Friday, July 08, 2005

Bring it down before bringing it up

Yesterday, I talked a little about the conflict between the student desire for practical instruction and the faculty desire to present theory. On the student side we can break it down further into: (1) will they get it or is it over their head and (2) if they do get it will it be relevant? On the instructor side we can also break it down further into: (3) How do we get students to see the issues the way professionals in the field see them? and (4) How do we get students to penetrate the ideas and make their own insights?

I believe there is substantial benefit in students playing the role of instructor and instructor playing the role of student so that each can see the other side of this conflict. That is one of the reasons why I think the greatest possible reform we can have in higher ed, especially at the research universities, is to signficantly utilize students as mentors/teachers of other students and to do so in a way that has the full sanction of the university. This will benefit both the students receiving the mentorship/teaching and the students who are providing these services.

What about on the other side? How might we get faculty to role play as students? This is harder, much harder. I know that some have advocated for faculty to take an online course, so they can gain the sense of what it is to belike to be a student online. This is a fine solution, if the faculty member will do it. But what if they won't (and the time constraint problem is always a a convenient solution for why they won't).

The reason this is hard, of course, is that much faculty expertise will seem intuitive and instinctual to themselves and hence it is difficult to understand the type of problems students face because they don't experience like problems. If we are to get faculty to be in the student role, they must be taken out of the comfort zone of their won discipline. But that is where they live, intellectually.

A couple of weeks ago, Howard Strauss of Princeton University had a nice article in the Chronicle, "Why Many Faculty Members Aren't Excited About Technology." (This link is only available to Chronicle members.) He makes points like: Faculty members don't know what's possible, Faculty member don't know what's easy and hard, and Faculty members believe the technology will hurt them. We should take Strauss at his word on these points. Hence, doesn't it seem that with respect to technology, most faculty members are students. Hmmmm. Or should I say, Aha!

It is tantalizing to ask whether learning technology staff who train and consult with faculty on usage might also directly or indirectly impact faculty teaching by encouraging the approach to be more practical and less theoretical. But, if the faculty really are students in this role, will they see the connection?

My view is that it is hard if not impossible for learning technology staff to play this card because by and large the faculty are not coming to them to learn about their teaching. They are coming to learn about using the technology and their expectations are only to develop a minimal competence, not to become experts.

But we who support learning technology can preach a "keep it simple, stupid" (KISS) approach and then do according to that saying. This means working with illustrative examples, not with theory (or at least not with theory too overtly). It also means basics up front and details only later, perhaps in the documentation, perhaps uncovered only on an as needed basis as instructors expand their use of the technology.

This requires confidence on the part of the instructor, a recognition that the purpose of the instruction is not to show how smart they are but rather to help the students. It does suggest, that our ability to improve the quality of instruction is going to be tied to our ability to excite the faculty about using the technology.

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