What do you think you should be learning about using technology in teaching?
This was the question I opened with in a class I’m currently co-teaching with my colleague Zach Goodell, called Teaching, Learning and Technology in Higher Education. The course is designed for graduate students who are considering teaching in the academy after they finish their PhD. This particular class session was intended to provide all of us with the opportunity to explore perspectives and to consider ways the web and digital media are changing how and where learning is taking place. The class discussion was rich and layered as students shared their views, questions and comments. What emerged was a focus on four key ideas that seemed to be shared among most of the students, but there was not necessarily agreement on what to do about them just yet. The ideas are briefly outlined below…
Technology and Engagement
Students indicated that there was a need to consider the use of technology in teaching in order to engage learners both inside and outside the classroom. “We need to engage students where they are,” was one comment that really seemed to resonate with students as we discussed this idea. There was mention of a Facebook fan page that was set up in different course to facilitate interaction among students, which was viewed somewhat favorably. There seemed to be a general awareness that the current landscape finds students engaged in a range of digital spaces – where they socialize, share information and build connections – and that there is the need to meet them on that ground in order to connect with and engage them in our courses. Additional examples of this remained a bit elusive.
There was a shared perspective that, in teaching, we should not use technology for the sake of technology. Students were well aware of the pervasive and popular appeal of technology today, and viewed the lure of modern gadgetry with skepticism. Selecting and using technology to support learning in meaningful ways was something these students recognized the need for.
These students also recognized that the use of technology tools takes time and practice in order to be used effectively in teaching. They were sensitive to the idea that there needs to be a balance between learning to use the tools and using the tools for learning. Some software applications may take considerable time to learn to use before they become transparent and can be seamlessly integrated into the course. Using course time to learn a tool was seen as potentially impacting the teaching of course content. I saw this perspective very much in terms of return on investment; how do we determine the amount of time that is worth investing in learning use a technology such that the learning payoff will outweigh that in the long view? Students seemed keenly aware of the need to develop this sense of balance.
Age of Distraction
What do we do about gadgets and laptops in class? During our discussion there was, at times, a heightened emotional response to the question about how we make decisions about student technology use in class. Part of my response was that if you want to bring a laptop to my class and browse email, update Facebook, search for information related to the discussion, send twitter messages…whatever…that was up to you. I acknowledged the responsibility of the instructor to create the conditions necessary to support learning and guide attention, I added that it was also up to each individual student to take the responsibility to decide what they were paying attention to in class. At the same time, as these students pointed out, there is potential for in class tech use to be disruptive…as they shared concerns about the cone of distraction that is sometimes created by laptop / gadget users. I’m not sure banning technology in the classroom is the answer, however. My sense is that we have the capacity to use very powerful digital tools for accessing, sharing and communicating about information, and that as educators we need to make careful and deliberate decisions about how we are going to channel that capacity both inside and outside the classes we teach. This continues to be a hot button issue as university faculty members come to terms with how they will deal with technology in the classroom…and the presence of extreme views are an indicator that this issue remains emotionally charged.
The Promise of Technology
The views these students expressed about what they want to learn about technology are spot-on from my perspective. Teaching with technology is layered and nuanced, and they have articulated several key aspects that drive meaningful use. It seems that in order to learn what is outlined above, faculty members need encouragement to take the time and opportunity to tinker with, test, reflect on, and refine how they use technology in their practice. Meaningful use doesn’t just happen; it is the result of developing specialized knowledge situated in practice. And the bottom line is that this is not likely to happen for the majority of faculty unless it is recognized as part of what it means to demonstrate excellence in teaching. Colleges and universities continue to spend millions of dollars on technology infrastructure, which is then often coupled with the taken for granted notion that meaningful educational use is simply expected as part of the work of teaching. That is not only misguided, but it flies in the face of what we know about knowledge growth in teaching.
It seems like forward thinking colleges and universities would give more than a passing interest to the following…
1) Acknowledge that the web and digital media tools have profoundly altered traditional notions of how and where learning takes place.
2) Recognize that effective teaching with technology has added a complex set of expectations for faculty work in the digital age, and this should be more openly addressed across all academic departments.
3) Teaching with technology in meaningful ways requires time, encouragement, and support well beyond what was expected of university faculty a short 20 years ago.
4) The demonstration of effective use of technology to support teaching and learning should be valued and supported. Integrating this as an expectation into university roles and rewards documents would be a step in the right direction.
Some of this has already begun happening on campuses, but it is far from the norm. Continuing to ignore these issues simply ensures that the promise of technology will be fragmented and elusive. What else should be considered here? Can the enterprise of higher education change course? Has the boat already set sail?
Curious what you think…