Link to Birdie Calendar Reconnecting Technology to Theory and Policy

Dear Habermas Logo and Link to Site Index A Jeanne Site

Reconnecting Technology Appel's Kandinsky Figurine and Link to Home

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: July 17, 2000
E-Mail Faculty on the Site.

To Theory and Policy:
A Postmodern Perspective of the New Technology

Paper submitted for ASA National Meetings in 2000.
by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: December 1999. "Fair Use" encouraged.

Most technology sections and articles focus on technical knowledge of hardware and software. We have come at technology issues from the perspective of scholars forced to cope with increasing class sizes, exploding information, new access to information that leads more easily to the ambiguous use of others' work, and a formative ethics that does not speak directly to these issues as they emerge. In addition, we have a somewhat personal interest in our own academic careers and how these emerging issues affect our ability to maintain a research ethnic at a state university. This paper reports the results of efforts in six classes at two state universities.

Increased Class Sizes and Writing

Ordinary classes for us are just now hitting 60 students. A couple of years ago, one state university president announced that in a class of 60 students there was no way that we could use written essays as measurement of learning. We beg to differ. There may not be a viable way to use written essays as we used to, but there are new ways of incorporating technology that go beyond scantron.

We have attempted to incorporate some of the latest theory on discourse into the classroom environment. To the extent that we are able to involve students in discourse, we can incorporate articulating information in one's own words into our measurements of learning. This paper reports the results of efforts to effectively incorporate writing through the use of new technology.

As Falzon reports in Foucault and Social Dialogue, (Routledge, 1998), there has been a tendency to develop theory in adversarial terms: metanarratives versus fragmentation, absolutism versus relativism, modernism versus postmodernism. In the real world in which we live and work, these adversarial debates have colored the choices we and our institutions have made. Thus, many of us accepted the pronouncement that mechanized grading was the only choice available to us as class sizes grew to 60, and as it became clear that student assistants to grade essays were not part of the deal.

In part, the move to scantron was easy. Large classes were a new phenomenon a decade ago, and we needed new ways to cope with the heavier workload. For many of us, for whom second and third tier schools were the only choice, concern for professional careers, dominated by publication, grew along with the student population. At national ASA meetings, Stanford professors complained that "seed money" was no longer adequate on top-ranked campuses. State universities opened research and funding offices; grant competition grew in intensity. So computer services personnel who offered computer printouts on tests that were soon supplied by publishers, promised one plausible solution to time and work overload.

But there were a few of us, with senior faculty status, who were not content to mechanize learning. Multiple choice tests are one valid measure of learning, but only one. Learning and the critical assimilation of that learning into our general knowledge base are complex. Intrigued by postmodernism's critique of the totalizing metanarratives which seemed to place liberal arts learning well within time-honored parameters of measurement, like essay tests and now, scantrons, we undertook to find alternative perspectives of learning that fit better with the compressed time our present students report coping with.

Student evaluations repeatedly stress a post-baccalureate understanding of the importance of the writing that most of our students didn't do at the undergraduate level. Teacher after teacher has been told: "I wish you'd made me write more." Well, yes. But without student assistance in grading essay exams, 60 essay tests represent a daunting effort. We know. We tried. The burden was intolerable. Work expanded to 60 hour weeks. Our spouses threatened retaliation. And our students, those very same students who recognized its importance after graduation, complained of the intolerable burden of writing.

60 times 3 or 4 essays is just too much to read and provide meaningful commentary for. Our president was right about that. But was that the only alternative? What did we really want to measure?

This was not an "aha" experience. We did not suddenly discover "a way" to measure learning and get students to write. What works for one student does not for another. They really are unique people. But we think our recognition of that is probably a good thing.

Solutions did not leap out from our data. We had to listen carefully to everything students said, and sometimes not be able to make sense of it for a couple of years, until another student came along, and we recognized the similarity and the pattern. For this reason, we are fairly certain that what we describe here is not a typology of possible approaches, but an indication of how possible approaches might be discovered. Since collaborative efforts became so important to us, we suspect that the teacher's subjectivity enters strongly into the equation. Other teachers might find very different patterns as they interact in discourse with students.

Exploding Information

Life in the fast track is faster. Students today have more commitments, more information to assimilate, more competitive pressure, higher parental expectations. While many of us considered three hours of study time in a quiet place essential to competent performance in the classroom, many of today's students never see three uninterrrupted hours of study time. (Playing with Habermas)

Instead of insisting that our context was academically superior, we need to investigate the possibilities offered by new technology. This paper presents some examples of efforts we have made to provide an effective overview in minimal time, with easily navigable extensions of material on site, as well as in hardcopy texts.

New Access to Information

Having so much material so readily accessible on the Net leads more easily to the ambiguous use of others' work. The Net encouraged collaborative sharing in its early days. Now the ugly dragon of intellectual property has reared its head, and created many dilemmas for students who are new to the technology as well as the information.

This paper reviews efforts we have incorporated in our classes to help students discern qulaity material, and to effectively expand their access. We present site data for six classes in Sociology and Criminal Justice.

A Formative Ethics

Old concepts of plagiarism can be easily lost in the confusion of learning to communicate with the new technology. Our ethics do speak directly to these issues as they emerge. Students understand that they cannot simply take someone else's work as their own. But what about a discussion carried own over successive e-mails, in which the teacher and the student both contribute ideas? Whose work is it now? In presentations that we prepared for annual meetings of a professional association, our students actually asked about plagiarism. They wanted assurances that collaborative work was not plagiarized work, and it was their teachers they were working with!

This paper will present examples of such collaborative work.

Professional Publications Concerns to Fit New Context

The effort to include our students collaboratively in our work bespeaks a good thing. The best of schools make such an effort to prepare future scholars. And yet that takes from time that might be given to individual and competitive scholarly work. We suggest in this paper that such concern is misplaced, and that instead we should make serious efforts as a discipline to recognize professionally the kind of collaboration we have found to be of such inspiration to our students.