Why Not Lab Time for 'Soft' Disciplines?

Faculty get heat for not adopting digital technologies in their teaching. At the same time, they have only limited access to a fully connected environment in which to make a reasonable commitment to transforming their teaching approach. The least connected time that both faculty and students experience in their daily life is their time in the classroom!  And while the room may be connected to the campus network by way of a "faculty station," rarely do all students have net access from their seats, sharing the same software and on similar platforms with their peers and with the instructor. We are putting faculty into a Catch 22 situation.

The immense costs, long-term commitment, and management challenges have prevented most institutions from going down the Laptop U path, and the rationalizations for not doing so are both legitimate and unacceptable. Why would a faculty member make a major commitment to shifting to a technology-based teaching plan if she can't plan on having access to technology that will support her commitment?

The argument for incrementalism--adding in a bit of technology work here and there as the semesters go by--is a false argument. Without a total transformation of the whole teaching and learning approach, technology "add-ons" only are that: added work. What happens in reality is that a faculty member will add on and then drop off in a series of technology false starts, each time realizing that the cost of using technology beyond PowerPoints and e-mail is just too great.

But maybe there is a middle ground between the situation now--a few classrooms that have been converted to computer labs for teaching but most classrooms remaining largely as they were 10 or 20 years ago--and going the full Laptop U way: adopting the model of the sciences and their lab hours for all disciplines. The difference between a three-credit course and four-credit course is supposedly because of lab hours. With chemistry and physics and other disciplines, it was easy to understand the need for labs and the extra time. But the times have changed radically and now all disciplines need lab hours and lab access: access to a fully-collaborative computer lab. And all disciplines, therefore, assuming we stay with the credit system a bit longer, need to get 4 credits per course based on all disciplines having a 2-hour lab period each week.

The lab time in history or philosophy or English would be devoted to using appropriate technology and communications and resources during class time with the teacher or a TA or even a lab monitor. Faculty in all disciplines must have some time each week when both they and their students can plan on being connected and can work with the academic tools of the time. This is not a nice-to-do; this is a must-do.

If this lab time can be assumed as always available, then faculty members may feel more inclined to experiment with new approaches involving technology. Without lab time or ubiquitous and universal access in the classroom, faculty get a mixed message: Use technology even though there is no technology available and, if you don't, it's your fault.

I've been aware over the past few years that some faculty have opted to hold class one day a week online. This has usually meant that the teacher and students meet asynchronously on, say, Friday each week. This usually means that both the teacher and students are working from home, perhaps accomplishing something unique and valuable but, still, taking a bit away from the value of residential campuses.

How much better if the class could meet at its regular time in a computer lab, be online, but still have the value of being in one place together? Combining online and face-to-face interaction during a class period brings new energy to class interaction. The idea of "let's talk about ideas in the field on a couple of days and then try out those ideas on another day in a practical lab setting," as has been the idea in the sciences for a long time, is still a good idea. And this idea needs to be adopted by all fields, not just sciences or engineering or pharmacy, etc. Learning can be experiential and still be in the classroom.

The compelling practical case for adding lab time to all disciplines is that providing enough computer labs for all courses is achievable in the short run without breaking the bank. The compelling learning case is that faculty will have at least a chance of seriously using the academic learning tools of the day in their teaching. And, students will have greater variety in their learning opportunities and more chance to be active in their learning than is the case now.

Faculty members need a fair chance to experiment with new teaching methods in this age when the tools of the trade are now digital. Provide access to these tools not just for PowerPoint but for lab hours when some real transformation can occur. Make all courses 4 credits and let's get on with teaching and learning in this age.


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