Teaching and Tech: is it Time for Universities to Change?

It’s no surprise to any of my friends that I listen to massive quantities of NPR.  If you know me, you know about half of my conversational sentences start with “I heard an NPR report about…” and that I’ve replaced R&B beats with Fresh Air podcasts to keep me motivated on a run.  So I’m not going to surprise anyone when I say, I was listening to NPR the other day and heard an interview that demanded I respond with a blog post.

Last Thursday “Talk of the Nation” hosted Don Tapscott, co-author of Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business And The World to discuss teaching “the net generation.”  Tapscott explained today’s college students grew up multi-tasking, collaborating and learning with technology.  For these young scholars, hours on the internet vastly outweighed those spent glued to the tube. Therefore, the broadcast model of communication–and accordingly, teaching (think lecture halls)– is dead to students who are constantly connecting with multiple streams of information.

For universities to best serve these students, Tapscott argues that everything: lectures, slide presentations, reading materials, etc. should be posted online for free and professors should be engaging students there, rather than in classrooms.  All math courses should be taught online with individual pacing and coaching.  Professors should function as content curators, picking out illustrative YouTube clips rather than content creators broadcasting long lectures. Indeed, he refers to this model of education as a “birthright,” claiming Millennials labeled “entitled” simply demand the type of education they deserve.

His examples of the modern student at work:

  • A Harvard student who candidly revealed the goal in any course was to receive an “A” without attending class.
  • The student government President at Florida State University whom became a Rhodes Scholar and started a clinic in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward following Katrina. The kicker– he didn’t read books.  When required, he skimmed content and found supporting materials online.

I see Tapscott’s point. I agree online collaboration between students and professors can vastly improve how well students learn in the twenty-first century.  Since childhood I’ve dreamed of ways technology could facilitate my education. Individualized, self-paced, math instruction could have changed my life’s course.

However, I’m wary of any declarations claiming the great savior of a deteriorating American education system in a struggling and competitive global economy is technology and technology alone.  I reject the notion responsibility for college students’ educations lies squarely in the hands of professors and administrators. That if they just used the right platform to reach students, everyone would learn more, stay in school, be better at math and finish higher education prepared for the workplace.  College students need to have some responsibility to have the drive to succeed no matter what technology is brought into the classroom.  I worry we’re entering an era in education of technology for technology’s sake.

Technology is a pedegogical tool, not a panacea.  I think there are four distinct areas in which well-implemented technology can change education for the better.

First, technology that fosters collaborative learning can dramatically improve learning, especially at the secondary and post-secondary levels. College and high school students learn as much from each other as they do from their instructors. Providing forums and tools for them to work together and review course content even at a distance is of great value.  Facilitated chat rooms, slide shares, and real-time collaborative editing tools all fall into this category.

During my time at Northwestern some of these tools were developing.  I worked on group papers with Google Docs and held night-before-the-midterm review sessions on Blackboard with my sociology professor amongst other such interactions.

Second, technology that is richly illustrative can help convey content and improve understanding.  Research has shown most people remember much more of what they see AND hear than what the either see OR hear.  This has long been an argument for the use of video in education and I heartily agree with its implementation, as well as even more interactive materials like games that can be manipulated and experimented with.

At Northwestern professors didn’t just show movies, but shared many streaming video clips of everything from animations of DNA construction to expert analysis of the relationship between the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. A sorority sister of mine was absolutely dependent upon online animations of chemical reactions for an advanced materials science course.

One of the callers to the “Talk of the Nation” worked for a textbook publisher.  For supplemental material for a psychology text he had YouTube users suffering from a variety of mental health disorders film themselves discussing their experiences.  Tapscott applauded this action and suggested through sharing such videos professors become content curators.

Professors already act as content curators; they create reading lists, determine assignment topics and areas of content focus, and often share a variety of media. To say this should be their primary role undercuts the value of education.  What professors bring to the table that cannot be replaced by YouTube videos and infographics is expertise in their field.  Experience provides them knowledge of best practices and arguments in their area of study and the ability to analyze and synthesize information at a high level.  Their responsibility is to share that with students.  Those that do so are the best teachers. They impart the most knowledge to their students and provide them the strongest cognitive tools to move forward.

Third, technological tools that serve as a complement to classroom education can provide needed extra practice for mastery or present material in a different manner than an instructor does for improved learning.  Games and online math and science assignments that provide coaching, correction, or assessment are particularly helpful in this space.

It is difficult for an instructor to reach each student individually at all times and often students need to take the time and effort to hash out how to perform certain operations (like math or science problems) on their own.  Software can provide the student extra one-on-one responsive attention a professor or teaching assistant cannot always provide.

Electronic games and software have been used to supplement elementary education since the mid-eighties. Providing the same at the secondary and post-secondary level makes sense.  Honestly, what middle class child of the nineties didn’t have an encounter with a Speak & Spell, Teddy Ruxpin, Reader Rabbit, the JumpStart series, or other electronic tutor? How many hours slipped away joyfully reading books along with a cassette tape or helping Reader Rabbit make his way home? This is how modern students have been learning since childhood. College students might not need excessive edutainment, but an interactive media that gives direct feedback as to the accuracy of one’s work is familiar, approachable, and can accelerate and reinforce learning.

Teddy Ruxpin

Teddy Ruxpin: Yes, an animatronic stuffed bear helped me learn how to read.

Fourth, I believe technology encouraging students to be content creators is an excellent use of technology in universities.  Examples may be video editing and sharing software, slide presentation software, data graphing and visualization software, and application and game development software.

When students are asked to become content creators, they take charge not only of the material covered in coursework, but analytical thinking skills and  the technical tools needed to be competitive in the workplace.  If you can write and film a video about a subject, you probably understand the content and have cohesive thoughts and analysis about it. You can turn around an show a potential employer your work and that you have valuable skills to contribute in the workplace.

This leads me to where I take issue with the idea that improving college student performance simply demands putting more technological tools into student’s hands.

Students need to be responsible for their own education.  Online tools can both help and hurt students. Students can review material or access information online they wouldn’t have been presented in a traditional classroom, or they can skip trying to learn anything and copy and paste an essay off of information found online.  They can work together to study for a chemistry exam in an online chatroom late at night, or they can construct a senior thesis purely from the easiest to reach materials (read Wikipedia articles.) They can read an analyze great literature, or read a blog post about it an regurgitate it in discussion section.

Students need to develop tenacity to handle the challenges they’ll be presented with in the great world beyond school. They need to develop listening skills for handling clients or listening to patients in their jobs. They need to develop the ability to work face to face with others with empathy, compromise, and collaboration.  This is where the in-classroom model of education cannot be improved upon by simply taking all the content and interaction online.

So I say, bring the technology to the universities!  Train professors to use new interactive tools with their students!  Encourage students to use technology to learn, collaborate, and create! But don’t forget that even with all the information in the world available at the click of a button, developing analytical and technical skills matters most. Good professors are needed to teach these skills and students need to be held accountable for doing the work necessary to master these before graduation.  Because even with technology at one’s fingertips, if one cannot make the information available to them into something meaningful, he or she may as well have not been educated at all.


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