Opportunity, Not Technology, Fosters Student Creativity

Posted on November 23, 2012


I’m going to put on my contrarian hat here. I know well enough which way the wind is blowing.

I’m neither a technophobe or luddite. In my broadcast technology class, my students learn to use professional media authorship applications. (They can even get professional certification.) I teach my students about codecs and formats and web distribution and invite them to grapple with copyright in the Internet Age. Students submit projects and papers electronically. To the extent possible, I operate a paperless classroom. In my personal life, I spend hours creating video and animation projects, learning processing, writing After Effects expressions. What I’m saying is that I’ve got “technology” tattooed on my bicep where “Mother” ought to be. So what I’m going to say might sound strange: It’s not about the technology.

There are, in my view, many pernicious myths about technology in the classroom, but I’ll deal here with the myth that technology somehow fosters creativity, an idea that I come across again and again (most recently in a post on Edutopia, where Heather Wolpert-Gawron simply announces, “We want students to create; technology helps us do that.”

To be fair, I suppose it depends on what you mean by “create.” If you mean “making stuff,” then I guess technology does give students many more ways of making stuff–with a few mouse clicks, students can make cut ‘n’ paste comics, cut ‘n’ paste websites, drag ‘n’ drop brochures, text-to-speech animations, and obnoxious animated presentation slides. But if you define creativity as having anything to do with either identifying or solving problems then a computer probably isn’t the resource of first resort. For example, the animated doodads built into Prezi do nothing to ameliorate Edward R Tufte’s spot-on critique of the “Cognitive style of PowerPoint:

…foreshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial resolution, a deeply hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organizing every type of content, breaking up narrative and data into slides and minimal fragments, rapid temporal sequencing of thin information rather than focused spatial analysis, conspicuous decoration and [fluff], a preoccupation with format not content, an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.” 

What teacher hasn’t sat through hours and hours of confounding student PowerPoint presentations? It’s terrible, right? Having a group of students stand in front of a class and read PowerPoint slides about the U.S. Constitution or Imagination in Thoreau’s Walden or Stonewall Jackson or Hurricanes or The Importance of Flossing? There is no idea so profound that it can’t be immediately trivialized by typewriter text, a bulleted list, and clip art.

My students are lucky enough to have a nearly-professional video production facility at their disposal. We have cameras. We have computers. We have fancy third-party plugins. We have dollies and sliders and cranes and lights. But none of this really helps them create. It helps them make stuff, sure, but the best projects begin not with a tool but with an idea–a question, a concern, a character, a conflict–and despite the fact that they’ve got powerful computers sitting right there, the tool of choice for most kids with an idea is a piece of paper and a pencil. At the end of the day, a computer may help them achieve their creative goal, but it doesn’t help them envision it; that takes a brain and lots of hard work. My class is about digital storytelling, but the story comes first. To my mind, to credit technology with fostering creativity is cart-before-horse thinking. Technology does not foster creativity; creativity finds ways to use technology. Perhaps a fine distinction, but an important one (seems to me).

I’m prompted to write this post as a way of formalizing my stand w/r/t my needs in the coming years: in times of fiscal restraint, what sort of support can I request or expect for my program? Until now, conversations about “supporting” the broadcast program began and ended with technology. Do we have the goods? Do we have the stuff? The right wires and gadgets? I’m thinking of reframing the conversation in terms of opportunities for my students–allowances granted by the gatekeepers to my students. Allowances to, for instance, expand their web presence, to try new things, to fail, to experiment in forms of video journalism and video storytelling that do not resemble network news. To recognize that the 21st century has not only brought a wave of new technologies (of course, it has), but that it has also brought with this technology a host of new opportunities.
photo credit: waferbaby via photopin cc