Instructional technology / distance education

Our Obligation to Adapt

Imagine the following hypothetical scenario. Jen is a college first-year student. She attended a public high school in which randomly selected students received iPads as part of an innovative curricular grant project. Jen was fortunate enough to be one of the selected students. She loved writing, reading and using the computer – sometimes for fun, sometimes for homework.

Jen scored in the 78th percentile on the SATs, played on a varsity athletic team, and late in her senior year, showed an aptitude for and interest in photography. She worked during the summer. One of her two parents is a college graduate. Their combined income approximates $95,000.

Jen was accepted to a variety of colleges and universities, and decided to attend a mid-sized university, largely because of the financial aid package, and because its website showcased a new photography major.

Jen was bemused after her first week in college. She is a product of iPhones, smartboards, iPads and text messaging, and yet her classroom was devoid of technological gadgetry. Her professors lecture, sometimes with PowerPoint, sometimes without. They talk about research as if it is something to be done in a library, and not on one’s lap or in one’s hand.

The preceding example may or may not sound familiar to many educators and students, but it is likely to be the norm in the next few years. Our students process, retrieve and garner information in ways unimaginable a few years ago, if not months ago. We faculty, trained with card catalogs, photocopy packets, and reserve reading, are rapidly becoming living, breathing anachronisms.

Challenges abound – for Jen and for us. Students’ demand for infotainment need not be satisfied, but so too one should not dismiss the reality that such demand is a creation of cultural forces not easily ignored. Similarly, Jen’s technological acumen is not unique, nor is her professor’s lack of it. That divide is only likely to grow. Even as universities attempt to prepare faculty with info-tech workshops and seminars, today’s teenager is going to be more proficient at web design, for example, than your typical 50-something year-old English or sociology professor.

Years ago, I would find an article – in hard copy or on microfiche. If the abstract looked relevant, I would print out the article and read it. Now the digital version of that article is available with the touch of a few clicks. Which article abstracts does one read? How does one choose? The plethora of data is overwhelming for me; it must be daunting for someone without years of experience filtering and culling information.

We need to devote some time to rethink how we – faculty and students alike – read, write, study, research, and more generally, learn. As a relatively new dean, I have asked faculty to rethink their classes, not by tweaking a syllabus by adding or removing a book, but by thinking about today’s and tomorrow’s students. While this process has just commenced, I find that, generally, faculty are eager to accept the challenge. They too realize that today’s students are showing different learning skills than but a few years ago. Anecdotal evidence suggests that they are comfortable with facts – dates, times, and places – but less secure questioning ambiguous or conflicting ideas. Perhaps this is nothing new. After all, contextual analysis is a tricky and sometimes exhausting enterprise.

We have to develop those skills by adapting our own pedagogy and modifying our formal training. Many of us still love the book – the smell, the spine, and the ability to write in the margins. But we need not be intellectual dinosaurs. Perhaps there is something to be said about digital textbooks, replete with high-pixel digital images, highlighting and note-taking capabilities, podcasts and moving cameras. (The new digital art history books are mesmerizing.)

How do we develop those skills? The responsibility, I would suggest first lies with provosts, deans and chairs. Instead of wasting valuable time on weekly meetings about the status quo, we should be listening carefully to college-bound high school students. Our faculty should be present too, perhaps sitting in the background taking copious notes (either on a memo pad or an iPad). Provosts should make technology in the classroom the theme of their faculty retreats, perhaps for the next year or two, if only because technological advancements find the marketplace faster than the glacially slow academic calendar.

We then should be holding a series of summits with our information technology departments, not as we always do to discuss next year’s budget, but to imagine together what the next five or ten years of classroom instruction will look like, and to develop specific strategies for implementing that vision. Perhaps it will require a million dollars. Perhaps, indeed. If so, then it is time for us deans to raise funds, or for us quickly to develop strategic partners with computer companies.

There are no more Luddites in the university. I should know. I learned how to do chi-squares calculations by hand, and I still believe such a method teaches students how to understand the relationship between two variables. I still have a file cabinet full of journal articles. My fondness for books and bookstores has not dissipated, nor has my passion for reading the hard copy of the newspaper.

Critics may misinterpret this call for action as a desire to teach to the whims of technology. Quite the contrary. Even the able scholar with a fountain pen now uses a laptop and a flash drive. Information abounds – good, bad, true and false. It can be retrieved and stored in ways inconceivable but two years ago. Teaching Jen to discern what is crud and what is critically valuable – in a way that both inspirational and imaginative – is no easy task. Her voracious intellectual appetite must be met with creative energy we have not yet tapped.

Robert M. Eisinger
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Robert M. Eisinger is the dean of the school of liberal arts at the Savannah College of Art and Design.

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Antidote for Entitled 'Customers'

Many professors are perplexed by their students’ entitlement complex. To their way of thinking, say the faculty, students see themselves as customers who deserve being treated as “always right” no matter how wrong, rude, inconsiderate, or otherwise bizarre they behave. In one recent essay, Brian Hall expressed his concern that students were telling him he wasn’t teaching to their style. In expressing his frustration, he uses the “e” word: “Maybe students are so used to our consumer-driven society that they have an inaccurate sense of entitlement. They believe the customer is always right … and I am only supposed to teach students what they want to know and nothing more.”

Equally dismayed is Elayne Clift, who concluded from her semester in hell that “Every college teacher I know is bemoaning the same kind of thing. Whether it’s rude behavior, lack of intellectual rigor, or both, we are struggling with the same frightening decline in student performance…. A sense of entitlement now pervades the academy, excellence be damned.”

In an interview with the authors of the newly published Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (University of Toronto Press), James E. Côté and Anton L. Allahar state, “The corporate model treats students like customers, and as customers they expect services and products for their tuition fees. The services include high grades in return for little effort. The products include guaranteed credentials with a guaranteed value. With this sense of entitlement, most will not prepare for classes, and expect all material to be told to them in simple terms in entertaining classes.”

Cumulatively these articles generate hundreds of comments, ranging from faculty at their wits’ end with underprepared and overdemanding students to others who suggest faculty leave the academy and their cushy jobs if they can’t handle their students. What seems in short supply are ideas worth trying that could eliminate entitled student syndrome and get all of us stakeholders in higher education united in achieving our common goal – students who demonstrate a passion for learning that enables them to graduate on time with good prospects for career success.

A hint toward a potential solution was offered in a comment to Hall’s essay: “It's not that complex. All they learned is there is no loyalty. They've watched every older family member get laid off, downsized, and outsourced. The only thing they believe in is building relationships on trust and credibility…. What makes you different from anyone else? The relationship, the relationship.”

As I see the problem, many students expect one type of college experience while their faculty believes in delivering something completely different. The resulting disconnect, manifested in students’ awful behavior, is owing to the gap between the desired and actual experience. To my way of thinking, a potential solution lies in doing the exact opposite of what faculty are inclined to do, which is giving students the idealized learning experience they themselves had or aspire to in their classrooms.

Instead, create a student learning experience designed empathically to meet students’ expectations. By “design” I don’t mean construct a syllabus, exercises and lectures, all those things we typically associate with course design. On top of all that usual activity, faculty members should try designing an actual experience for their students, modeled on the principles and qualities of iconic user experiences.

Does this sound like a recommendation to treat students as customers, and if so, isn’t that the root of the whole entitled student problem? If faculty have no control over student experience expectations anyway, why not turn it into a strategy for better behaviors conducive to learning?

Consider the potential value in approaching what happens in the classroom as if your job depended on how good an experience you delivered. If you were an independent consultant being paid directly by the students, as your customers, how many of them would recommend you to their friends versus how many would ask for refunds? The goal is an experience that builds relationships based on trust, leading to loyalty.

Here are three principles faculty can employ to create the student learning experience:

1. Start with why.
2. Write your experience brand statement.
3. Move toward totality

The ‘why.’ In his book, Start With Why, the author Simon Sinek explains why it’s critical to start anything you do, whether it’s selling widgets or teaching, by first articulating why you do it -- what’s your purpose, your belief, your reason for getting out of bed and going to your classes. He shares the stories of inspired leaders and others who succeeded where many failed. They all have one thing in common: the golden circle. At the center is “why”; the how (technique) and what (results) are peripheral. Sinek points out that no one buys what you do, they buy why you do it.

Just another meaningless “achieve success” business-jargon platitude? Think about it. You want your students to come to your class because they believe in what you offer them – because they believe in you. To paraphrase Sinek, if people buy why you do what you do, not what you do, and you have no clear sense of why you teach this material, then why should any student give you their undivided attention and respect? Because you have a title, some letters after your name and grading power? Sorry, that’s not good enough.

If the only message students get from you is that they must take this class to master some subject matter in order to succeed on assignments, that’s all based on the “what” of the golden circle. The “what” are your results -- what you get for your effort, such as a grade. What people want – and why they follow any inspiring leader – is to satisfy a deep innate desire to emotionally connect with other humans. Think back to your most inspiring instructors, and to those for whom you had only disdain. Which ones connected with you on an emotional level? Those instructors were the ones with which students wanted to build relationships.

Imagine sharing the why message in every class, each time. I teach instruction sessions. I only have 50 minutes – not 16 weeks. I could easily throw up a list of outcomes, like “you’ll be able to search a database” – who cares? The first thing I do is look them square in the eye and tell them that if they listen to me and work with me for the next 50 minutes, I believe they will do better in the course, improve their papers, and learn an important skill; I want them to believe in me first. Then I can deliver the experience that I’ve designed for the session. In answer to Hall’s question: no, you should not teach the students only what they want to know. Instead give them an experience that drives them to want to know what you have to offer.

The experience brand statement. The EBS is a way to express the why as a form of action; it defines the experience you want others to have in response to what you offer them. By establishing an EBS, the instructor seeks to deliver a consistent experience and touchstone for dealing with those situations that fall outside the norms of classroom behavior. Consider the Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle. It is universally recognized as the most famous fish market because of the unique experience it delivers. People flock there to buy the products, and take part in their totally unique and zany way of fishmongering. But it started with an EBS: treat everyone as if they are world-famous.

That’s the whole point of the EBS – to create loyalty and relationships – and to be different in how you go about it. What exactly do you bring to the classroom that students can’t get anywhere else or that they haven’t already experienced a thousand times since preschool? You may wish to dismiss this idea by telling yourself that you don’t have to do anything different because they are paying to learn, nothing more or less, and that as long as you teach the content you are doing your job and it’s their responsibility to be engaged, cooperative and respectful. But I ask, why should they if you don’t take the time to design an enlightening and engaging learning experience for them?

Move toward totality. What likely exacerbates the problem of the entitled student and the barriers to creating a student learning experience is that each faculty member teaches in a silo called the course. At most colleges and universities, there is no student learning experience. There is only the course experience, and it can differ radically from course to course. Most of the world’s iconic user experiences are the exact opposite of what happens in higher education. Imagine if every aspect of Apple’s business were a totally different experience. Your iPhone, your iPad, your iPod would all work completely differently with different interfaces. Each would require the use of a different web-based service, each with completely different experiences. You might need to go to different Apple stores for service. In other words, you’d have a broken system where none of the parts worked together, and you’d ultimately have one truly bad experience.

That’s why the best experiences are based on creating systems that work together – a systemic user experience that delivers satisfaction from the moment you first explore, through your interaction and all the way through until you end your relationship. Think of it as totality. The experience is great from start to finish, and is always consistent and coordinated at any touchpoint where contact occurs. Now, does any of that describe your college or university, or even the courses in your department?

So what would a course based on these three principles look like? A good example is provided by Ryan Cordell, who shared his beliefs on why it’s important to use technology to engage students, and provided examples and resources for creating this learning experience. If I had to sum up Cordell’s philosophy of applying technology to engage students in building their scholarly authoring skills as an EBS it would be: Students Will Get Their Intellectual Hands Dirty. Cordell’s belief, his purpose, is to immerse his students in a scholarly experience. Remember, your students don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.

In his Chronicle of Higher Education essays this spring about “The Perfect Storm in Undergraduate Education,” Thomas H. Benton shares his views on why higher education is academically adrift. He says, “Few people outside of higher education understand how little control professors actually have over what students can learn.” I found it so puzzling a statement. It’s the professor who has more control over what happens in the classroom to affect learning than anyone else. Granted, Benton has no control over his students’ level of preparation or the shortcuts other faculty take or their lack of rigor. But he – and every other instructor – holds ultimate control over the design of the unique experience that is the class, and the faculty can collaborate to create the total learning experience the institution delivers.

Like many faculty members, I suspect that Benton interprets the term “experience” only in negative ways, as in a manufactured college experience promised by administrators. In part two of the essay he writes, “Increasingly, students are buying an ‘experience’ instead of earning an education, and, in the competition to attract customers, that's what's colleges are selling.” If designed experiences are so powerful in selling students on choosing one college over another, why not design a course-level learning experience and sell students on what you offer them as their instructor?

The choice is up to each instructor. You can stop making excuses. Stop blaming it on poor preparation. Stop blaming it on the administrators. Stop blaming it on helicopter parents. Stop blaming it on MTV, video games and smartphones. Stop blaming it on society. Most of all stop blaming it on a student’s sense of entitlement. No amount of finger-pointing will create positive change or help you achieve the goals you set for yourself when you chose to teach. If it’s time to change something up, start with the learning experience the students get. Think about why you do it and how to design an experience around it. There’s no time for more excuses.

Steven J. Bell is associate university librarian for research and instructional services for Temple University Libraries. He blogs at the Kept-Up Academic Librarian.

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