Taking Charge of Learning: Tips for Students

My recurring pedagogical theme is that each student is at
the center of his or her learning. As teachers-professors we catalyze. We coach. We connect. In the end, however, each student must take personal responsibility for learning. Properly used, each student’s computer is an efficient and very effective tool that enhances the pursuit of this responsibility.

Along those lines, here are some views that professors may find useful to pass along to their students. First, use e-mail to form a learning support group with students in the same class and keep in touch throughout the course. Consult with the professor to clarify a confusing assignment. Share the response with the rest of the class. Use e-mail to help others, and to get help from others.

Second, use the Web to gain access to alternative views and examples that match interests and needs. Become proficient in the use of a search engine, like Google, by reading about and using some of its special features. Above all, constantly evaluate the validity of the material you are reading: Look for sites that are endorsed by credible groups of experts and/or sponsored by respected organizations without an axe to grind

Third, keep it simple. Settle on one or two passwords to protected sites (so they can be remembered). Make a conscious decision about when to turn off Instant Messenger and similar programs that allow others to interrupt studying and thinking time.

Fourth, limit dangerous uses of the computer. E-mail is a wonderful medium for good news and positive reactions, and it is a very bad way to deliver bad news and disagreement. In the same vein, send copies of memos only to people who will be able to place them in the proper context and interpret the messages in the same way. Don’t forward an electronic memo you’ve received from someone else without gaining his or her permission. Avoid offensive material, and remember, material that may not offend the person receiving the memo may offend one of the copy recipients.

Recognize that there is no such thing as a confidential, restricted access, or sufficiently deleted computer message. Once you have typed and sent an e-mail, it may be seen by almost anyone and it will likely become a permanent part of the record.

Finally, anticipate breakdowns. Don’t expect friends or professors to respond to an e-mail in less than 48 hours. Complete network-dependent, time-critical assignments a day or two early, so that you can tolerate an unexpected crash of the network when it is impossible to access any material through your computer.

Keep both electronic and print copies of all personally authored (or team authored) papers. Back up your computer hard-drive (for example, by burning a CD) at least twice a month. At the end of a course, anticipate that you will not always have the same access to electronic materials used in your course by transferring key items to your own computer, a CD, or a server that will continue to be accessible.

These five simple principles—use e-mail, use the Web, keep it simple, be cautious, and anticipate breakdowns. All of the above will go a long way toward enabling each student truly to profit from computer usage.

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