The Professor as Trainer

Several months ago an adventuresome colleague with 30 years’ teaching experience asked a very helpful question: What’s new and different about teaching in this age of ubiquitous computing? That set me to thinking of metaphors and Gold’s Gym. By thinking about Gold’s Gym I have come to a more productive understanding of why and how my approach to teaching can and should change.

Before ubiquitous health clubs, folks didn’t think much about exercise. Exercise was the unnoticed byproduct of daily routines. Research on exercise was rare. Professional training in exercise science was yet to become vogue, and the limited amount of exercise training that did take place was limited to school physical education programs.

In today’s health clubs we still have large classes in aerobics, flexibility, and strength. But an added dimension is 15 different machines, each with seemingly infinite variations, available to “work out” specific muscle sets in prescribed ways. In the better clubs, prescribers (i.e., health professionals) knowledgeably customize routines to the objectives and capacities of each individual. In the best health clubs, pairs and clusters of exercisers monitor and coach each other while the health professional intervenes only when correctives are mandated.

The evolution of exercise has been pushed by both supply and demand. The sudden availability of multiple machines backed by research has spawned a whole new profession of exercise specialists. These specialists are, in turn, creating one-of-a-kind exercise routines and support groups for each individual. They are constantly monitoring progress, motivating exercisers, learning about new approaches, analyzing metadata, and adjusting routines. Because exercisers no longer view themselves as just “part of the crowd,” they are more responsible for their success or failure.

It’s fun and productive to extend this metaphor in anticipation of revealing more about the revolution in teaching. For example, the job the exercise professional is to help develop habits that may be used later in life, when all the advantages of multiple machines may not be as easily available.

The power to improve teaching with technology, as with exercise equipment and “exercise software,” comes not from the superiority of computer-based learning but instead from increased options. Strategies available before computers are still available today. If computers displaced these traditional strategies, it is difficult to imagine that we would be better off than before. Now, there is a massive increase in the availability of literature, the flexibility in the time and place of learning, the types of multimedia and textual presentations, the creation of groups and feedback loops, and the metadata linking cause and effect. The teacher-learner relationship can, and must, be customized like never before. The “new age” teacher had best think of the job as counseling, coaching, and customizing.

Like exercise professionals, college professors must now not only become familiar with a much larger mass of disciplinary information, they also must become educated in the spectrum of pedagogical strategies available. They need to spend more time talking with colleagues about teaching, more time experimenting with different methods, and recognize that a course plan that d'esn’t allow customization is not serving each individual student in the best possible way. The new “faculty practice” is customizing!

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