The Teacher as Student: What my Students Teach me about Technology and Digital Media in the Classroom

Sarah Liberatore, Northern Virginia Community College

I remember well my first day as an adjunct at Northern Virginia Community College in 2007.  Although I had been teaching off and on for a number of years, teaching was my “fun” job, a change from my full-time position at Christie’s Auctioneers where I was a regional representative in the Washington, DC office.  I walked into the then slide library, as it was called, saw the light table, slide projectors, stacks of slides (many of which had gone red over time) and groaned – this was still how art history was taught?  Needless to say, those days are long behind me – the slide library is no more, and my “fun” job is now my full-time career.  I have learned a lot in the past five years about the benefits and challenges of technology and digital media in the classroom and am still learning more and more, whether from my students or my 10 year old son.

When I first began writing this paper, my initial intent was to focus on what students have taught me about what they have found useful on the internet, technological tools, etc.  and indeed that is my prime focus; however, I also want to share my concerns about what students don’t know.  While our goal as college and university instructors may be to increase technology use in the classroom, what happens to students who are at a technological disadvantage?  What about students who don’t have Internet access at home, who don’t know how to create a PowerPoint or other presentation tool?  What about students who don’t know how to do basic research and assume that all websites and YouTube videos offer good and legitimate information?  Technology and on-line tools bring great benefits and potential problems to the classroom.  Nonetheless, the pros far outweigh the cons.

I teach for the largest community college in Virginia.  I am the only full-time art historian at the Alexandria campus teaching five classes a semester to a total of about 150 students.  We also employ 4-5 adjuncts each semester.  At the community college level, the vast majority of students need a fine arts credit to transfer, so most of our classes are art history surveys.  Our campus is extremely diverse – in a typical class I have students from 10-12 different countries (primarily African, Hispanic and Asian), many on student VISAs or immigrant status; the majority of my students receive financial aid and work outside the home to support themselves, and often their families.  This is a very different demographic from our other four campuses in Northern Virginia.

I won’t lie – I am not the most technologically savvy person.  I have learned, through trial and error, many things on my own but still have a lot to learn. I learn what I need to know and try to keep up with the latest innovations for the classroom and Blackboard.   I still write notes down on a pad of paper and use a desk calendar (call me old fashioned) but realized long ago that to keep up with my students (and to keep them engaged in the classroom), I must embrace technology or fall behind.   In the process, the teacher has become the student.

I recall painfully my first semester as a full-time instructor – I would often rely on students to help me enlarge an image on the screen, figure out how to “un-freeze” the computer, and fix the overhead projector.  What must they think of me?  I quickly let my ego go and started to watch the students, and I learned from them and listened to them: I learned how to enlarge an image, I figured out how to fix my computer when frozen, and learned not only how to operate the overhead projector, and my beloved Smartboard, but learned how to embed videos, put external links, documents and assignments on my Blackboard site and eliminate paper hand-outs entirely; I learned about discussion boards, and blogs, Prezi and Panapto and the list goes on and is still growing……and now the teacher impresses her students (sometimes).

About two years ago, I began requiring my students in both Art 101 and Art 102 to teach on a work of art, architecture, method, medium, or historic period, etc. to their fellow students.  I wanted to create an assignment that allowed students some creative license and the ability to show their skills and knowledge apart from the typical classroom experience (the era of shutting off the lights and talking at students is long gone).  The assignment requires students to choose from a list of topics I provide them, with specific dates they will present that coincide with the classroom meetings.  The student may use notes and should plan a 3-5 minute presentation that must include visuals; they are allowed to use YouTube clips (or other web sources) but the clip may not teach for them.

From its inception, student teaching has brought me wonderful on-line sources that I would otherwise not have had the time to find.  Often, the students’ information becomes part of future lectures; the most useful information comes in the form of YouTube videos and websites that provide three-dimensional recreations of architectural structures or sites.

Student teaching has also allowed me to rethink the way I teach.  One former student was to teach on the Nike of Samothrace; he found a video of a tourist walking through the Louvre, approaching and going around the sculpture.  He turned down the audio and spoke about the sculpture as the video played.  Brilliant!  I now use similar videos that do the same thing – walking through the Temple of Amen-Re at Karnak, the Lion’s Gate at Mycenae, the interior of the Treasury of Atreus, the Sistine Chapel, Stanza della Segnatura, the Pantheon and the list goes on– how much more meaningful than stagnant viewing of slides!

Sometimes what I learn from my students comes after a class – something I talk about recalls something they have seen on the web or read in a blog.  After talking about the Bayeux tapestry, a student came up to me after class and mentioned that she had also learned about the tapestry in her Western Civ class; her professor had shown a video which they all loved.  Of course, I immediately viewed it, and now use it every semester.  Likewise, another student, after our in-class discussion of Lascaux’s cave paintings, did some of his own research and came across the Lascaux website which recreates the caves in a 3-D animation.  Now when I teach Prehistoric art, I go to the site, turn down the music, and lecture as the video walks us through the cave.

Integrating videos and websites into the classroom and having students teach one another has created largely positive (and fun) results – not only does it break up the monotony of a lecture but keeps the students awake, engaged, and off their laptops and phones!  Of course, I have also learned that there is a lot of junk in cyberspace and that some students don’t separate the wheat from the chaff but assume everything they read or view is the truth – It’s on the web right?  This has allowed some discussions in class, and clarification, regarding research off the web; ultimately, lousy and misleading websites and on-line information becomes an in-class lesson on how to critically view websites and videos and not accept information at the surface.  I’ll save my “but the aliens built everything” story for another time…

Although seemingly outside the realm of art history, one thing I find extremely helpful, particularly for my Art 101 classes, are videos that link the ancient world to the present day.  For example, I found a video which shows a group of Spanish men (Recortadores) who engage in bull-leaping – it has become a regular clip I show when I teach the Minoan bull-leaping fresco.  Likewise, before I begin teaching on Egyptian tomb art and the pyramids, I show small segments of a film that shows an Egyptologist and physician mummify a body donor – it is not gory but expertly explains to the students the importance of preservation of the body, the concept of the ka, and provides a logical link to discussions about why and how tombs were built to do this.

Is a virtual experience, the only effective one in the classroom?   One student, who was home schooled and not allowed to access the internet, got around this problem by doing a “show and tell.”  Since her choice of topics was limited by her family’s religious and personal beliefs, she wisely chose a topic related to icons, so as a Byzantine Catholic, brought in many examples from home. Some students want to show real-life examples vs. a virtual experience; I have had students share/show their skills making Japanese prints, engravings, painting techniques, and a 3-D model of a barrel vault.  Two of my favorite “show and tell lessons,” – one student built a model of Mt. Vesuvius (the presenter did show images of her trip to Pompeii while her volcano erupted); the other student recreated the Dionysiac mystery frieze on the wall outside the classroom via a huge printed image. While these might seem to some high school projects, these students showed initiative and creativity and in the process brought the virtual world to reality.

While the use of technology in the classroom has many benefits, what is the downside?  Surprising to me, I have noticed an increase in the number of students who do not know how to use PowerPoint, or other presentation tools, yet others can seamlessly and easily create presentations that provide links and impressive graphics. While small minorities, some of my students do not have regular access to computers at home; for others, they are recent immigrants and completely computer illiterate.  Will they be left behind due to their economic constraints?  Will they be able to succeed at a university if not technologically equipped?  Of course not.   Obviously, this is a concern at all levels of education as even grade schools and high schools increasingly use on-line books and technological tools, and although a much larger issue than I can tackle here, deserves careful consideration at all institutes of higher education.

While I fully embrace and welcome technology and digital media in the classroom, it is a careful balance to not become a “dog and pony show,” to seemingly dumb-down material in an effort to engage the students.  Fortunately, there are so many good choices out there – from Smarthistory, YouTube, evideos, publisher’s websites, and museum sites, there are a multitude of options to enliven your lectures, to bring you into the 21st century, to meet your students where they are.

Slides are long gone, projectors are relics of the past, and PowerPoint will be disappearing soon.  It is time to re-envision our classes, to recognize how students learn best, to re-think our roles as educators who no longer stand behind a podium but instead become educators who think more like students.


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