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Techno-Skeptics and Techno-Utopians
March 9, 2014 - 9:00pm

Are you a higher ed techno-skeptic or a techno-utopian?

On one side, the techno-utopians, there are those that believe that technologies and practices such as blended learning, analytics, and adaptive learning platforms will improve learning and strengthen the role of both the faculty and the institutions in which they teach.  

On the other side, (the techno-skeptics), are those that believe that these technologies and practices are antithetical to those of a liberal arts education, and will result in the de-skilling of teaching, the de-valuation of faculty, and the erosion (and eventual demise) of the academy.

I gather that being labeled a techno-utopian is not the best way too make friends in the faculty lounge (do these things still exist?)

This debate bubbled up last week in some blogs on comments on our IHE site. Steven Mintz kicked us off, with both John Warner and yours truly responding.  

Perhaps you jumped into the discussion as well?

As a semi-official techno-utopian spokesperson, I’d like to try an offer a defense (or at least an explanation) of my participation in this devious plan to destroy all that is good and right in higher education.  

I’ll offer this techno-utopian defense in the form of 5 questions and answers:

Question 1 - What do you think is the best arrangement for teaching and learning?

Small classes. Seminars. Labs.  

A class that is small enough that the instructor and the students know each other by name, and have the opportunity to establish a personal bond.  

A class where the students have the opportunity to create, present, discuss, debate, build, and question.   

Question 2 - You didn’t mention technology at all in your answer to question #1. Are you sure you are really a techno-utopian?

Learning technologies can only complement, not substitute for, faculty teaching.   

Any efforts to substitute technologies for faculty-led teaching are bound to result in diminished student learning, and will inevitably lead to the decline and eventual irrelevance of any institution that attempts to go this route. 

If the goal is to have every class feel like a small class or seminar, (and this is a goal I think we should debate), then I do think that technology may have an important role to play.   

Any technology that is utilized in teaching, however, must be introduced only as a means to achieving a the educational objectives that have been defined by the instructor. 

The challenge to make larger classes feel like small classes is a daunting one.  

Where I’ve seen this work best is when faculty have partnered with learning designers to design the course, and some of the didactic material was shifted towards online platforms so class time could be used for more discussion, debate, coaching, and hands-on problem solving.

Should lecturing go away? No. Some lecturers are amazing. Some faculty can create immersive and interactive learning experiences in a lecture setting.   

I’m only saying that there may be methods and opportunities to improve the traditional larger class learning experience, and having faculty work with learning designers and utilize digital platforms may help.  

I’ve seen blended teaching methods, where the best of face-to-face teaching is combined with digital instructional practices, offer real improvements over traditional lecture only courses.

Question 3 - Do you think that faculty are in the best position to determine what is taught and how it is taught in a given class?

Yes. Definitely. When I teach I have no interest in teaching someone else’s material. I bet you don’t either.  

Any collaboration with a learning designer, and any introduction of teaching technology, should be done to help the instructor achieve her teaching goals.   

Question 4 - Do you think that the process of creating new knowledge and teaching are inextricably linked?

I do. I believe strongly in the scholar-educator model.   

I think that I’d do a much better job teaching about a discipline that I’m helping to build. The best classes invite students into the knowledge creation process. 

An alternative (or complimentary) approach that I strongly believe in is the faculty member that focuses her energy on the advancing the discipline of teaching. Someone who combines teaching with scholarship about learning. 

Question 5 - Do you think that our current models of supporting teaching and learning are sustainable?

No.  

I think that we face two inter-related challenges.  

The first challenge is that of costs.  

Higher education costs have gone up faster than can be reasonably supported by students and their families, and these spiraling cost pressures threaten the fundamental business model of higher ed.

The second challenge is that of quality.  

As the Internet has pushed price of information to near zero, the necessity of providing educational value beyond information transmission has been thrown into sharp relief.   

The closer the relationship between faculty and learner, and the more that the student is brought into the knowledge creation process, the higher quality (and value) of the education.  

If I am a techno-utopian, it is because I think that we can (and must) leverage technologies to help us achieve a vision of higher education built on close-knit learning communities and the development of relationships between educators and learners.  

If I am a techno-utopian, it is because I think that we can find ways to leverage technology to remove any barriers between instructors and students, so that we can support student learning in ways that go beyond how we learned (in large classes) when we were in college.

If I am a techno-utopian, it is because I think that we can combine the power of faculty-designed and faculty-led teaching with appropriate technologies and teaching methods to improve student learning.

How would you answer these questions?

How do you think higher ed needs to change to the interrelated issues of costs and quality?

How can we move beyond the assignment of members of our community into opposing techno-utopian and techno-skeptic camps?

Are these even the right questions that we should be asking ourselves?

 

 

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