Having the Right Stuff Is Only the Beginning: Technological and Institutionaal Challenges at the United States Military Academy

Training and Education

Jeff was thankful that leaders at all levels were willing to ease the shock of the technology invasion in 2002: the mantra in first-year composition was one of friction reduction. Collectively, instructors agreed that the primary screening criteria for any proposed use of the computer in the classroom was the degree to which it directly enhanced the teaching of writing.  Academy leaders gave us freedom to experiment: e-turn-in, e-draft commenting, e-journaling, e-collaborations, and Blackboard bulletin board posting assignments were all enthusiastically encouraged, but not demanded.  Instructors who felt they needed more time to familiarize themselves with the technology could take a slower approach, in the interest of minimizing student distractions. 

Further, classroom automation integration was a work in progress.  Each classroom had an Internet-connected desktop computer wired into a ceiling-mounted video projector (further connected to a VCR and cable television).  However, without wireless connectivity between computers, leveraging technology during a 55-minute class was awkward.  Students could write in class, but sharing work required either trading laptops as one would trade hand-written papers, or copying files to CDs or floppy disks, then exchanging the media and uploading to each others' computers.  The mechanics of media exchange took time, distracting student and teacher alike. 

Once the semester began, Jeff's students surprised him with what they did not know about computers, hardware and software alike.  As a parent of high school-age children, Jeff knew of the generational attachment to technology.  However, he did not anticipate his students' lack of familiarity with word-processing applications, with the mechanics of saving, storing, and sharing files using diskettes and CD-ROMs, and with manipulating multiple media formats (text, photos, presentation slides, and spreadsheet data) into one document.  Throughout the semester, especially during timed, in-class writing events, Jeff found himself training students in basic tasks on the spot, from formatting to file management,  just so they could complete the immediate assignment. 

At the end of the term, the students wrote their term end exam essays on their laptops during a three-and-one-half hour exam period. At the end of the period, they had to do three things: save a copy of the file to a disk, and give the disk to the instructor; email the instructor a copy of the exam after returning to their room and plugging their laptop into its docking station; and print out a paper copy of their exam and walk it back over to the English Department, where they were to deposit it into a box outside the appropriate office door.  End-of-term procedures, even more than collective pedagogy, demonstrated the extent to which the USMA faculty was in 2002 figuratively straddling past and future in a very awkward present—knowing that they had to move forward, but unsure of how to conceptually frame the issues at hand in a way that would enable definitive steps with assessment rubrics.  In 2002, USMA faculty were largely focused on using the technology to do better what they were already doing, rather than systematically and collectively looking for ways to use technology to do something different: not consciously and collaboratively asking the questions of how the technology was affecting the way students learn, and how the technology could affect the way instructors approach particular disciplines, in light of the educational goals West Point sets for itself. 

Looking back on his 2002 experiences in the summer of 2007, Jeff suggested to himself some ways he might have done theorized his situation and articulated solutions, using USMA's own capstone documents as a guide. In 2002, he certainly did not think in terms of how he might encourage conscious, deliberate, and methodical reflection on how one part of the USMA experience can be brought to bear on others within a particular discipline. In 2007, he began to recognize three primary relationships he had neglected, in particular ways: the relationship between training and education, the relationship of conflict to growth, and the relationship of technological literacy to any particular discipline-specific  literacy.

Intellectual tension in the classroom is a cornerstone of growth for students and teachers alike, whether that tension is inserted as part of an activity or exercise or arises from socio-cultural changes outside the classroom.  Jeff's narrative articulates the tensions he felt as a teacher when confronted with the variety of new technology all at once. His immediate solution was to minimize the tension the classroom by minimizing the application of technology to writing.  In this way, he hoped not to distract students from what he held to be their primary purpose with him: creating cogent compositions.  He realizes now that he was looking at his classroom in a linear, hierarchical way that inhibited both his own growth as a teacher and his students' growth as thinkers. 

Jeff realizes now that, in 2002, he was favoring a Skinnerian behaviorist orientation in his classroom, in which he (consciously and unconsciously) relied primarily on "specific templates which link teaching to learning by building detailed linkages between them" (English & Larson, p. 181) that he simply did not want to (or, realize he had to figure out how to) adjust to the new technologies available. This behaviorism—which Jeff may have modeled, to a greater extent that he may like to admit, as an actual aversion to technology—may have sent a message reading, in effect, that one can be a good writer despite the technological distractions, rather than a message of how one might embrace and use the technology to think about the writing process and the writing product in different (and hitherto unimaginable) ways.

Finally, Jeff has as a result of reflection on his 2002 experience broadened his awareness of  the relationship between technological literacy and the notion of literacy in general, thinking more deeply about how technological literacy is both a component of and a requirement for being literate in the disciplinary sense.   The more he thinks about it, the more Jeff thinks that his own self-imposed technological illiteracy was some kind of manifestation of what he now see as a reluctance to share power with the students in the classroom.  Even before the widespread advent of wireless capability at USMA in 2004, he could have managed a kind of networking through student-student and student-teacher media exchange, supported by out-of-class Blackboard work, that would have allowed technology to be, as Craig J. Hansen (1996) noted, "a benevolent collaborator [in the classroom]" (p. 203).

Despite his techno-phobic pedagogy at the time, though, Jeff sincerely believes that he created "a classroom environment that support[ed] and empower[ed] individual students, [in which he encouraged] students to explore, to question, [and] to grow" (Hansen in Sullivan and Dauterman, 1996, p. 203).  What he had not done, though, is thought consciously, deliberately, and methodically about how he might facilitate a fundamental change in the ways students could "explore, question, and grow" (Hansen in Sullivan and Dauterman, 1996, p. 203) in and through his classroom.  Even without a network in the classroom, computers and available electronic forums such as Blackboard create a learning environment where "the traditional teacher-based hegemony becomes decentered as all participants tend to interact as peers, [further] creating an ideal medium for the postmodern classroom," so long as the teacher is willing to let go (Hansen in Sullivan and Dauterman, 1996, p. 203). 

Since 2002, both Jeff and USMA have matured in both technological capability in the classroom and the ways in which he employs that capability.  Wireless networks allow Jeff to direct particular students to use the Internet to amplify discussion points with facts, pictures, and other relevant information.  For example, if the students are reading a story about a particular place in Turkey and want to get an idea how far it is from Ankara, Jeff can direct a student to find a map and share the link with the class, who all have their wireless-connected laptops in the room.  If the students are watching a film outside of class (accessed from the course Web page), they can look at certain scenes in class, or access film criticism.  Although he have not yet directed students to create their own websites or weblogs, Jeff has directed students to find relevant blogs and other voices from places we are studying and examine what they find in light of other class material. 

Looking back on the progress the Academy has made in its relationship with technology in the classroom between 2007 and 2012, Jeff feels both hopeful and apprehensive. Jeff is hopeful in that the Academy continues to ask itself how it can initiate policies and acquire tools that will enable cadets to more seamlessly weave their educational relationship with technology with the threads of their entertainment and social relationships with the same devices and software.  Furthermore, since about 2008, the Academy has given faculty increasingly good reason to have confidence in the reliability of the technology in any classroom, in any building, on any school day.  Gone are the days when a teacher worried that on the day a class was built around a segment from a film on DVD that the media player in his room would not accept the format of the disk, or that the speakers would not emit sound, or that internet access would be down, or that the department who managed that room had set access prohibitions on the machine.  For years, these sorts of technological and administrative obstacles had diminished Jeff's enthusiasm for technology in the classroom, and when he returned from a year in Afghanistan in 2009 he found that the year he had been gone was a year in which the Academy had taken a significant leap forward in technology management and implementation.  Wireless access for cadet laptops across campus now means that Jeff sees cadets using their laptops on hallway benches, at tables in the snack bar, in the new library, and while waiting for buses. 

As he closes his 27-year military career in 2012, the last ten of which have been at the Academy as an Assistant Professor, Jeff is further impressed with the rising cadre of young leaders who are technologically savvy and politically astute enough to convince the Army staff to see West Point as a laboratory for innovation that can work with an enthusiastic faculty to explore creative solutions to technological challenges. One recent challenge has been to test an Apple-based architecture in an environment dominated by Windows-based infrastructure and by many layers of security that to a large extent block access to what makes the Apple platforms so attractive in the first place: the cloud. In fall 2011, Jeff took part in an iPad study that necessitated significant work on the part of the senior IT professionals to conduct. Once a few classrooms, one floor of the library, and one snack bar area were configured for Apple access; once course materials were made available digitally; and once the legal ramifications of giving the cadets iTunes cards were worked out, Jeff and his students could set up Gmail accounts, download apps, and explore the efficacy of the iPad as a textbook reader and a conversation medium that revealed a great deal about how cadets see their relationship with technology.
A cadet works at his desk in the barracks.
Jeff is apprehensive about the assumption that young people readily extend their social and entertainment relationships with technology into the world of schooling.  Because all the cadets in Jeff's iPad study had iTunes accounts, iPods, Gmail or other commercial email accounts, and smart phones, Jeff assumed that configuring the iPads for classroom use would be to the students just another iteration of what they already were doing in other areas of their lives.  Jeff was surprised at how quickly he saw that assumption called into question by the awkward and often sluggish efforts of the cadets to set up their accounts, configure their iPads, purchase apps, and use software such as iAnnotatePDF to interact with the course materials. Is there resistance on the part of students to bring schoolwork into an environment they associate with entertainment and social interaction? While already over-burdened cadets may have seen the iPad as just another thing to worry about and manage, Jeff suggests his experience points to a possible need for further research into students' psychology of technology. While some technically adept and psychologically motivated cadets embraced academic uses of the iPad, others did not. Jeff came out of the iPad study resistant to the assumption that educational approaches that leverage entertainment and social media technologies will necessarily be pedagogically effective. Without buy-in from students, iPads are no more effective than chalkboards and exam books as educational technologies.

West Point is both an institution of higher education and a United States Army base, where there are appropriate and necessary concerns about USMA students (who, as cadets, are U. S. Army personnel from the moment they arrive, although they can resign without consequence up until the end of their second year) interacting unfettered with the outside world via the Internet.  In Jeff's advanced composition classes, students have studied nations like Japan, Iran, Cuba, and Turkey, looking on the Internet at many different voices from these cultures.  Understandably, Jeff feels he would hesitate to direct students to communicate directly with, say, a Turkish anti-Kemalist blogger.  For one thing, the class would not know certainly who such a blogger might be; for another, the class would have no idea of the extent to which her government monitors her Internet activity; third, the class would not know if contact with people affiliated with the U. S. government will adversely affect her; fourth, the class would not know whether the project might cause problems between governments (imagined headline: "West Point cadets incite anti-Kemalist uprising in Turkey—West Point English teacher says he was merely promoting inter-cultural dialogue"). Further, while there are no specific institutional prohibitions to cadet blogging, cautions and reminders about discussion of sensitive information about West Point and the Army abound.  Once we enter the so-called "information superhighway," we cannot control who interacts with what we send, or what they do with the information.