Technology and the Harkness Table  4/22/05 - Event

I spent today in a conference at the lovely Rocky Hill School in East Greenwich, RI which was quite interesting in ways which, sadly, have very little to do with my job.

The conference was aptly named "Technology and the Harkness Table" because it was exactly that. We got to see a building that was literally designed around technology and the Harkness Table mode of teaching and saw how wonderful it is when engaged teachers, supportive administration, sensible architecture, and funding all come together. In most schools you might get two of those in any one place at any one time, especially if you're in the public schools. An independent school might get you three. In either setting it's rare to have all of those, and Rocky Hill was doing some impressive things with that setup.


Belinda Snyman presented on a "WebQuest" that she ran with her English class. It was adapted from "BardQuest" by Derek Furr, and involved breaking the class into groups with roles for each student in the group; each group researched an assigned topic related to Shakespeare and his cultural context. The groups presented their work as a web page or PowerPoint presentation.

The technology certainly helped the project-- students assigned the role of "skeptic" questioned each group's sources, pushing the groups to examine websites, (and articles and books) for validity. The ease of digital collaboration lowered the bar for students working at different speeds. The ease with which students could record and share each others' presentations meant that the whole class had a better chance of benefitting from each group's different work.

Forum Discussions

Alda Farlow and Dathalinn O'Dea led a session springing from Blackboard-based forum discussion and into a Harkness Table discussion. The subtleties of Harness Table teaching were the focus, but you and I are both here for hypertext and maybe educational technology, so on with that.

The use of the forum was a bit more than an augmentation of the "read and come to class with questions about what you read." The online forum is asynchronous and public, which means that the discussion could get going well before the class met, which made for a richer discussion. Also, everyone's posts are timestamped, which is a handy nuance. If they want, teachers can spot students who aren't participating, or always doing last-minute work, or even get a hint that they're working together (not a bad thing).

A sidenote of this presentation was the set of student-generated notes about the Harkness model. The reflections say a lot about the students' sense of agency in their own education, and I wonder whether their cool technology helped empower them, or whether it's the Harkness model, or whether it's just their really good teachers and school.

Two Functions for Technology in the Classroom

One thing that struck me today was that there seem to be two very distinct ways that you can use technology in the classroom. Put simply: you can improve your teaching of the skills you currently teach (without the tech), or you can teach new things, skills that can only practically be taught by using the technology. But that's oversimplification. That statement is worth unpacking.

You can improve your teaching of the skills you currently teach...

One of the really cool things I saw today was a tablet PC used with a projector to allow the teacher to stay at the table while still 'writing on the board'. The unobtrusive tablet PC, no bigger than a textbook, sat on the table with 'journal' software pulled up, and as the class talked the teacher was jotting notes, or highlighting things in the text the class was discussing, or pulling up posts on a class forum. The whole time the teacher remained at the table-- no turned back, no throne at the head of the room, no darkened room and noisy overhead. Students with laptops, too, could be given control of the projector to share their work. At the end of the class, a student saves their notes and posts them to a server. Weeks can pass without paper being passed if the teacher planned for it.

That's pretty cool. Students' different modes of learning are more easily accommodated. Students too shy to speak up in class find their voice once it's easy to share online. More real work happens more quickly when the drudgery of xeroxing and sorting and carrying folders and handing things out and transcribing is taken away.

But that's still just an improvement of what teachers and students are already doing. The tablet-and-projector is a glorified overhead projector. The forum is an email list, or a set of summarized and handed-in responses. The posted notes. It's so much more efficient that it lets new and wonderful things happen, but fundamentally the technology is just facilitating what we already do.

...or you can teach new things, skills that can only practically be taught by using the technology.

If you have students building a hypertext together, be it through wiki or Tinderbox or Blackboard or FrontPage, you are likely developing skills which cannot practically be taught without the technology. Students will practice line-by-line comparisons of texts, they'll examine and manipulate the structure of texts, they'll cite their work and link it directly back to source material in its original context in ways that can't be done without so much work as to make them all but impossible without the technology. They might as well be new skills.

As awesome as it was, and it was, everything that I saw today was 'just' an improvement on what's already being done. I think that good teaching with hypertext and digital text can do things that we really can't do otherwise.

In Conclusion, No Conclusion

In the end, very little of the day was applicable to my current professional work. As a summer program that moves into host campuses for seven weeks, we don't get to set up a building, or train the teachers to use tablets or Blackboard. Nor, for that matter, can we train the students in the short time we have with them. Many of our classes teach with something like the Harkness Table model, but resources and the nature of the program keep technology largely out of that side of it. Like many schools, we can't swing the pervasive computing environment that Rocky Hill has managed.

I think that technology in our classroom will remain on a class-by-class basis for now. I do wonder whether we couldn't use wikis to help in curriculum development, but that's another topic entirely.