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There is a Dilbert comic strip in which a consultant stands in front of a slide with the words “Facebook” and “Twitter” and explains, “As the Marketing Manager for Social Media, my job is to use these two words a lot.” The cartoon is an astute illustration of the utter failure of many mainstream institutions to come to grips with the world of blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Their attempts to keep up with the latest trends in new media—like when CNN had anchors read inane tweets as “commentary” on last year’s State of the Union address—have proved cringe-inducing at worst, and fodder for “Daily Show” parody at best. All too often, technology is being used for the sake of using technology, without any constructive purpose being sought or served.
Unfortunately, the same could be said about an increasing number of Harvard courses. Indeed, by now, many of us have personally encountered the peculiar species of teaching aid known as the “redundant course blog.” Such blogs tend to perform functions already served by the course, but with the added hassle of unnecessary technology. For instance, students may be asked to post the equivalent of a short response paper, and then to comment on the blogged papers of several fellow students—on top of the course’s weekly assignments and section discussion, which already fulfill the same pedagogical function.
Some classes, like Moral Reasoning 22: Justice, recognize that students may not find the course blog particularly useful, and have made participation optional (like the mafia, support of the Justice blog is not required, only “strongly encouraged”). But this ambivalence simply further illustrates the general purposelessness of the enterprise, a misstep which stands out noticeably in such a well-structured and fine-tuned class as the 1000-student-strong Justice.
This is not to say that successful long-running Harvard courses should reject new technology out-of-hand—online paper submission, for example, is one of the greatest environmental and educational benefits of our digital age. Rather, it is to point out the obvious but oft-forgotten truth that just because something is new and trendy doesn’t mean it belongs in the classroom. Before any course integrates some newfangled technology, there must be a clear purpose for the addition—one that is not fuzzy (“provides an alternate, up-to-date form for students to involve themselves in the course”) or already served by section, lecture or any other pre-existing aspect of the course apparatus.
Course heads and TFs ought to think very carefully before they inject new media into their course, and must be willing to adjust these mediums in response to student feedback. In one course last semester, I found myself facing a blogging requirement that seemed superfluous. I arranged to meet with my TF and had a conversation which went a long way towards clarifying the specific goals of the project. But in the event that an instructor doesn’t have a good answer to a student’s question about the utility of a new media innovation in the course, it should be scrapped. The desire to proudly proclaim that one’s class uses such media is insufficient justification for introducing it.
If there’s one person on campus to ask about intelligently integrating technology into a course, it’s David J. Malan ’99. As professor of Computer Science 50, he is arguably the person most responsible for mainstreaming technology and media on Harvard’s campus. Few courses use more cutting edge technology than CS50—last year’s students programmed for the new Google Android smartphones—and the class’s end-of-year fair annually produces numerous social media-based aids to campus living, from Dining Hall menu apps to the latest incarnation of Shuttleboy. So, what’s Malan’s secret formula for the successful use of technology in the service of pedagogy? Simple—don’t be like Dilbert: “Introduce some new technology only when you think it might solve an actual problem,” he says. Don’t be afraid to experiment, but also don’t be afraid to admit failure. “There’s nothing wrong with experimenting with new technologies to see what benefits they might yield: we add to and subtract from CS50 all the time. Just have to be willing to admit it when the answer is none.”
It’s sound advice for the new semester—and for CNN’s coverage of tonight’s State of the Union.
Yair Rosenberg ’11, a Crimson associate arts editor, is a Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator living in Adams house.
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