Title

It’s Actually Not About the Student

Rethinking the power of educational technologies for engaged teaching and learning.

April 27, 2017
 
 

“Disruption” in the form of educational technologies has become ubiquitous across higher education. No discussion – whether regarding teaching and learning, budgets, vision and mission, retention, student life – is complete without some reference to the role of technology (as lifeblood or death knell) in the process or product of the academy.

In this respect, educational technologies have fulfilled what Stanley Fish has termed “the true power of a form of inquiry or thought: when the assumptions encoded in the vocabulary of a form of thought become inescapable in the larger society.” Fish was discussing the impact of feminism, but it is safe to say that when the New York Times has a feature article on how to see the world as a “stack” (to use the terminology of the computer science field), we are far adrift from those safe analog shores.

Yet in all of the hullaballoo, I find a worrisome pattern in the ed-tech literature. Namely, just about everything has become about the student.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is a drastic improvement from barely twenty years ago when moving from a teaching- to a learning-centered model of education was deemed to be “A New Paradigm.” There is much to applaud in approaches that privilege student learning and success. One can see dozens of such examples, all prominent and all well-respected. The Christensen Institute’s report College Transformed, for example, profiles “five institutions leading the charge in innovation,” while the recent NMC Horizon Report “charts the five-year impact of [eighteen] innovative practices and technologies” in higher education.

Many of these developments – e.g., adaptive learning, mobile computing, natural user interfaces – are powerful and long overdue. Yet there is a part of me that comes back again and again to the parable of the drunk man searching for his keys in the dead of night under the light of the lamppost. A policeman stops to help, and after several fruitless minutes of searching, asks the man if he’s sure he lost them in this area. “No,” replies the drunk, “I lost them in the park.” When the policeman asks in bafflement why they are thus searching here, the drunk replies, “The light is better.”

This story is known as the “streetlight effect,” where our observational biases are compounded by the seemingly natural boundaries of what is visible. So what I worry about is that our educational technologies – and all that comes with it: our vocabularies, funding, brainstorming – are stuck in the light of the lamppost.

Let me explain: for there are really four distinct paradigmatic levels when thinking about teaching and learning in higher education. (See my post, From MOOCs to Dragons, for my view on how this transformation plays out across an institution or entire system.)

We are most familiar with the above-mentioned transition from a teaching- to a learning-centered paradigm. In this model, faculty move from being experts transferring information to guides fostering discussions. Students, in turn, move from being passive to active learners and the character of the classroom is transformed from textbook- to participant-driven.

This is good stuff. But there are, I would argue, two additional levels: these are commonly referred to as project- and problem-centered teaching and learning. In a project-centered model – which encompasses practices such as service-learning and the “maker movement” – the faculty member is a researcher and students become authentic learners all focused through an inquiry-based classroom model driven by legitimate and substantial projects. Finally, a problem-centered model – which includes practices such as community-based research and participatory action research – turns the world into the classroom (what I and others have referred to as “the community as text”) and faculty and students into catalysts for real-world impact.

These categories are, to be sure, inherently imprecise and offered all too glibly (at least in the context of a short blog post). But they, I suggest, reveal an important insight: teaching and learning in higher education is about far more than the efficient and effective transfer of content knowledge.

This is the danger of staying within the light of the lamppost. Educational technologies have become substantially better at helping us teach. In some cases, technological innovations have been driven by instrumental cost-cutting measures intent on breaking through the so-called Baumol’s Cost Disease barrier. In other cases, innovations have been transformative in that they have truly helped students learn more effectively. But in all such cases, the teaching and learning paradigm has stopped at the level of the individual learner.

What I am thus suggesting is that the current onslaught of educational technologies can help us to rethink and revise our role as faculty. This is, I acknowledge, a difficult proposition. As the NMC report points out, “rethinking the primary responsibility of educators” is a “wicked challenge” that is all too often too complex to define, much less solve. Indeed, one will not find any faculty exemplars in the five institutions in the Christensen Institute profiles. Innovation, at least in those cases, has stopped at the student level.

Yet I would suggest that it is exactly here where educational technologies can make a profound difference in fostering a truly transformative teaching and learning environment. Project- and problem-based learning in the academy has been dubbed “the flipped university” (as opposed to the “flipped classroom”) exactly because it offers an opportunity to leverage faculty expertise and student engagement by dispensing with seat-time and semester-hours to focus on mastery learning and real-world impact.

This is, in fact, exactly in the “wheelhouse” of educational technologies – offering new models and platforms for disseminating information, demonstrating competence, and reframing the conversation. Let us all therefore become just a little braver and begin to explore the darkness all around us. 

Dan Sarofian-Butin, PhD, is a Full Professor in, and was Founding Dean of, the School of Education & Social Policy at Merrimack College. Dr. Sarofian-Butin is the author and editor of more than eighty academic publications, including eight books, several of which have been translated into three languages. He has been named as one of the top 200 "Public Presence" Education Scholars five years in a row and blogs at the Huffington Post and InsideHigherEd.

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