Viewpoint

Horns of the Dilemma for Faculty: Legacy Demands and Technology Expectations

Amidst the Web 2.0 tsunami, life on campus goes on as normal. Faculty members are still expected to publish in traditional journals, still expected to meet their classes in rooms equipped with chalkboards and designed for lectures, and still expected by their students to tell them what they should know so they can write it on paper during a test. Where's the tsunami?

The technology tsunami is not on campus but at home. All analog TV broadcasting is ending, music is played on iPod speakers, we "bundle" our media services, we read our newspapers online, stay in touch with family through Facebook, universally carry cell phones, exchange digital photos, and work from home as telecommuters.

At home, we are gadget-crazy. On campus, we educators behave as if computers have not yet been invented. Well, a bit of hyperbole, but isn't it odd that knowledge technology would so easily change our home and social patterns but have only a limited impact where knowledge is produced?

Granted, dorms have high-speed wireless, labs have StarTrek technologies, and the business side of the campus is run with software. But, then, oh yes, there are the classrooms that look the same and support the same activities as 100 years ago. The business side of campus had to be quick to change to stay competitive and to run the enterprise more efficiently and up to standards. But the actual main business of the campus, the educational culture and its various instantiations, is surprisingly atavistic.

Teaching and learning interactions seem like rituals that both teachers and students adhere to with religious persistence. The other institution we expect to remain unaltered--despite the televangelists--is church or mosque or synagogue. Many colleges started as religious institutions centuries ago and, not coincidentally, teaching is still thought of as aquasi-religious service. As a teacher, I've often been told that I must find my work "rewarding," a backhanded compliment meaning that I probably don't earn much money.

These teaching and learning rituals are resistant to change. They have persisted within colleges and universities for centuries. Students seem to need to believe their teachers are authorities on everything and teachers to believe their students are enraptured. Their faith is that through this special relationship, changes are occurring. Few people discover tangible evidence of the result of prayer, yet people continue to pray. Perhaps the intention awakens us to possibilities. And perhaps the intention to learn has a similar effect. But, how can we ever know what learning is taking place and if our faith in these rituals has any basis?

While the traditional classroom (and the rituals carried out therein) is suited to books and print and therefore to scarce learning resources, it is not suited for the world of the Web. What is a faculty member to do? On the one hand, faculty members are still most often expected to publish as they always have, to teach in a classroom not designed, without retrofitting, for digital technologies, to teach students who really do want to be told what to think, to do well on faculty evaluation surveys that value traditional ways of teaching, and retain all the trappings of their quasi-religious profession.

On the other hand, they are also expected to embrace technology and a new way of teaching. This is a conundrum. Yet, many faculty I have talked with lament how little they do with technology not realizing they are caught on the horns of a dilemma not of their own making.

Some of us who think of ourselves as leaders in educational technology, sometimes throw up our hands and say "let's just start the institution from scratch." So much needs to be changed that it might be easier to shut the doors and start over. Consider some of the questions that suggest the magnitude of the changes necessary in teaching and learning interactions:

 - Since the interaction between student and teacher is paramount, and not a particular geographic location, why is a classroom necessary?

 - If it is necessary that the instructor make some logistical arrangements and a room is therefore necessary, why must the learning group then always meet in the room?

 - If the class is very large and lecture is the only option, why meet in a large room where many of the students are more than 50 feet from the instructor? Why not use an online conferencing system to bring the instructor closer to each student and to enable more interaction, easier display, more variety, and where questions can be sent via chat?

 - Why is the semester length fifteen weeks? Students in writing classes, for example, begin to really improve in week 20 or so. Why not design courses of learning based on how long it takes students to attain the learning goals? For some goals, 10 weeks may be enough, for others 35 weeks may be necessary. Isn't it time to put learning needs at the center rather than business efficiency? Management software can handle many more variations than were possible before, so let's take advantage of that new capability.

 - Why not give each student ePortfolio space when they arrive on campus, spend 5 weeks teaching them how to use their ePortfolio application, then let them collect their work as they progress through their courses of study, allowing their teachers to see their work while they are in their classes (and allowing the students to retain ownership of their work), and require an ePortfolio capstone presentation for graduation?

 - If students have an ePortfolio to build during their career in college, what role should faculty play and how should they change their teaching style to help students build their ePortfolio?

 - Will advisors have more ways to understand their advisees with ePortfolios? How might they use their advisees' ePortfolios to alter their own role?

 - Armed with ePortfolios as the primary repository for evidence of their learning progress, aren't students then free to spend more of their official learning time in internships or service learning or field work?

 - As students become freer to learn in self-starting collaborative ventures outside of the classroom, won't it to be necessary to add staff in those offices that manage independent learning? Won't we need fewer people to tell knowledge and more people to help students discover the knowledge themselves?

 - Isn't it apparent that educators have many more options now to design learning to fit the variety of learning styles and to keep students engaged? We need fewer sages and more guides, and this is no longer an empty phrase because we now know how to make the change work.

These are certainly enough examples to suggest why the sacrosanct classroom remains so invulnerable to change. First, the classroom is a deeply engrained cultural ritual. Secondly, once you start changing the fundamental learning design, all operations on campus are effected. Change is bumping up against a strong belief system and also against those who are reasonably reluctant to start the fundamental changes that stretch out in time and which are fraught with peril.

Fundamental change is inevitable because cultural knowledge creation and dissemination has changed. None of us works in the same ways as 20 years ago, so why do we teach the same? The changes higher education needs to make require re-engineering on a scope unimaginable to most administrators.

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