Worms and Professors” The Puzzle of Abundant Access to Computers and Traditional Instruction–Second Time Around

What puzzles reformers about university teaching is that amid abundant electronic devices and resources on campuses  (hardware, software, and technical assistance) and well designed efforts to move professors into non-traditional ways of teaching, most faculty continue to lecture undergraduates (via PowerPoint to be sure). I explored this apparent contradiction in a post published September 28, 2009.

Nematodes are small worms that scientists study because 40 percent of their chromosomes are similar to humans. In 2008, British and U.S. scientists decoded the genome of c. elagans, creating for the first time a genetic map of a higher organism, can now compare human and worm related genes to get at causes of inherited diseases.

Similarly, we know a great deal about the DNA of K-12 classrooms and use of computers over the past three decades. High-tech champions have dreamed of future schools abandoning traditional classroom structures and taking online courses from home. According to Tom Vander Ark, most high schoolers will be online by 2020. We have heard those boasts over the past quarter-century and still distance education remains marginal to public schooling.

Or consider the $62 million ” School of the Future,” that opened in 2006. A partnership between Microsoft and the Philadelphia public schools, each high school student has a laptop yet follows a traditional bell schedule of 45-minute periods. In classrooms, most desks are in rows, students receive traditional grades–you see where I am going in details drawn from an Education Week article. I dealt with similar issues in an earlier post (September 6, 2009).

So what is going on here?

Here is where those little roundworms re-enter the discussion. Just as genetic blueprints of nematodes can offer insights into inherited human diseases, a comparison between professors and teachers can shed light on why students blessed with laptops galore still face traditional classroom instruction and learning.

PROFESSORS AND HIGH-TECH DEVICES

Academics are hardly technophobes. At home and office they use computers to write, analyze data, communicate with colleagues, and draft syllabi and handouts for courses. Personal accounts and surveys report again and again that most academics are enthusiastic about using computers and other technologies for routine tasks in laboratories, lecture halls, and data analysis. Moreover, they blog, podcast, create web-based classes and teach distance learning courses.

Furthermore, adventurous faculty have designed projects in their discipline. Associate Professor Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano of Stanford University’s Spanish and Portuguese Department, for example, worked with technology staff to create “Chicana Art,” a multimedia database of works by various Mexican-American artists. Digitized slides have links to what the artists have said, their biographies, and lists of references.

Yet using computers and other new technologies to improve instruction has had little tangible effect on undergraduate classroom teaching or learning. The lecture has remained central to undergraduate instruction.

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Except now lectures are often conveyed through Powerpoint and similar software. According to a 2008 national student survey, 63 percent of professors use PowerPoint software in their courses. At some institutions, the percentage runs higher. Student reactions?

Alison Lesht, a senior at Connecticut College, despaired over going to her organic-chemistry classes. Her professor “would write on the PowerPoint slides complete sentences, which she would then read. It didn’t really add anything to the lecture.” Lesht concluded: “I call it ‘PowerPoint abuse.”

Lectures, now available on slides and studded with bullet points, dominate undergraduate instruction. Except for a small percentage of faculty, 1:1 laptops and abundant high-tech services have hardly made a difference in how professors teach and students learn in classrooms. Why?

Unlocking this puzzle requires examining those institutional goals and structures that seldom receive attention. Consider that a primary goal of universities is to produce and disseminate knowledge (i.e., doing research and publishing results). Structures to achieve that goal are faculty rewards in tenure and promotion for research productivity rather than effective teaching. To insure that faculty have time to do research and publish, university administrators reduce teaching obligations by creating large lecture classes in the undergraduate courses and small classes in graduate courses. Those goals and structures shape how classes are organized and influence how professors teach.

CONNECTION TO K12 TEACHING?

The power of institutional goals and structures to shape teaching connects university professors to K-12 teachers. Public school goals are not restricted to literacy and academic skills that prepare children for jobs in an information-driven economy. Historically, schools have also been expected to socialize children into the habits and values of the larger community while creating engaged citizens who contribute to a better community. The dominant structure to achieve these competing goals has been the age-graded school with self-contained classrooms where students are promoted or retained annually.

Those institutional goals and age-graded school structure have had a decided impact on how teachers taught and teach now (see August 13 and 16 posts). The introduction of computers sought increased literacy and academic skills, not other prized goals. High-tech fit neatly into the low-tech age-graded school.

Thus, the majority of K-12 teachers, like most university professors, influenced by the institution’s primary goals and dominant structures, continue to practice traditional forms of teaching in the privacy of their classrooms amid a cornucopia of computers.

While online instruction has accelerated in both K-12 and higher education to save money, greater efficiency in serving large numbers of students, and differentiating instruction, the goals, structures, and patterns of instruction cited above remain largely stable.

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2 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

2 responses to “Worms and Professors” The Puzzle of Abundant Access to Computers and Traditional Instruction–Second Time Around

  1. An interesting pesrpective which is not dissimilar to the situation acroos the pond here in UK Universities. We do have an organisation (JISC)promoting the use of digital technologies for learning in HE and colleagues might find this publication helpful ?

    http://www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/programmerelated/2011/curriculumdeliveryguide.aspx

  2. Kate W

    So here’s the thing – I love lecture. I learn lots and lots and lots from lecture, especially when the lecturer knows what they’re doing and allows enough time for good notetaking and has room for occasional questions. As far as presenting content, lecture is often much more efficient than other teaching methods, (although it puts the onus of individuation/differentiation onto the student, who must arrange to learn content that they didn’t get from lecture). While I recognize that most people loathe lecture, as a learner I weep for its demise, whether it is because no one offers decent notetaking time once they’ve used PowerPoint (“oh, you can see the slides on the website”) or because our fixation on making things visual is not very helpful to me when I can’t see in a lecture hall. Best thing for a big lecture hall is a prof with a big personality – the prof who performs, who revels in the subject, who manages to speak to each student even when there are 100s.

    Despite a commitment to active learning, I’m not sold on the idea that lecture=bad teaching practice, or even that a large group of students and a single prof/multiple TAs with sections is outdated. If we demand that professors spend more time in the classroom, when are they to do the intellectual research that is the heart of the university? College costs are already crazy – if we switch from large-group lectures to mandated online coursework, can we really justify the expense of varied faculty, who become better intellectuals and better teachers when surrounded by other scholars in their fields? Who are we paying to put together online courses? And how much time are they spending doing tech rather than investigating their discipline? Is that okay? Is that what universities are for?

    I don’t know that lecture and technology are in opposition to eachother.

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