We live in the blurry space between the virtual and the real. Recently, I heard a talk in which the presenter Michael Vaugn from Elan University quoted the following: “Computing isn’t about computers anymore. It’s about living.” (He didn’t so much say this, as he let the quote linger on his slide in the background while making his own argument.) His slide was quoting Nicholas Negropante, founder of the MIT Media Lab and the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). His use of Negropante’s words, however, did not provide the full and proper context. The fuller quote from Negropante’s 1995 book Being Digital is as follows:

Computing isn’t about computers anymore. It’s about living. The giant central computer, the so-called mainframe, has been almost universally replaced by personal computers, so they’ve moved from giant air-conditioned offices, onto desktops, onto our laps and now in our pockets. This is not the end. Mass media will be redefined by systems for transmitting and receiving personalized information and entertainment. Schools will be more like museums and playgrounds for children to assemble ideas and socialize with other children all over the world. The digital planet will look and feel like the head of a pin. (230)

Certainly Negropante was reading technology trends with prophetic accuracy. However, given what he’s gone on to do with the OLPC program, his implication strikes me as one more about the promise of technology—about fair access to fundamental information and educational resources that computers (and access to the Internet) can bring to children in developing nations and all over the world. He is not (IMHO) referring to the First World’s mindless addiction to social media technologies (or the celebration and embracing of such trends as Vaugn implies.)

I fancy technology. It’s no lie. But I also resist consumer trends, tech and otherwise. I like to tinker—sometimes with reckless abandon—and my insistence on using free and open-source technologies whenever possible (even when it creates time-consuming challenges) is as much an eco-political stance as it is a hobby. Even so, I’m quick to dig my heels into old ground—a place where screens do not mediate our every human experience, and so my stance becomes one of the curmudgeonly kind, or so it seems.

I’m quick to dig my heels into old ground—a place where screens do not mediate our every human experience.

As a writing teacher with this tinkering interest, it’s no surprise that technology plays a significant role in my classes. For years, I’ve been using computer technology to engage my students (and myself), streamline classroom logistics, and walk my idea of the bleeding edge in both composition theory and educational practice. I’ve always harbored a degree of insecurity with my approaches, though, wondering if being outside of the mainstream somehow was a disservice to my students. As of late, however, aspects of mainstream edu-tech and the trajectory of my own work have aligned most apparently with the emergence of the so-called “flipped classroom.”

Most succinctly, the flipped classroom is a technology-enabled reversal from the traditional way classroom time is spent. In most basic terms, teacher talk (lecture, verbose explanation, etc.) is moved online for students to prepare before class, and what used to be homework (skills practice, application of concepts, etc.) is moved into the classroom where peer and instructor support is most immediate. Scroll through the info-graphic below for more or see it in it’s original context here.

For several years now, I’ve supported my classroom with tech used in this way. I moved to a paperless course by making essential documents available electronically; I’ve facilitated all student-student and student-instructor paper exchange through a course website; we’ve extended our classroom conversations to online spaces when face-to-face time ran short; I’ve made a variety of rich media available online to students to supplement our coursework. Regarding classroom time, I’ve leaned heavily toward student-led approaches, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning—effectively moving me, as instructor, to the sidelines most of the time. Nowadays, I feel my approach legitimized with all the buzz of flipping. This has allowed me to push still further to provide more of the core “content” of my course fully online for students to work through before class and return to as needed. I’m rethinking and reworking even more aggressively my approach to classroom time, avoiding protracted explanations, presentation, or lecture in favor of supported group work almost entirely.

I worry about the hangover that will inevitably come after the intoxication of “anywhere, anytime, any device learning” wears off.

Still, my heels find their footholds. In speaking with a colleague who has recently flipped her class with a gusto, I worry about the hangover that will inevitably come after the intoxication of “anywhere, anytime, any device learning” wears off. My esteemed colleague raises good questions about the relevancy of the long-winded assignment handout, text-heavy online lessons, the sage-on-the-stage professor, and all that which by ordinary comes in the form of words—so many words. She cites the importance of digital and visual literacies and cogently supports her claims with research regarding the ways our young digital natives think, negotiate, and experience their world. Still, as I interact with my students and the many young people I encounter nowadays, I observe a marked decline in social skills—people unable to carry on a conversation, make a phone call, write a professional e-mail, or sustain their attention for any length of time. Trying so desperately to keep with the times, will we see fewer and fewer students who can comprehend and be moved by powerful written texts? Will it become unreasonable to expect our students to work through difficult ideas (or anything that doesn’t “flicker” or—more to the point—entertain?)

So I continue to tinker—in search of the right high-tech, old-school balance that will engage my students, facilitate their success on all levels, afford them with the opportunity and the skills not just to move quickly in life, but also to sit with me in slow conversation, to look me in the eye and have the patience to hear me out before contributing their own thoughtful verse.