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As the proliferation of IT resouces in the recent years have made significant impact on teaching and learning methodologies, we now present to you a two-part discussion on IT in Education Today. In theis first part - IT in Education Today I, we discuss various issues in educational applications of IT and the actual usage of IT in one of the University's courses. In the next part - IT in Educational Today II (Vol. 4 No. 4), we will feature discussion on the usage of IT in teaching and assessment.

August 2001, Vol. 4 No. 3 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
IT and English Literature
Terence Dawson
Department of English Language & Literature

There is far too much chatter these days about the use of IT in teaching. I am quite prepared to concede that in some disciplines IT may have revolutionised teaching. But in relation to English Literature, although it provides an excellent learning aid, it is only of marginal use for teaching purposes.

University students of engineering or medicine usually know what they want to do when they graduate. In contrast, very few students who embark on a three- or four-year course in English Literature know what they intend to do. Most can only rationalise their choice of subject to a certain point, and no further. If asked, they tell you that no other subject exercises a stronger appeal and they enjoy reading. At least, they say they do—but very few make a point of reading each set text before the respective lectures, and far too many even come to tutorials unprepared.

Sometimes, when up against students who have only skimmed through the introduction to their text before giving a presentation that is all ‘smoke’ and no substance, my patience snaps and I ask them: How would you feel if, just before the anaesthetic took hold, the surgeon about to slice you open leant over and whispered, “Confiteor. I couldn’t be bothered to learn anything about the appendix—but I’m going to pretend I know where it is”?

We more or less know what skills are expected of a medical student, a law student, or an economics student. But what skills does a teacher seek to foster in a literature student?

Literature is a problematic discipline: no two teachers of literature will ever entirely agree on what ought to be learned on a literature course, or why. Since this is so, how can one usefully discuss the use of IT in teaching the subject? In teaching what?

The study of literature is often thought to have two aspects: (1) ‘knowledge’ (i.e. a solid grasp of the major works and tendencies that make up a literary tradition); and (2) the ‘skill’ specific to the discipline (i.e. an understanding of how to analyse literary language and to what end). The first assumes that students have an appetite for extensive reading; the second assumes they are keen to develop skills in intensive reading.

Sadly, although many of our students readily devour books that catch their imagination (whether fantasy or contemporary poetry), all too often they have little or no appetite for any classic text apart from those that they are ‘required’ to read for their various courses. Although on a good day many of our students can identify ‘irony’ in any given passage, they have considerable difficulty in commenting on the significance of its use.

Understandably, IT is a great help to such students. If they suddenly realise that they haven’t left themselves the time necessary to read a set text, they can access the Web and quickly learn enough to bluff their way through a tutorial. Film students no longer need to go to the university campus just in order to watch a film at an appointed time. They can follow it on their own computer, at home and at any time that suits them. They can pause the film whenever they feel like a break, and can replay key scenes as they see fit.

I have no difficulty understanding how useful IT is for such purposes. IT empowers students to learn where and when they choose. It gives them immediate access to enormous amounts of information from their home. But the benefits come with some worrying drawbacks. There is a very real danger that the over-abundance of readily available IT resources will impede the real learning process for undisciplined students. There already exist numerous sites where students can go to download essays written by other students.

But even such abuse pales when compared to the benefits, for students and teachers alike. In the coming years, the Web is going to become an ever more important medium for serious research. A bewildering range of material is daily becoming more readily available. The websites of libraries, newspapers, museums, galleries, university research groups and even private individuals are becoming increasingly sophisticated. It will not be long before intelligent coordination further expands the usefulness of such resources.

However, I cannot see that IT necessarily improves the nature of the teaching process. The truth is that it makes little difference whether a teacher writes with chalk on a blackboard, with a felt-tip pen on a whiteboard, uses so-called transparencies and an OHP or takes advantage of a multimedia computer and its associated programmes. Indeed, as with all multi-purpose products, the drawbacks of the latter almost outweigh the benefits. Unless one’s ‘jpeg’ files are very large indeed, they do not project well onto a large screen and the sound quality from the CD-player is less than impressive.

In teaching literature, the aims are not to explain facts, but to encourage students to question interpretations; not to indoctrinate, but to persuade students to challenge the latest ideological fad; not to appeal to authority (whether that of a critical theorist or that of a literary critic), but to urge students to think for themselves. To encourage them to step outside the tramlines laid down by previous scholars, to make their own connections, and to envisage previously unexplored implications. To persuade them to formulate, substantiate, and defend their own thoughts about the relation between a text and a tradition, or of the significance of a text in the on-going dialogue between the individual and society.

Such an objective supposes that students should have lively and challenging minds. They must be willing to read widely, to read well, and to elaborate possible arguments and think them through to an interesting conclusion. Not the teacher’s conclusion, not even the conclusion of the leading authorities in the field, but their own.

Although good students may indeed make intelligent use of all the IT resources available to them, it is very unlikely that the use of IT in the classroom will ever produce a significant increase in the number of such students. As it always has, good teaching will always boil down to the ability of the teacher to get his or her students to think for themselves.

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e-Education: a 2001 Cyber-Space Odyssey?
Any Time, Any Place Learning: Redefining the Classroom for EG1104
IT and English Literature