Reaching the Last Technology Holdouts at the Front of the Classroom

Rick Friedman for The Chronicle

Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard U., helped write the Department of Education's new National Educational Technology Plan, which challenges educators to leverage modern technology to create engaging learning experiences for students.
July 24, 2010

Every semester a lot of professors' lectures are essentially reruns because many instructors are too busy to upgrade their classroom methods.

That frustrates Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard University, who argues that clinging to outdated teaching practices amounts to educational malpractice.

"If you were going to see a doctor and the doctor said, 'I've been really busy since I got out of medical school, and so I'm going to treat you with the techniques I learned back then,' you'd be rightly incensed," he told me recently. "Yet there are a lot of faculty who say with a straight face, 'I don't need to change my teaching,' as if nothing has been learned about teaching since they had been prepared to do it—if they've ever been prepared to."

And poor teaching can have serious consequences, he says, when students fall behind or drop out because of sleep-inducing lectures. Colleges have tried several approaches over the years to spur teaching innovation. But among instructors across the nation, holdouts clearly remain.

Mr. Dede's arguments (in more bureaucratic language) form the basis of a new National Educational Technology Plan, issued in draft form in March by the U.S. Department of Education. "The challenge for our education system is to leverage the learning sciences and modern technology to create engaging, relevant, and personalized learning experiences for all learners that mirror students' daily lives and the reality of their futures," says the plan, which he helped write. The title of the report, "Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology," suggests that the country's teaching methods need a reboot.

It is tough to measure how many professors teach with technology or try other techniques the report recommends, such as group activities and hands-on exercises. (Technology isn't the only way to improve teaching, of course, and some argue that it can hinder it.) Though most colleges can point to several cutting-edge teaching experiments on their campuses, a recent national assessment called the Faculty Survey of Student Engagement suggests that old-school instruction remains the norm.

Only 13 percent of the professors surveyed said they used blogs in teaching; 12 percent had tried videoconferencing; and 13 percent gave interactive quizzes using "clickers," or TV-remotelike devices that let students respond and get feedback instantaneously. The one technology that most teachers use regularly—course-management systems—focuses mostly on housekeeping tasks like handing out assignments or keeping track of student grades. The survey, answered by 4,600 professors nationwide, did not ask about PowerPoint, which anecdotal evidence suggests is ubiquitous as a replacement for overhead and slide projectors.

Should colleges do more to push new technology? Should professors throw out those yellowed lecture notes and start fresh (or at least update their jokes)?

Here are three suggestions for next steps based on interviews with experts.

Focus on the Non-Techies

The least-wired faculty members make the best advocates for high-tech teaching. That's according to a session at last week's Emerging Technologies for Online Learning Symposium, held in San Jose, by the Sloan Consortium.

The session's title promises a world where every professor works to teach better: "Faculty Motivation and Technology Integration: How to Bring 100% of Non-Techie Faculty On Board."

The key is to enlist longtime professors with no particular interest in technology and get them to try the latest online forums, videoconferencing, or clickers, said the two presenters, from Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences. Then encourage the professors to give a lunch talk for their colleagues.

And their peers' eyes will light up as they imagine their own experiments, said one of the presenters, Dan Lim, assistant vice president for educational technology and distance learning. "Their minds will start working, thinking, 'I know I can do this,'" he said.

One of Mr. Lim's non-techie converts is Lenore S. Brantley, a professor of psychology, who taught an online course with audioconferencing tools last year. "It's always a little frightening because people from my generation did not grow up with technology," says the professor, who has been teaching for more than 40 years. "I was willing to try it because I like to try new things."

Things didn't always work perfectly—she had to trek to campus to teach the online classes because she couldn't get the software to run on her home computer. But the technology came in handy when she wanted to leave town for a church conference: She could still teach from the road.

At her lunch talk to colleagues in February, she gave a PowerPoint presentation titled, "My Journey in Teaching: From Then 'Til Now." She kicked it off with pictures of the tools that were standard back in the day: typewriters, adding machines, film projectors, and a paper grade book. She doesn't miss them.

"I'm very surprised how well I like it and how well you get to know your students," she says of her experience in an online classroom.

Administrators said at least one other "non-techie" professor showed up for a college-sponsored tech-training workshop soon after Ms. Brantley's talk.

Watch Your Language

Summer is prime time for professors to go back to school themselves, to attend short workshops on how to teach with the latest technology tools.

Typically, colleges give seminars with titles like "5 Ways to Use a Wiki in Your Class" or "Getting Started With Blackboard."

Too often those stress the technology more than its goals, though, says Mr. Dede, of Harvard.

"Those technology sessions are useful, but often they're marketed the wrong way," he told me. "What you want to do is deal with issues that keep faculty up at night. The titles should be, How do you keep students coming to your class rather than just copying the notes off the Web? or, How to get students to respond really deeply rather than from CliffsNotes."

Donald Williams, senior vice president for academic administration at Florida Hospital College of Health Sciences, says his institution goes out of its way to hire tech-support staff who speak teaching rather than technology. "None of them are salesmen for technology—they're all educators," he says. "They're not the geeky type of tech person who can't really get down to the level of the everyday user."

Look to Disciplines

Some professors attend one workshop, try one new trick, and consider their teaching reinvigorated.

But a number of teaching experts hope to encourage professors to think of their teaching as something that needs constant care and feeding.

"I like to think about it as an ongoing process," says Pat Hutchings, senior associate with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Scholarly disciplines, rather than colleges, may become the best drivers of teaching reform, then, because scholars already turn to disciplinary organizations and journals to keep up with research.

History is one field leading the approach to reform, says Ms. Hutchings, pointing to the work of David Pace, a history professor at Indiana University at Bloomington.

In a 2004 essay in The American Historical Review, Mr. Pace, as Mr. Dede has done, compared college professors to doctors operating on patients without proper training.

"Why is the classroom a place for the uncritical perpetuation of folk traditions, when the operating room is not?" he wrote. "Most of us care passionately about teaching and believe that it is vitally important that students be exposed to the kinds of reasoning and the knowledge of the past that members of our profession have developed. But until very recently, it was believed that no formal training was necessary before historians began thinking about teaching and learning, no examination of the efforts of other scholars, no collective effort to ground knowledge as firmly as possible."

Notice there's no mention of technology there.

Indeed, the National Educational Technology Plan has long sections with little mention of technology at all, Mr. Dede says.

And there doesn't have to be, he says, because the role of technology in classroom innovation is a given. "Most of those changes are almost impossible to make without technology," he says. "Technology becomes the handmaiden of the change."

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