Just Because It’s Efficient Doesn’t Mean It’s Effective

An adulterer, I told my students the other day, is simply a person who commits adultery. The word provides a description of a person who performs a particular act but it does not imply, state, or define a value.

We were discussing Kate Chopin’s “The Storm,” a short story in which Calixta has a brief sexual encounter with Alcee. The storm of the title works as a metaphor for their hot, torrid moment of passion, an event that offers Calixta her “birthrite.” She and Alcee are happily married both before the affair and after. In fact, her husband Bobinot and her son are riding out the storm at the local store where he has bought her a can of shrimps. She loves her husband, her son, and the gift Alcee has given her in equal measure it seems.

She is, we all agreed, an adulterer. As with most great writers, though, Chopin asks us to read carefully and consider the circumstances before we pass moral or ethical judgement. In other words, like most great literature, we have to recognize that morality and ethics are social constructs that we impose on language, actions, and people. Adultery, then, is only good or bad after we make a judgement and we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of treating things as absolutes simply because they exist. We might still feel compelled to condemn her act as immoral, I told my students, but we also must recognize that her adultery provides her with something that her marriage can’t. Her husband brings her a can of shrimp; Alcee gives her her birth rite. I love shrimp as much as the next person, but I think there’s a pretty clear difference in the two gifts. Language and meaning, Chopin reminds us, is a little more complex than simply parroting age old morality.

Thou shalt not kill, for instance. Unless it’s in the name of country. Unless someone is attacking your family. Unless you need food. Like adultery, the morality and ethics of killing is determined in the historical and contextual moment. The rightness or wrongness of a term, in essence, exists independently of the term itself. You might, I tell my students, still decide that Calixta is an unrepentant whore who will burn in hell, but you aren’t going to do so by being intellectually lazy and disregarding all the information leading up to the act itself.

I fear, much like my students who assume Calixta is evil simply because she commits adultery, that educationally we are consistently making the reverse mistake when it comes to technology. We create wired classes, fill back packs with laptops and IPads, push students into online environments, and imagine a day when massive open online classes provide access to all.

We do this because we have somehow decided that technology is good because it makes us more efficient. Access to information has become equated with understanding.

Yet, we don’t really know if any of these formats, bells and whistles, or pedagogical approaches actually help students learn or even if they make us more efficient. Matt Richtel, in his 2011 New York Times article, noted that “schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.” M.O. Thirunarayanan goes even further, arguing that using “untested technological tools in classrooms is unethical” (firewalled unfortunately). Larry Cuban agrees that the use of untested technology is unwise, although he rejects the idea that these approaches are unethical, noting that most new teaching tools throughout history were untested before they went into the classroom. Buying and “deploying new technologies . . . .without capturing the complexity of the many factors determining academic achievement may be myopic,” he concedes.

Even so, we press on because, ostensibly, we have begun automatically tying values to terms without, as Cuban writes, “capturing the complexity” of the problem.

Understand that I’m no luddite. I enjoy and appreciate carrying around my smart phone. I have almost 3,000 songs on an sd card smaller than my pinkie fingernail, and I can access the Oxford English Dictionary 24 hours a day virtually anywhere in the world. I enjoy writing on a computer, watching tv on my 36 inch tv, and binge viewing shows streamed via Netflix. I also like indoor toilets, central air and heat, and escalators.

But I’m also pretty sure none of those things have actually made me better at much of anything. Sure, having an indoor toilet keeps my backside warm on a cold night when nature calls, but I’m not any better at expelling waste than I would be without one. Likewise, having a computer has allowed me to produce and share more writing, but there is no real evidence that the computer has actually made me a better writer. I can just produce more bad writing quicker.

I can say that my students are not better writers today than they were 17 years ago before they had computer access 24/7. My best writers are still really good, and my worst writers are still incomprehensible. I refuse to speculate on the impact of indoor toilets on their defecation.

In much the same way, we might note that technology can change the way we approach information, but there is not really any evidence that technology is actually helping us improve the way we learn or teach. I’m currently in a smart room. I’ve got projectors, computers, blue tooth, and all the stereo system I ever need. Hell, if they had red teeth and yellow teeth technology, we’d probably have those in the classroom also. None of those things helped us discuss Calixta’s adultery.

If a professor has a power point slide projected wirelessly from his IPad but no one learns is he actually teaching?

Certainly, we have created an efficient way to send information out into the world but we probably need to stop imagining that efficiency and effectiveness are the same thing. Technology is really just a tool. Let’s try and avoid giving it meaning before we’ve established it’s value.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Just Because It’s Efficient Doesn’t Mean It’s Effective

  1. John Wegner says:

    Suzanne,

    Thank you for the comment and thank you for reading. As you note, “investing in the subject” (nicely put) is so very important and really doesn’t require more than a desire to learn.

  2. Suzanne says:

    Thank you; well said. Teaching (by the teacher) and investing in the subject (on the part of the student) are still required, whether we’re using ‘analog’ books and papers, or blackboards, or something more ’21st century.’

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