Higher Education

SUNY Conference on Instructional Technologies

I’m in Plattsburgh, NY for the SUNY CIT conference where I’ll be
delivering a presentation with my colleague Karen Stearns tomorrow. CIT
is basically an interdisciplinary conference dealing with IT that draws
faculty, librarians, IT staff, and IT administrators, mostly from the
SUNY system. I’m hitting a few panels today, and I’m right now in the
middle of one. The first presentation was titled "The university (as we
know it) has no future," and the one that is about to start is "The
future instructional technology leader," both of which clearly deal
with the issue of futurity.

I have to say that the conversation we are having is… well…
introductory. Right now I am hearing a reiteration of Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind, which is a good book, but I’ve read it. That said, it’s a decent presentation. He’s trying to make this point that IT folks can no longer be defined simply by right-brain thinking technology skills; they need those left-brain thinking "soft skills." It’s an interesting juxtaposition with the earlier panel where the presenters were struggling with the apparently competing priorities to, on one hand, offer students an engaging, customizable education, and, on the other hand, make sure that students have education they need.

The error in thinking is that these are competing priorities–and the Pink thing offers a way to think about this, though Henry Jenkins might get me there faster. Jenkins talks about the struggles of Hollywood in dealing with fan fiction, in worrying about protecting their brand. I see the issue of the potential changes to education in similar terms: if education becomes student-driven, what happens to the university brand?

The example the presenters used was with American History. If education is customizable, will students show up for American History (my opinion of general education is well documented here, so I won’t go into that today)? And once they are in the class, if the education is customizable within the class, will important information be missed? In some ways, a more professional-educational example would work better here: there are some things MDs need to know.

Perhaps the answer for educators is the same as for movie producers (and if Lanham is right, universities are becoming content-providers). Fan fiction does have to devalue brand. Spiderman fan fiction shouldn’t stop people from going to see Spiderman 3. Developing the right relationship with your core fans can even be profitable. In a similar fashion, student customization of the educational experience need not devalue the brand. However, the brand has to be quality; it has to deliver for its audience.

Here’s where the Dan Pink business might come in. In the past, it was enough that professors were content experts. Like the tome that came with your software package, we didn’t have to think about audience; we could just spout technical information. And that’s what professors did. Sure, some made attempts at offering entertaining or engaging lectures, but those lectures will still structured by a basic rhetorical relationship where the flows of information were regulated hierarchically.

Now, however, we must think more creatively to engage students. We have to teach in a far more open and participatory space than before. We shouldn’t see this as a loss; we shouldn’t lament the departure of the lecture. Nor should we "blame the students," by saying they aren’t as mature or don’t have the attention spans or whatever. Listening to lectures is highly inefficient form of learning. In the past we could only do better in small classrooms. Now we can do better period. The dynamics of learning have changed.

And honestly I am far more worried about the passive student who will happily sit through a lecture and expect me to give them everything they need than I am about the active student who wants to shape her own learning experience.

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