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Changing the Way We Teach

Put authentic learning first--the technology will follow.

Michael Wesch is a cultural anthropologist, a researcher in digital ethnography, and an associate professor at Kansas State University. He will present the opening keynote, "From Knowledgeable to Knowledge-able: New Learning Environments for New Media Environments" at Campus Technology 2011 in Boston, July 25-28. CT asked for his insights on teaching with technology.

Campus Technology: You've said that when you first began teaching in higher education, it was nothing like you expected. Why?

Wesch: Each semester I face 200 to 400 students in a large university lecture hall. Each semester I ask them a simple question, "How many of you do not like school?" It is not uncommon for more than half of them to raise their hands. I follow with a slight variation on the question: "How many of you do not like learning?" No hands. We love learning, but dislike the institution we have created for it.

CT: How has the college experience changed since you were a student?

Wesch: The primary goal of most students has not changed in the 15 years since I was a student. We still live in a society in which identity and recognition are not givens, so most students spend most of their time trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, and what they want to do. What has changed is the media environment in which this quest is carried out. Marker boards on dorm doors have given way to online status updates. Phones stopped being just phones. Notes and letters became e-mails, texts, and IMs.

CT: Which technologies are changing the student experience the most?

Wesch: The most potentially disruptive technologies are those that allow for broad-scale authentic collaborations that transcend the boundaries and limitations of classroom walls. Of course, these technologies are also the ones that are most difficult to implement because they do not work well with the traditional habits, assumptions, and structures of higher education. When I asked my students this same question, they responded that the highest impact technologies are those they most commonly use: Facebook, texting, and instant messaging. When I noted that these are not really used much in the classroom, they laughed (because of course they are used in the classroom--just not with the permission of the professor).

And therein lies a glimpse into an even more disturbing phenomenon. The most potent collaborative learning machine ever created finds its primary use in university classrooms as a distraction device. We live in a world that is quickly racing toward ubiquitous computing, communication, and information about everything everywhere, accessed at unlimited speed and uploaded from anywhere on all kinds of devices--all of which makes it possible to connect, organize, share, collect, collaborate, and publish with almost anybody and to almost anybody in the world. How did we end up in a situation in which the institutions we have designed for learning see this as a distraction rather than an asset?

CT: What can institutions do to teach 21st century skills?

Wesch: We have to start with problems and projects that are real and relevant to students. There is nothing more difficult or more important than finding a purposeful project to share with our students. From there we can build a community of learners, leveraging the appropriate tools and working together to accomplish real results. The worst thing we could do at the moment is to make the technology yet another assignment for students to complete, to get their grade, and move on. We have to help them see the technology as essential to learning, collaborating, and accomplishing their real goals.

About the Author

Mary Grush is Editor and Conference Program Director, Campus Technology.

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