Liberal Arts in the Digital Age: Teaching Technology as a Language

Technology is playing an increasingly significant role in modern education. From iPads to audio recorders, Smart Classrooms to online courses, new tools find their way into students' and educators' hands every day. But many teachers seem hesitant to embrace all this rapidly emerging technology. Technology is a necessary evil, a tool that changes but does not necessarily facilitate methods of teaching. You learn the bare minimum needed to use a program and teach students the same.

Granted, I've been in college just long enough that teachers' inclinations may have changed considerably since my time in primary or secondary school. But I can speak to my recent experience at a liberal arts college, and if I had a dollar for every time I heard a professor allege their indifference to, hatred for, ineptitude with, or general lack of knowledge about technology, I could probably pay for another year of school.

This sort of attitude about technology in education is a missed opportunity in the making. I see huge potential in the "intersection of technology and liberal arts," to lift a phrase from Steve Jobs. Understanding how to take advantage of the capacity of iPad apps, how to use audio recording devices and Audacity, how to export and upload files online, or exploring programming software like Processing -- these skills are utterly valuable. Sure, they up a student's job marketability, but far more importantly, they create opportunity for creativity. They expand students' options for expressing their work and push them to rethink and challenge the 'natural' standards for collecting, communicating and sharing knowledge. As my colleague and friend Rachel Alexander has written, this is a key part of the liberal arts experience.

But in the liberal arts environment, who is going to teach this technology to the teachers? Who, in turn, will share technology with the students? And how? With respect to the first two questions, I'm not sure yet that I have a good answer. To the latter question -- the first step is to reframe our relationship to technology. For both students and educators, technology should not be just a means to an end. Too often technology is just that unfortunate hurdle that must be managed. Too little time and energy is devoted to considering the purpose, value and function of technology. It's not just about bumbling your way through using technology -- it's also about this process of learning it and becoming comfortable with it.

I propose that educators approach teaching technology as they do teaching language. The vast vocabulary of computers, software and devices, is, in many ways, a foreign language -- that much I'm sure most professors would agree. But beyond that, there is a grammar to programming code, a certain idiomatic style to the menus and toolbars of software. Establishing fluency takes time and dedication, but is incredibly rewarding. We need full-time teachers of tech, just like language instructors, to encourage students to find their own voice, to occasionally translate, to serve as intermediaries committed to guiding students as they study the relationship between the oft-confusing world of technical terminology and the English language.

Reframing technological skill as linguistic ability is a process I often think about because I work in a student lab on my small, residential campus, called the Multimedia Development Lab, where I serve as a consultant for design, print and film projects. The lab has great potential, but is woefully underutilized, although the few other students who do come in for help often ask me how I've learned what I know, hoping to find a way that they can learn it, too. Unfortunately, for many students, that answer is rather unsatisfying -- most of what I know I've accumulated over a lifetime of trial and error, figuring things out myself, or spending hours seeking out the best tutorial online. Recently the lab undertook our own small effort to create video tutorials on software that was most relevant to Whitman students, which brought me face-to-face with this challenge of translating computer-speak into plain English for students. Outside of our lab, there aren't a lot of formal opportunities for learning to use technology (or to use it well) on our campus, and possibly even fewer for the purpose of integrating it closely into the classroom.

But technology is not going anywhere, and there's no reason for educators to resent or avoid it. In the liberal arts and beyond, we have a lot to gain from strengthening the bond between technology and education. They say that learning a new language opens the door to new worlds of opportunity. The teaching of technology should likewise inspire such sentiment.