Monday, September 08, 2008

Support for teaching digital natives

Thomas Benton once again writes about issues in teaching the digital natives. I'm going to leave aside the argument about whether we're getting more stupid. I'm not entirely sure we are.

I want to comment on two things. One, he mentions the problem of college students not being exposed to different generations (more true for K-12). Most of college students' socializing and work happens among people their own age. I would argue that students who have active online lives have greater potential to be conversing with people of a variety of ages. Someone who has a blog (outside of Live Journal) or who plays online games is likely to interact with some older and some younger people. In my own online experience, I know this variety of generations is both a challenge and a delight.

The second, and more important, issue for me, comes in the last section of the essay:

If digital technologies are a cause of "stupidity," it is because we have spent freely on computers — among other things — without also giving comparable support to college teachers. The students have been left to negotiate a cultural paradigm shift, comparable to the print and industrial revolutions, with inadequate support from the institutions created to help them.

And that strikes me as unambiguously stupid.

This is a pet peeve of mine. There are two directions this increased support can go. One is to provide faculty with the time and financial resources to learn and develop new teaching strategies that take advantage of technology. This might mean course releases, internal grants, or extended workshops in the summer. The main thrust of this kind of support is giving faculty new knowledge and skills that they can apply to their teaching.

The second direction, one that seems to be more popular, is to offload that work, to have a model I call "digital Kinkos." In this model, the faculty member might bring their course materials to a team of technologists, who, after an hour-long meeting with the faculty member, produce a digital version of the course, complete with multimedia lectures. I have not seen this happen quite so wholesale, but I have seen it in small one-off situations. When a faculty member asks for video clips or for configuration of a Blackboard course or digitization of images for a lecture, that's a form of digital Kinkos in my book.

I'm not saying we can get rid of digital Kinkos entirely. Digitization is often a tedious and time-consuming process and a knowledgeable technician is often better at it than a faculty member. But simpler things, such as using the features of a course management system or a blog, should be taken on by the faculty member. As I try to tell my faculty, there is no right or wrong when it comes to using the tools available. It depends on your teaching goals and you know those better than I do.

I would advocate, then, a hybrid model. There will be a need to provide digitization services, but more importantly, faculty should be allowed the time and encouraged to take the time to discover the possibilities of new technologies for teaching. A summertime workshop of a couple of weeks strikes me as a good place to start. A course release in a semester in which a technological overhaul of a course is taking place makes sense too. Financial support in the form of internal grants for hiring staff or students to aid in digitization or for travel to technology-related workshops. And, of course, appropriate credit for technological innovation when it comes time for tenure review. Without these latter rewards and support structures in place, digital Kinkos means nothing. It means you have faculty using materials they didn't create and know little about. It's akin to teaching from a book you haven't read or just skimmed.

What I wonder about is the role of the Instructional Technologist in all of this. It's clear what the role is for the digital Kinkos model. They make the video clips and the PowerPoint presentations and build the Blackboard courses. In the second model, they can be the person to run the workshops, provide advice during the semester, and do some (but less than in the first model) of the digitization work. But I think the ideal scenario is not to have an IT person per se. The ideal scenario is to have a tech-savvy faculty member providing the workshops and the advice. Perhaps they get a course release for this administrative work. Perhaps they have a team of students to do the digitization. In this scenario, the faculty member who, by virtue of their being "one of them," immediately garners more respect than an IT person. To me, this makes a lot of sense. Of course, I just wrote myself out of a job.