The day I turned my students into numbers

1 comment
Holocaust, Teaching, technology

My thoughts about technology in the classroom are framed by two experiences:

Circa 1992

I feel fortunate to have a computer in my house now that I am in grad school. In college, such a luxury was unthinkable.

Now I can sit in front of the computer long past midnight, exploring the web. It is just text but it is thrilling all the same. “I’m searching a library in Sweden!” I shout to my husband in the other room. No matter that I don’t actually need a book from Sweden. It is a wondrous thing.

My sense of awe is magnified when I get my first Windows computer. It comes with Encarta Encyclopedia. As it loads, my husband and I marvel at the images on the screen. We don’t know what to search for first, but as we grew up in the Hudson Valley, we decide on Pete Seeger. When the music comes out of the speakers, I burst into tears. It feels like the world is rising up to meet me, right there in my home office, in all its incredible beauty.

I am grateful to have had this early moment of intense wonder, which has never fully left me.

Circa 2012

I am excited to read about an attendance app and quickly buy it. Attendance is required in my classes and keeping track of my growing number of students has become a challenge. I send around a spreadsheet with students’ names, but invariably the pages come loose, or I don’t have the sheet when students ask how many classes they’ve missed.

The app seems like it will solve a problem for both me and my students, because it will help my students if I can deal with attendance more efficiently. Plus, I haven’t had a smartphone for long, and I like the fun of it. The app creates QR codes for students. They snap a photo of the QR code on their phone and then I walk through class and scan the codes. I think my students will appreciate that I am trying something new.

I’m ashamed to admit that I created QR codes for all of my classes that semester, including my Holocaust course. Without any awareness, I turned my students into zeros and ones to allow me to more efficiently keep track of them. But that class had fifty students in it, and I couldn’t see beyond the problems the app would solve. It didn’t occur to me – really, not once – that it would create new problems.

A student objected on the first day. She was an older student and more comfortable speaking her mind than the students of traditional age. She refused to be turned into a number and she, unlike me, noticed the awful irony from the start.

I’d like to say that as soon as the student spoke out that I came to my senses, but it’s not the truth. Part of me saw her point and part of me thought, “It’s just an attendance app. This will make our lives easier.” It took me a few days to see that the app was dehumanizing, regardless of my intentions in using it. I went back to paper attendance in all my classes.

I still feel the wonder of what technology makes possible. My students have video skyped with scholars in Germany and around the United States, allowing them to meet people that they couldn’t otherwise. I have seen my students create amazing digital stories, giving voice to their experiences and sharing them with the world on You Tube. These technologies allow for connections, creativity, and the sharing of stories and human experiences.

But the ease with which I adopted the attendance app has forced me to look anew at other technology I use to solve problems — particularly those caused by larger classes. My students hand in assignments online, take online quizzes which are instantly computer-graded, and are more familiar with my PowerPoints than the messy scrawl across the board that previous students likely remember, complete with stick figures and arrows to connect thoughts.

These tools do solve problems but they threaten to erase the messiness of human interaction, as does so much of today’s talk of efficiency, metrics, and data in education. In my class that messiness includes students sometimes not being able to decipher my handwriting on the board and having to ask. It includes my terrible drawings. It includes that time, twenty years ago, when I spilled a glass of wine on a stack of student papers and had to tell them (these were the only copies!). There is no way to admit to twenty-five students that you have spilled red wine on their papers without exposing your undeniable humanness.

My students loved that I spilled wine on their papers. Perhaps they thought that my humanity might make me more understanding of theirs. Perhaps they saw themselves and their own mistakes in mine. Perhaps the thought of a teacher drinking wine while grading their papers gave them hope for a sympathetic reader. Today, such moments of humanity must be much more intentional, since so often technological tools in education are framed as solutions to the problem of humanness itself, in all its wine-spilling, bad handwriting messiness.


[Photo: “clear instruction Hollerith computer five” by gp mdo. Licensed by CC 2.0 Generic]




One thought on “The day I turned my students into numbers”

  1. Aura Hirschman says:

    “These technologies allow for connections, creativity, and the sharing of stories and human experiences.” You are so right, Rachel, but on the flip side, they can be barriers for some if the technology is not carefully chosen to be accessible to all students. —- working hard at educating the educators—-

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