new job description
Are you a sage on the stage or a guide on the side?
By Alexandra Moses
hones buzz with new text messages. Students giggle over a YouTube video. Fingers tap away on laptops as they update Facebook statuses. In a coffee shop, these activities are acceptable, even expected. But when it happens inside the university classroom, it’s an in-your-face sign that students aren’t paying attention. A sea of electronic devices faces university instructors in nearly every modern class they teach. And while it’s hardly a new phenomenon—students have been taking notes on laptops for a decade—these days, laptops and smartphones offer instant access to a student’s peers across campus and to friends across the country.
Fact-checking the faculty—instantly
Students can also now get information in an endless stream online, anytime and anywhere thanks to their personal devices. Jennifer Kidd, a lecturer in the teaching and learning department at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, knows this firsthand. “Talk about being held to your word when you say something [in a lecture] and a student Googles it and then speaks up,” Kidd says. “Students have access to this tremendous wealth of knowledge—we’re no longer the guardians.”
No matter how faculty feel about them, smartphones, laptops, e-readers and social media are how students get their information all day long, says Andy Petroski, director of Learning Technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “Then they come into the classroom and essentially step backward,” Petroski says. “A student who is texting on their cell phone is no less engaged than a student who is doodling.”
Harnessing an immense power
The challenge, Petroski says, is how an instructor chooses to take advantage of this tech form of distraction. Rather than bemoan it all, university instructors actually have an opportunity to harness their students’ love of tech tools and Web surfing and use it to show them how their favorite devices and social media can advance their learning and prepare them for today’s collaborative workforce.
University of Maryland lecturer Mary Choquette is one who embraces it. As she lectured one evening, she watched her students tapping away on laptops and phones. Choquette stopped talking, and asked them instead to grab a partner and using their digital devices try to find a specific type of document from any library website. Then students had to discuss the findings and report back to the class.
Choquette says technology allows for more flexibility and spontaneity in instruction. It “really expands the possibility of grasping a moment created in the classroom and takes it beyond the realm of the lesson originally planned,” Choquette says. “To me, these moments are some of the most revealing, in terms of teaching and learning.
Technology, front and center
Not all students are tech-savvy, giving instructors an opportunity to take a front-and-center role. Students might be experts at Facebook, but “they don’t have a breadth of knowledge,” Petroski says. Devices are essentially tools for communication with friends and family.
In class, an instructor might run a simultaneous chat, and ask students to comment on the lecture while it’s happening. Or, Petroski suggests, students can post questions and answers to a wiki or blog that all students comment on during the lecture. Suddenly, students “look at the tool in a whole new way and really respect the professor who can take the tools they use in their normal life and show them how they can use them in the classroom,” Petroski says.
It also does more than enliven the lecture: Using live feedback via chat or blog provides instructors a formative assessment tool to gauge student understanding of the material, Petroski says.
Writing a new textbook on learning
Kidd, the Old Dominion professor, takes technology to another level with a collaborative class project that has education students working together via a wiki for half the semester. Her students actually write the textbook and then give each other their final class grade. Kidd intervenes only when absolutely necessary.
Throughout the project, students peer review each other’s work, posting comments, making revisions and casting votes on which version of each chapter is best. Students spend the second half of the semester studying the winning textbook. Kidd says it’s a challenge for students, but it not only demonstrates and incorporates a new tech tool, but also encourages them to work collaboratively, think critically about and evaluate their own and others’ work.
“Teaching them to evaluate and use information is a better use of their time, [rather] than just having them regurgitate back what I teach them,” Kidd says.
From sage to guide
With so much access to information, today’s instructors find themselves increasingly showing their students why or why not an article retrieved from Google is a good one. Without explicitly teaching them what criteria to follow when reading online, instructors like Kidd instead take advantage of technology and the norms found in social media—real-time chatting, posting and sharing information—to make sure their students learn to be savvy information consumers.
Petroski, from Harrisburg University, likens the instructor’s shift in roles as going from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side.” Moving forward, he says, the faculty member’s role has to be about finding ways to harness the new media tools and technology and help students to think critically, evaluate information and collaborate with their peers.
Instructors use new media tools that encourage back-and-forth feedback such as Flickr to post photos of art projects, Google docs to work on group projects, wikis and blogs to reflect on class readings and lectures, and Facebook and Twitter to follow scholars and research relevant to a specific course. In Kidd’s classroom, a student with a mobile device can research different perspectives on the day’s lecture topic and share them with the class.
“As a guide, a teacher has to be willing to relinquish some of this immediate control and trust that students can arrive at these new understandings through their readings, writings and peer interactions,” Kidd says.
A faculty member’s role is wildly different that it was 10 years ago. Nowadays, a major part of an educator’s role is to reach through the technological noise and grab students’ attention. Faculty members are successfully turning technological distractions into learning opportunities, are more open to spontaneity and real-time fact-checking, and are creating engaging collaborative presentations that encourage critical thinking. They’re stepping off the stage to walk beside and guide their learners. Students certainly might be able to get information everywhere, but they need someone who can provide the right stimulus and help them digest it all, Kidd says. Instructors have a key role in helping shape the right experiences for students, and technology enables this. One has to wonder what the job description will be in another 10 years.