I'll admit to being a bit slow on this, but a couple of weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education ran a short piece in their technology session on taking computers out of the classroom. The provocative title of the article is "When computers leave the classroom, so does boredom," and it was centered around an interview with José A. Bowen the Dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at SMU. In his argument, he weds the age old argument against lecture-based classroom experience with an attack on Powerpoint (or, as we call it here, The PowerPointer) and urges faculty to use classroom time for discussion rather than Powerpoint based lectures.
There is nothing revolutionary, of course, about asking faculty to create a more dynamic environment in the classroom and abandoning the nap-inducing nature of the PowerPointer seems hardly a suggestion worth covering in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Moreover, PowerPointer (and other similar ways to organize and project images from the computer onto the big screen) has nearly revolutionized how we teach image based courses like art and architectural history. In fact, projecting images from a wide range of sources to a class is not at all incompatible with a discussion based classroom experience. Slides, of course, work, but the simplicity of the PowerPointer works better. So there must be something else to this.
It seems to me that this article represents a growing stream of Luddism in faculty approaches to technology. While university faculty will always have as many early adopters of technology as obdurate dissenters, I wonder if there is an economic (sub?)text to some of the more adamant critiques of technology in the classroom. This is not to suggest that Bowen's critique is particularly adamant, nor that he recommends that we storm classrooms and destroy computers and delete Powerpointer software. What I wonder is whether the recent increase in critiques of technology in the classroom are less critiques of the effectiveness of technology (as Bowen notes, Powerpointer is an improvement (in some ways) to the old chalkboard or overhead projectors), and more a critique of the way that technology in the classroom is changing the economic and social structure of university life. Bowen notes, of course, that many of the best research universities are already making lectures from their top professors freely available online (and Berkeley is developing software to make this even easier to do!). There are established models for online course development that require faculty to abandon control of their courses making it possible for non-faculty employees or adjuncts to "teach" the course (at lower pay rates!). Of course, some of this conversation has already been played out over "the Wikipedia". There is a certain vested interest among both content creators (faculty, teachers, et c.) and content providers (i.e. textbook and reference book companies) to undermine the credibility of Wikipedia. And even if some of their arguments are accurate and compelling, it does not remove the underlying economic motivation.
The emergence of an educational open market where technology makes all aspects of faculty material more freely available could well be terrifying to old guard university types whose place in the academy depends on their local monopoly on expertise. Like the followers of Ned Ludd some of them have come awake to the real and potential problems with technology in the classroom and are using these problems to reinforce their own positions. I don't mean necessarily to tar Bowen's with this brush (although he admits some economic motivations for his arguments), but I do think that his article acknowledges one aspect of a Luddite response. Just as Luddites were not opposed to technology per se but the changes to their society brought about by changes in the modes and means of production, university faculty who oppose technology often do so in ways that defends their own economic and social positions.
The scary thing is, of course, that the Luddites failed.