Teaching, Humanities

Can Technology Teach? SFU Humanities Professor Dutton Co-authors Technologically Innovative Textbook

September 25, 2013

Recently, SFU humanities professor Paul Dutton co-authored an innovative textbook, Many Europes: Choice and Chance in Western Civilization with Suzanne Marchand and Deborah Harkness.  Representing a new generation of textbooks designed to have an “integrative program” (McGraw-Hill), the textbook spans from prehistory and the ancient Greeks up to the 2010/2011 European debt crisis and includes a primary source reader, compiled by Dutton and Marchand.  McGraw-Hill says that Many Europes includes tools for educators:  “LearnSmart,” “an adaptive assessment tool” designed to increase student comprehension; “Critical Missions,” an exploratory unit intended to “develop analysis skills” for students as they use maps, primary sources and complete written assignments; and “Connect,” a supplemental e-book that includes quizzes and challenges. McGraw-Hill describes the textbook as combining “flexible content coupled with powerful digital learning tools and a customizable documents collection.”

The call for updated formats to engage students comes not only from the publisher but from instructors as well. Dutton reports that many teachers are looking for newer, creative ways to engage their students through the use of technology and are drawn to the supplementary tools in the textbook.  Dutton and the publisher attribute this appeal to the “increased mechanization of higher learning.”  As the McGraw-Hill website notes, “More and more we are challenged by today’s learning environment – students are different, digital tools are evolving, and instructors are continually asked to do more with less yet show greater results.”

Whether or not students these days are truly different is a question worthy of reflection.  David Buckingham, a UK professor of communication and media studies, resists the notion that teachers who are hesitant to use technology are necessarily “old-fashioned.”  Rather, he suggests they have recognized that new technology does not always help them achieve their teaching objectives.  He dispels the notion that  “young people are all busily communicating and creating online, and that they have a spontaneous affinity with technology that older people do not.” Instead, Buckingham argues that students mostly use technology as a medium for accessing popular culture. The somewhat awkward seepage of technology into classroom material continues to reflect, he says, a “broader historical disjunction between young people’s everyday leisure culture and the culture of the school.”

Hesitant to draw premature conclusions regarding the use of more tech tools in the classroom, SFU's Dutton is cautiously optimistic about this new hybrid form of textbook. While he sees the multiple points of entry in Many Europes as giving the textbook “fluidity,” allowing for teachers to take and leave different approaches, Dutton also expresses a healthy dose of skepticism in questioning whether or not more technological tools necessarily produce better learning outcomes.  A professor at SFU since 1983, Dutton acknowledges that additional supplementary material might lead to “student overload”, and he is skeptical of studies that show a correlation between self-testing and comprehension, questioning especially if the end result is applicable to the study of history. 

Dutton explains, “What worries me in the end …I don’t know if they’ve learned better history, do they have a deeper understanding of history? How does one test that?” He notes that as an instructor, a crucial element of learning is in the ability of the students to formulate their own questions.  With the book supplying its own supplementary material including questions, quizzes, and directive materials, Dutton wonders, might we impede the student’s ability to ask questions?

Perhaps these new tools allow for tactile/kinesthetic or auditory learners to more readily access and process information.  Or, perhaps they allow for students to more effectively personalize their learning experience to suit their interests. As for Many Europes, Paul foresees “it will be a generation before you know if anything is good or not.”  Until then, publishers and students can rest assured that Dutton and co-authors Marchand and Harkness have created a solid and informed narrative: a model to which future curriculum designers can look as technologies – and students – continue to change.

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