How has Technology Changed the Teacher-Student Relationship?
By Steven McGuire, June 3, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching

It may be that technology is morally neutral in the sense that it is always up to human beings as moral agents to decide how it should be used. But it is also true that technology can change the way that we interact with other human beings (and the world in general) without our even recognizing it—except, of course, that we always have the capacity to step back and realize that a change has taken place. That is what I propose to do here, using as examples email and Blackboard, both of which have changed the way that students and professors interact with one another. The question is, have we allowed these technologies to change the student-teacher relationship for the better, or for the worse?

Email and Blackboard have obvious advantages. Email offers a quick and efficient way to communicate with students outside of the classroom. Blackboard enables professors to post readings and other useful materials on the web, rather than making tens of copies and carrying them to class. Thus, I have no intention of suggesting that we should do away with either technology. Used properly, they make life easier.

I do think, however, that they negatively effect the student-teacher relationship because of the way we allow them to be used. I think this is so primarily because these technologies exacerbate the bad habits that students already tend to have. First, students often forget etiquette when they use email. I receive several emails every semester without a salutation—or even with an attachment but without text—from students with whom I have never before communicated one-on-one. Second, email allows students to leave things until the last minute. Papers are emailed late without permission and without apology. Requests to reschedule exams are sent during the night beforehand. Questions about assignments are (disconcertingly) received less than 24 hours before the assignments are due. Third, students use email for discussions that should take place during office hours. Only a few students ever come to see me during the appointed time; instead, they email me questions, often about complex matters that really should be discussed in person. Sometimes they even email me questions that they would never have asked if they had to come to see me in order to do so. Fourth, Blackboard helps students to get away with skipping class: if readings, assignments, grades, and even class notes are posted online, then why bother coming to class at all? In short, email and Blackboard facilitate poor manners, disorganization, laziness, and other bad habits that many students need to work to overcome while in university.

I wonder what others think of these issues? I'm sure that students have always had these kinds of bad habits, but do new technologies enable them to manifest them in worse ways, or more regularly? How do others respond to such misuses of technology by students? I suspect that many professors simply let students get away with it. I know that I have on many occasions—usually due to leniency or because I simply couldn't be bothered to start a conflict—but I think that may be a disservice both to the students and to other professors, since it merely perpetuates the behavior. On the other hand, rectifying the trend may face a significant collective action problem, so am I better off just not worrying too much about it?

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1 Comment
David C. Innes on Jun 4, 2009 at 5:34 pm

Email etiquette: at The King's College we address this at New Student Orientation. Beyond that, if the education you offer is intended to help form a student as a mature person, then your institution needs to be united on slapping down e-rudeness. Simply ignore rude emails, or respond (after an appropriate silence) with something like, "Mr. XXX, this manner of address is inappropriate, and does not merit a response." You should also make clear, perhaps in your syllabus, that, as you are not a customer service representative, not every email is entitled to an immediate response. You are not open 24/7.

Late papers: As Elvis once said, return to sender! Either apply the appropriate deduction (I take off a grade fraction for each day it is late, up to a week, then it's a zero) or simply refuse the paper. They'll learn.

Not attending class: don't post the notes. I post Power Point files, but only once the students start studying for an exam, and then only for the freshmen because I'm a big softy and I'm sensitive to the difficulties they have transitioning into college life and the big city.

Emailed questions substituting for office hours: I hadn't thought of that. But I do find it helpful to respond to questions by email. 1. I can give a more thoughtful answer. 2. The student has a record of the answer and can more easily ponder it. 3. I can then circulate the question (anonymous) and answer to the rest of the class. Students who receive these answers express their appreciation on course evaluations. That is to say, they really do appreciate the effort.

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Steven McGuire
Steven McGuire

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