December 5, 2008 Charles Acland (Communication Studies, Concordia University), “Curtains, Carts, and the Mobile Screen”
Event report: Charles Acland’s talk examined the emergence of audio-visual equipment in US classrooms of the post-World War II period. The widespread adoption in schools of “useful” multimedia technologies like the tachistoscope, the overhead projector, and the slide projector was symptomatic of a larger trend towards a “total systems approach” to pedagogy. Though the bulky and inelegant devices of mid-twentieth century screen culture are often overlooked in media history, Acland showed how the rise of A/V material in the classroom participated in a larger crisis of control in education, by which pedagogical alarm gave rise to pedagogical reform and vice versa. This case study in discourses around media convergence illustrates how the presence of A/V devices in the classroom was seen simultaneously as a threat to learning and discipline and as a solution to flagging student attention and dated teaching methods. As such, this cultural moment has affinities with the contemporary interest in new media pedagogy, in particular in relation to ideas about mobility, portability, community, democratization, speedy transmission of knowledge, and informality in education. As in the 1950s and 60s, the multimedia classroom continues to be a site for advocacy and common sense ideas about learning, attention, and media competency. Going a step further, Acland suggests that the proliferation of A/V equipment during this period manifested as a “cultural formation” that enabled certain recalibrations of class membership through a liberal, technocratic, and corporate discourse of education. The newly technologized classroom engendered a slew of material, institutional, and labour shifts in the school system. Notably, teachers and personnel had to be trained to use the equipment, leading to new job positions and titles, supported by trade publications, professional conferences, workshops, and associations. The enthusiasm over the multimedia environment also demanded a spatial reorganization of schools to incorporate storage space for the equipment, not to mention budgetary considerations for product development in curtains, carts, and screens. This professionalization and institutionalization of new media in education, with all of its attendant controversies, set the tone for the widespread incorporation of technology in contemporary schools.