WILLA v11 - In The Classroom - The English Teacher and Technology: Friends or Foes?

Volume 11
Fall 2002

The English Teacher and Technology:
Friends or Foes?

Hilve Firek
University of Montana

This past March, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague at the spring conference of the NCTE. Many English teachers, my friend said, consider computers in the classroom to be a kind of cultural imperialism imposed on the humanities by people in science and math." Intrigued by her comment, I asked her to explain. "They threaten our humanity," she said. "Computers move our focus away from the human condition. They distract us from what is really important."

My colleague echoed a sentiment I have heard time and again from English teachers. When it comes to computers, it's person versus machine. Technology in the classroom is just the first step on a slippery slope toward a new-school order, an order bent on producing legions of automatons. For many of us, computers are the quintessential symbol of a world spiraling out of control. We teachers of the humanities look in trepidation at schools controlled by corporate mission statements, not great ideas-at schools dominated by the thoughts of Cisco and Microsoft, not Shakespeare and Dickinson. We fear the ascendancy of the computer as surely as Sarah Conner feared the inevitable war with machines in the Terminator movies.

To Entice the English Teacher, Focus on the Learning

Technologists who wish to successfully integrate computers into liberal arts curricula need to acknowledge-and assuage-the very real fears of English teachers. To do that, they need to understand what makes us tick. For example, we are not likely to be seduced by the bells and whistles that typically make gadget geeks drool. We don't want to see all the things that can be done; convince us that they should be done. Convince us that computers can positively impact teaching and learning. Give us good answers when we ask "why?" Don't just go on and on about how cool it is that kids can manipulate shapes with a software program. They can do that in the three-dimensional world with blocks. Don't extol the unimaginable wonders of the Internet if all you want students to do is read text on a screen.

Most English teachers I know want students to be much more than passive recipients of information. If you can convince us that technology can offer young people an option, another way of knowing, then you've captured our attention. Show us how computers might engage the sullen young woman with purple hair sitting in the back row. Show us how they might enrich the learning of the gifted but bored student asleep at his desk.

One Model that Works: Montana TALES

When asked how technology can improve the classroom, many techno-nerds point to the ability of the computer to make the universe smaller. Schoolchildren in Hawaii can chat with their counterparts in Taiwan, astronauts can send data from the space shuttle to elementary-school students, and mountain climbers can post up-to-the- minute journal entries from the highest peaks.

But Montana TALES (Technology and Learning in Every School) is one technology project that hopes to make the world a bit smaller, to reconnect students to their communities, to a sense of place. The purpose of TALES is to encourage students to share stories, to discover more about themselves and about their communities. If this reminds you of the Georgia Foxfire projects, you're not alone. The difference? Students in Montana TALES share their stories digitally.

According to David Erickson, Director of Professional Development for TALES, students in Montana classrooms from kindergarten through grade 12 use digital cameras and camcorders to capture stories in images. They then use computers and software programs such as iMovie and Premiere to polish their stories, to edit images together, and to add titles and music. In addition to working with high--tech equipment, students must decide upon and plan their stories. They interview family and friends, create storyboards and flowcharts, and communicate, in words, their stories.

The model begins with the personal tale, a story unique to each child. For many, this is an account of a memorable Christmas morning or the day they finally got their driver's license. In essence, the personal tale is designed to connect the students to the storytelling process as well as to familiarize them with the equipment being used.

Following the personal tale, students create a group tale, a story with a shared theme. In struggling to devise a group tale, students discover connections with one another; they learn to recognize the elements of life that they all have in common. Students come to understand that they all share feelings of joy and frustration, of happiness and sorrow. In other words, they begin to understand what it is to be human.

Finally, students work together--across grades and disciplines--to research and create a Montana tale. Just as the Foxfire stories reflected the communities of the Appalachians, so too do these stories reflect lives unique to the northern Rockies. Some tales tell about rugged homesteading great-grandparents; others explain how to built a log cabin or how to hunt for elk. Still others share what it means to be Crow or Blackfoot in today's America.

Montana TALES is the kind of technology project English teachers can embrace. After all, the value of sharing stories is something we know and understand. Furthermore, the incorporation of still and moving images allows us to teach visual literacy: Students learn how words and images combine to generate meaning. Most importantly, emphasis is on active learning, not on technology. Computers are simply the tools students use to construct their own knowledge; technology is not the goal in and of itself.

Moreover, students who participate in TALES build an important connection to their communities, a connection that is once again at the forefront of educational conversations. For example, in the April 2002 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, Gregory Smith writes that place-based education "can adapt to the unique characteristics of particular places, and in this way it can overcome the disjuncture between school and children's lives that is found in too many classrooms" (2002, p. 593). In other words, each individual community becomes a unique program of study. As much as politicians, textbook publishers, and test-makers would like to standardize learning, advocates of place-based education recognize that young people in Arlee, Montana have experiences different from those in Helena or Billings. Place-based education, as exemplified by Montana TALES, helps students value their own experiences.

WebQuests: Another Model That Works

Many who support technology in education point to the wealth of resources available on the Internet. Students are no longer limited to the 15 year-old encyclopedias in under-funded school libraries. Curious young people can search the World Wide Web and quickly find the answers to all their questions. Of course, English teachers know the problems with such grandiose declarations. At its most harmless, the Internet is full of inaccurate information. At its most dangerous, it is full of hate-spewing rhetoric and pornographic trash.

Enter the WebQuest. According to one of the original developers of WebQuests, Bernie Dodge, a "WebQuest is an inquiry-oriented activity in which some or all of the information that learners interact with comes from resources on the Internet." (1997, 1 2). Needless to say, the words "inquiry oriented" are certainly more likely to catch the attention of English teachers than usual geek--speak like 2GHz with large 512KB L2 cache. In essence, WebQuests are projects designed to engage students in a learning goal by guiding them to pre-approved sites on the Internet, steering them through tasks, and challenging them to work collaboratively.

According to Dodge, good WebQuests consist of the following:

  1. An introduction that sets the stage and provides some background information.
  2. A task that is doable and interesting.
  3. A set of information sources needed to complete the task. Many (though not necessarily all) of the resources are embedded in the WebQuest document itself as anchors pointing to information on the World Wide Web
  4. A description of the progress the learners should go through in accomplishing the task. The process should be broken out into clearly described steps.
  5. Some guidance on how to organize the information acquired.
  6. A conclusion that brings closure to the quest, reminds the learners about what they've learned, and perhaps encourages them to extend the experience into other domains (1997).

WebQuest projects require learners to employ technology, but again, the technology is not the ultimate goal. Rather, WebQuests serve to complement the learning that already takes place in the classroom. For example, students studying The Diary of a Young Girl can log on to an Anne Frank WebQuest that takes them on a time-travel journey into the past. As they progress through the Quest, students record their thoughts, read first person accounts of the Holocaust, and capture images from the Net. When they finish gathering information, they compile their findings in an article for a classroom magazine.

English Teachers and Technology: Obstacles Still Exist

Teachers of the language arts may be enticed by the possibilities of projects like Montana TALES and WebQuests, but obstacles to the regular use of computers in the classroom still exist. For example, reports indicate that technology is, even now, a field dominated by men. One recent study at a San Francisco area high school indicated that the vast majority of the school's so-called "tech gods" were male (peck, 2002, p. 476). The continuing gender gap in technology might reflect what a report commissioned by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) calls the "tooVtoy divide" (2000, p. 9). According to Tech Savvy: Educating Girls in the New Computer Age:

girls approach the computer as a 'tool' useful primarily for what it can do; boys more often view the computer as a 'toy' and/or an extension of the self …for boys, the computer is inherently interesting. Girls are interested in its instrumental possibilities …(p. 9).

The same report indicates that the number of girls enrolled in computer classes in high school has actually fallen since the mid-90s, and that each year the proportion of women receiving bachelor's degrees increases in all disciplines except computer science.

Is it any wonder, then, that many English teachers feel that those in science and math--traditionally male fields--are thrusting computers upon us? The perception still exists that computers are a man's game-like rugby, or tinkering with a car's engine, or obsessing over the latest riding mower.

Another obstacle to integrating computers into the language-arts classroom is the never-ending debate on standards. The powers-on-high declare that everyone needs to know computers. But what exactly is it that everyone should know? Many of today's software programs and much of the hardware will be obsolete next year. And who knows what the next decade will bring? Which begs another question: Who is going to pay to upgrade all this stuff year after year? Money, as always, may be the biggest obstacle to true technology integration in the schools.

Technology in the English Classroom: It Can Work

Projects like Montana TALES and WebQuests show that technology can indeed help engage learners in the language arts. Students who would never pick up a ballpoint pen and write a short story might be tempted to write a storyboard for a digital video. Similarly, students who shun a traditional research assignment might click their way to learning via the Internet. In essence, computers are not the panacea many technotopians would have us believe. Rather, technology is one of many tools in a good teacher's toolkit. It offers options, valuable options, but not hard-and-fast answers.

We English teachers who fear the cultural imperialism of computers need to involve ourselves in their implementation in the classroom. We need to make sure that technology committees include representatives from the humanities. And we need to question the assumptions that often accompany the rush to spend countless dollars on machinery at the expense of everything else.

Montana TALES and similar projects may go a long way toward enticing English teachers to actually use computers in their classrooms. But gadget geeks need to remember one important rule if they want to sell us on the benefits of technology: Emphasize the learning, not the machines.


American Association of University Women. (2000). Tech savvy: Educating girls in the new computer age. Washington, DC: AAUW Educational Foundation.

Dodge, B. (1997, May 5). Some thoughts about WebQuests. Retrieved May 12,2002, from http://edweb.sdsu.edu/ courses/edtec596/about webquests.html

Peck, C., Cuban, L., & Kirkpatrick, H. (2002). Techno--promoter dreams, student realities. Phi Delta Kappan, 83 (6), 472-480.

Smith, G. (2002). Place-based education: Learning to be where we are. Phi Delta Kappan, 83 (8), 584-594.

Reference Citation: Firek, Hilve. (2002) "The English Teacher and Technology: Friends or Foes? WILLA, Volume 11, p. 30-32.

by Radiya Rashid