have it an immersive part of their course.  I’ve worked closely with a high school science teacher who runs a paperless classroom, with absolutely everything on Moodle. He puts up reading, assignments, quizzes, exams, and avenues for student-student interactions. That’s exceptional, meaning that it is an exception. He put a lot of front-end investment into this system, and it only started paying off because he is teaching the same curriculum, with little change, over several years. That’s wonderful, and it’s a great experience for his students as a part of building technological literacy.

I haven’t dedicated that kind of time to make the CMS work. I haven’t identified a specific benefit that I would obtain from doing so. I can teach my courses efficiently without having to use the CMS, so that’s what I’m doing. Would my teaching be more effective with the CMS? Perhaps. I’m not sure. It wouldn’t be more efficient, at least without a big front-end investment that I’ve yet to make.

Some students love the CMS; some are as annoyed by it as I am. Some people simultaneously love it and are annoyed by it, like they feel about some family members. We can’t choose our family, but we can choose against the CMS.

The main reason that students love the CMS, from what I have gathered, is that they can access their grades quickly, they know their grade in the class at any given moment, and have quick access to the files for their lectures. The CMS gives them a feeling of control over the course. They can log in at any moment and have the resources of the course at their fingertips.

From my viewpoint, those reasons are not connected to effective teaching, and may even hinder teaching effectiveness. The CMS might help students overemphasize grades over genuine learning, and memorization over exploration and deep understanding, depending of course on how you use the CMS. Whenever a student asks me to use the CMS for the course, it’s because they want a digital copy of a presentation I did in class, or because they want their grade more quickly. Those, in my view, are horrible reasons to use the CMS.

A number of faculty in my department have been using the CMS to connect clickers to grades for the course. It works for them. The clicker/CMS combo can be used to take attendance, spot quizzes, and even entire exams. That’s not a bad selling point. If you’re teaching a particularly large class, then the CMS/clicker combo can help with classroom management. However, if you’re only using clickers for immediate pop questions (“formative assessment” as they say), then you don’t need the CMS, unless these questions have grades connected to them. I have noticed that faculty members that are heavy CMS also spend a lot of time on teaching outside of the classroom. I don’t know where the threshold lies that CMS use saves time rather than costs time. For me, I suspect, I’d never hit that threshold no matter how much I teach or how big my classes are.

Another reason that I forgo the CMS is that it increases student expectations of constant availability, and for you to provide information more promptly than should be reasonably expected.

I tell my students that I’ll get back to them within a business day after they contact me. My response time is typically is far more rapid, but I don’t want my students to build the expectation that I am at their beckoning.

I want my students to think that business is conducted during class hours and office hours. Why do I want this? First of all, I think it’s healthy for the students to be able to rely on themselves to work on the course material. I am not focused on customer service, I’m focused on learning. Learning inherently requires some struggle with content, and I want my students to struggle so that way they can learn. If I clearly explain to students, during class hours, exactly how I expect them to struggle with the class material, then we can update their progress in class and office hours.

Having students expect things of me beyond class time and office hours is horrible for my own time management. If I’m teaching multiple courses simultaneously, I need to be able to put my work on those courses on my calendar, and not work on those courses when time isn’t budgeted.

It’s harder to compartmentalize your work on your course when you use the CMS, because the expectation of the students with a CMS-heavy course is the same way that other social media are used, opportunistically and frequently. Just because other parts of our lives are replete with social media, we don’t need to mimic this pattern with university coursework. There is a social burden for all of us, including our students, to frequently access information online. Do you want be a part of the problem or be a part of the solution?

In short: If the CMS works for you, great! If not, don’t feel guilty about it.

The CMS should be used to find solutions to problems in your teaching that increase efficiency. If you don’t foresee that the CMS will help accomplish this goal, don’t feel bad about not trying. If it feels like it’s not working for you, don’t feel bad about not giving it up. If it is working for you, before you recommend it for others, be sure that you have a specific and useful reason for your recommendation that is directly relevant to your colleague’s situation.

Before you pigeonhole me as a latter-day-Luddite, keep in mind that for the last year, I’ve been the “Digital Ambassador” from the Chancellor’s office to my university, tasked with promoting the use of technology to improve teaching effectiveness. (I haven’t been an effective ambassador, but I clearly am interested in integrating new and useful technology into teaching.) So, I am entirely open to using technology in the classroom. I’d like to emphasize that I’ve been an ambassador for technology in the classroom. I don’t want to extend it far beyond the classroom. Outside the classroom, I want students to engage with nature, with books, and with one another. There are some great tech tools out there that make teaching better. Is the CMS one of those tools? Not in my, albeit limited, experience.