24 November 2009

Teaching in the 21st Century

Students are not the same as they were 50 years ago. Silly as it might seem, this particularly struck me as I drove to work this morning. I passed a young woman walking to her exam in sleep pants and a sweatshirt. I don’t know why the image was so startling today, of all days, but all I have been able to think about this morning is how different today’s students are than they were 50, 40, 30, 20 and 10 years ago.

Today’s students are immersed in a different world; they are techno-saturated, multitasking machines surrounded by the noise of a distracting world. One of the great questions facing educators today is how to inspire passion in their students – or, at least enough interest to maintain their attention until the end of an hour.

Jeffrey R. Young writes an interesting story in the Chronicle of Higher Education today (
link, subscription required) about the use of Twitter in the classroom. This is an area of particular interest to me, as I am extremely interested in new(er) technologies and personally have tried to foster discussion during symposiums / presentations using this same method.

Admittedly, my efforts have been relatively unsuccessful, but I believe that is because I made a few critical errors (which I will address in a future post). Despite my previous experiences, I believe that Twitter, and perhaps SM more broadly, can have powerful implications when we apply it with purpose in the classroom.

Young spoke with several professors and students about their experience using Twitter in the classroom. One of my favorite lines from Young’s story:

As one student, Ben Van Wye, told me, "I'm not that outspoken in class, so I would never ask a question out loud to the professor. But you can type it in as anonymous, so nobody really knows if what you're asking is a dumb question."

That anonymity leads to questions the professor says he never heard before in a course he has taught for years.

Yes, there are drawbacks, and yes, this is something that could be done with simple scrap paper and a drop box. But I wonder, how successful has the paper/pen method been in the past? Part of the power of real-time conversation using Twitter is the immediacy of response and the ease with which students can give feedback.

I asked [Prof. Sugato Chakravarty] if he thinks the system shifts too much control to students. He said students in class are online or texting on their phones anyway, so why not try to channel that energy to class discussion? "To force them to behave in a certain way is not respect," he said. "If you want respect, you have to earn it. To mandate respect is stupid."
Agree or disagree with Chakravarty’s application, I think he makes a key point here: we have to address the realities of the 21st Century classroom. Today’s students are not the same as those from 50 years ago, and if we want to make a difference and inspire passion in our students, we’re going to have to reexamine our dogmatic approach to teaching college students.

I’m not advocating total revision of how we teach, but new technologies and applications have the power to make what we do – encourage excitement about learning and self-discovery – even more effective.

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