Monday, October 7, 2013

Computers are no substitute for good teachers . . .

Or, a more adept phrase might be – what I’m thinking about as I prepare for EDUCAUSE next week. When reviewing the conference program, one can’t help but be struck by the degree to which the agenda is dominated by topics covering the (potential) impacts of technology on learning. I’m pretty sure that many attendees would agree with the statement that technology itself is no panacea for the present challenges of higher education – equality of access, adequate preparation of incoming students, escalating costs, and graduate preparedness. When thinking of these challenges, my mind harkens back to my own higher education – an experience where good teachers were absolutely critical in providing me with support and mentoring, and that experience was a very big part of putting me on a path of lifelong learning.

Because of my experience, as well as the sociological lens through which I tend to view things, I have maintained a healthy sense of skepticism regarding the potential for technology to “disrupt” higher education, at least in the sense that technology can easily lower costs or produce better and more scalable learning outcomes. Over the past couple of years there has been significant collaborations focused on these questions. As the evidences trickles in there is plenty of data to support my skepticism.
As a traditionalist, I believe that the most important opportunity for impacting college students lies in the student-faculty relationship. It is through that collaboration that we can impart not only knowledge but also the processes by which knowledge is created – which helps students become creative thinkers and lifelong learners. Far too many online programs are built on an industrial, one-to-many approach that focuses on using technology to increase the scalability of content distribution at the expense of traditional collaborations between students and faculty. Ultimately the traditional approach to online education opts for a focus on convenience, efficiency, and scalability at the expense of what the Internet is truly about – massive social connectedness.

What’s exciting to me is that the most forward-thinking individuals today working in this space realize that the traditional approach of online education is the path of commoditization  - one that reduces learning processes to their lowest common denominator and undermines the traditional student – faculty relationship. A more enlightened approach, a many-to-many approach, focuses on connectivity and community, as it is the relationships between students and faculty that drive the development of critical thinking skills and the creation of knowledge. Such processes can and should be enhanced by the connectivity made possible by the Internet as students are empowered to be both content creators and subscribers simultaneously.

As I walk the conference floor next week, I’ll be looking for presentations and products that focus on how social connectivity, in a many-to-many sense, can transform learning processes for the better. Some specific areas I’m looking for include the following.
  • The transformation of the classroom lecture. In a many-to-many world, the traditional classroom lecture goes out the window as students move beyond their legacy role as a content subscriber. I’m interested in seeing demonstrations of technology enhanced collaborations between students and faculty that focus on the processes by which knowledge is created as opposed to the distribution of commodity content created by others.
  • The evolving role of teachers and the art of teaching. Because power is shared equally in many-to-many relationships, teachers are no longer the authoritative center of the learning process. Gone is their traditional gatekeeping role as they become stewards and facilitators of learning, sharing power equally with students. I’m interested in seeing demonstrations of the evolving role of teachers that moves beyond the rote one-to-many approaches of traditional online education.
While I’m in Anaheim, I expect to enjoy a grand event. And that event doesn’t happen by itself, it’s the result of thousands of hours of hard work by professionals throughout higher education - including those professionals who work for EDUCAUSE. This week and next is the most important week of their year, as they work morning, noon, and night to ensure a great experience for all attendees – onsite and virtual. If you are attending the event, I encourage you say thanks to every EDUCAUSE staff member that you encounter, thanking them for their dedication to our discipline and their commitment to advancing what we all do each and every day. If you are attending virtually send them an email - they deserve our accolades.