An Open Letter Concerning the Tablet Initiative at Fresno State

Dear President Castro:

We are now just over a month in to your new tablet initiative here at California State University, Fresno, and—with some reservations and stipulations concerning the university’s focus on diffusing this technology to faculty and into its classrooms—I am writing to urge you to continue to invest time and resources into this program. However, I believe that the initiative’s current incarnation—at least with as much that has been made available to the public—is potentially problematic. Presently, as reported by Associate Vice President for University Communications and Integrated Marketing Shirley Armbruster (2014), the guiding question of the tablet initiative seems to be how can we accommodate new technology (i.e. tablets) in the classroom, (p. 22).But I think the question we should be asking is how can we evolve pedagogy and curriculum to leverage the meaning-making potential of new technologies in (and out) of the classroom. So far as I can see, there are already hints of strategies to address the latter question coming to the surface, and I believe that continued faculty support in terms of evolving curriculum and especially pedagogy will be absolutely crucial in getting this new technology to be successfully adopted, diffused, and put to constructive use throughout the university. Certainly, as Troy Tenhet’s (2013) dissertation An Examination of the Relationship Between Tablet Computing and Student Engagement, Self-efficacy, and Student Attitude Toward Learning reveals, we should not take for granted that just because students have tablets in their hands means they’ll automatically engage with tablets academically. With this in mind and to the means and ends of using tablets in the classroom constructively, let me explain some of my aforementioned reservations and stipulations more fully.

The biggest issue I see with incorporating tablets into the classroom is in having faculty transition from a direct instruction approach to teaching to a constructivist approach to teaching because, as I will explain shortly, leveraging the power of tablets in the classroom requires a constructivist approach to teaching. Of course this is not an issue for those faculty who already embrace a constructivist approach, but not all faculty share in this pedagogical framework. While the general troubles of a direct instruction approach are beyond the scope of this discussion, I believe the relationship between direct instruction and high technology is relevant. According to Reiser & Dempsey (2012), direct instruction is teacher-centered learning where the teacher acts as the “sage on the stage” who fills students—seen figuratively as empty vessels—with knowledge (pp. 45-46). It is the teacher who has access to knowledge, and students only have access to that knowledge through the teacher. The trouble with this approach in relation to high technology is that the technology becomes nothing more than a digital notebook for students to take dictation from the “sage,” something they could do with the technology of a $2.00 spiral-bound notebook and any number of low cost Pilot G-3 gel pens. At best, direct instruction would leverage high technology’s ability to help students drill on material they need to memorize in order to pass an objective test, but that task could also be easily accomplished with a buck’s worth of flash cards. So suddenly there’s quite a contrast between a pen and paper budget and a tablet budget which Armbruster (2014) reports to be to the tune of $850 (p. 23). Fresno State Tablet CaseSo in terms of classroom use, $850 worth of high technology becomes roughly an $847 investment to majorly glorify what ink and paper can already do or, at least, dress what a cheaper laptop can already do with new designer clothes for the 2014 iFall Fashion Season. Now in all seriousness, I don’t mean to suggest that tablets do not have a place in the classroom in particular or in education in general: tablets have a great deal of potential to allow students to work on solving real and meaningful problems (i.e. problems that matter to them) but only if a teacher is able to structure their class in such a way that fosters that kind of learning. I grant that supporting faculty in the physical use of tablets and mobile computing applications through faculty expertise is important—though I’m quite interested in knowing more about specifically who these faculty experts are (“DISCOVERe”). Too, the support through TILT and through LEAD workshops is also important. But I believe it’s equally if not even more important to support faculty in making the shift from learned based off of teacher-centered, direct instruction to learning that is constructivist, putting the students on center-stage. Therein lies the greatest challenge to get this technology to be successfully diffused, adopted, and put to meaningful use where student learning that persists beyond the classroom is (or at least should be) our antecedent purpose.

There exists a well-established framework for the adoption and diffusion of new technology theorized by Everett Rogers (n.d.) which asserts that there are five qualities of new technologies that are determining factors as to whether or not and how expediently that technology will be adopted. I’m certain that the Tablet Task Force, headed by Provost Lynette Zelezny, has already come up with a diffusion strategy that discusses the 1) relative advantage of tablets (over previous technologies like paper notebooks and laptops) and 2) the simplicity and ease of use of tablets, and the faculty cohort established earlier in the year demonstrates the task force’s way of addressing 3) the trialability of this innovation. I’m certain that other organizations have piloted similar programs, so there should be available a set of 4) observable results, but I have not yet seen references to any studies or outcomes presented by you or the university in support of this initiative—this is something I urge you to keep in mind as you move forward, for if both students and faculty have no way of accessing any observable results from this innovation, they will be less likely to embrace it. The fifth item from Rogers’ list is by far the most contentious item for our purposes as it serves as a sort of cross-section between both the new technology and the pedagogical framework required to leverage the new technology.

Rogers (n.d.) suggests that in order for a new technology or innovation to be adopted and diffused throughout an organization, it must also be compatible with existing values and practices. For faculty who are not presently in the camp of constructivist pedagogical practices—which I’ve submitted as absolutely necessary to take advantage of tablets in the classroom in a meaningful way (i.e. activities that are full of meaning-making potential)—there will be a significant conflict with the existing values and practices of direct instruction. This is not just about adopting tablets and new software applications in the classroom but about adopting a whole new way of operating within the teacher-student dynamic; therefore, investing in and implementing faculty programs to urge and support a transition to a constructivist framework for teaching and learning is absolutely crucial if we want this technology to successfully diffuse throughout the university and not be a waste of money and resources.

Now I don’t mean to suggest that a support system—albeit perhaps indirect—is not already in the works, but as a graduate student who is outside of the opaque Tablet Task Force and not a part of the faculty cohort, it is difficult for me to make any of these determinations outside of what is released to the general student body and public. When, for example, I see a series of Learning for Excellence and Development (LEAD) activity workshops throughout October that are centered around topics like “How to use Google Drive,” “Docs and Sheets,” an introduction to Lynda.com (the lessons therein generally of a direct-instruction nature), etc., my perception mirrors the overall point of this letter: I’m happy to see such an investment in faculty support for new technologies, but I’m apprehensive that these support programs are too focused on the technology itself rather than how to shape instruction to leverage the meaning-making potential of these technologies. As your tablet initiative moves forward, I hope you will also include a forward-thinking support system for faculty needing to make the transition from direct instruction to a constructivist approach to pedagogy and curriculum design. President Castro, you were quoted in an article as having said that one of your goals for this tablet initiative is to “build a sustainable program that keeps the cost of attending Fresno State affordable” (Schaffhauser). Without the support for the aforementioned transition to a constructivist framework, this program will not be pedagogically sustainable nor will students really save money or learn any better than they presently are: this expensive technology will be nothing more than an $850 drop in the bucket where a $3.00 trip to Dollar Tree for school supplies would suffice. Letting technology drive pedagogy and curriculum is like putting the cart before the horse. Instead, let’s create a sustainable system that privileges meaning-making in the classroom and thus make meaning-making drive the technology.

Sincerely,

Jeremiah Alexander Henry
California State University, Fresno
MA Literature Candidate
Teaching Associate
President, Sigma Tau Delta


References

Armbruster, S. (2014, Spring). Fresno State’s DISCOVERe Tablet Program. Fresno State Magazine. Retrieved from California State University Fresno University Advancement website: http://www.fresnostate.edu/advancement/ucomm/magazine

DISCOVERe — Fresno State Tablet Program. (n.d.). Retrieved from California State University, Fresno President’s website: http://www.fresnostate.edu/president/discovere

Reiser, R. A., & Dempsey, J. (2012). Trends and Issues in Instructional Design and Technology (3rd ed.). Boston: Pearson.

Rogers, R. (n.d.). Diffusion of Innovations: Part 1. Retrieved from Iowa State University Department of Sociology website: http://www.soc.iastate.edu/sapp/soc415Diffusion1.html

Schaffhauser, D. (2014, August). Fresno State Intros Tablet Program with Device Grants for Students. Retrieved from http://campustechnology.com/Articles/2014/08/21/Fresno-State-Intros-Tablet-Program-Supplies-Device-Grants.aspx

Tenhet, T. (2013). An Examination of the Relationship Between Tablet Computing and Student Engagement, Self-efficacy, and Student Attitude Toward Learning. n.p.: ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing.

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