February 27, 2007

Laurence Musgrove is cranky

And he does have a few good points, but not on everything.

InsideHigherEd a week or so ago published Musgrove's essay iCranky and it really hit a nerve for me. It touches on a lot of things that are changing about higher ed that are really important to keep track of, most especially how to deal with students that have a lot more options than they used to. And I mean options in terms of how to do research for assignments, how to waste time and tune out in class, how to procrastinate and plagiarize, how to get even with profs who annoy them. They also have options to collaborate and direct their own learning as never before. The trick is how to balance the good and evil of the multitude of possibilities that new technology offers us. Just because there are new possibilities doesn't mean that they're automatically either good or bad, what we should be aiming for is to find what works in different circumstances and for different student groups. We should be open to try new things but at the same time we should resist the temptation to brand something as a miraculous cure for all that ails us just because it's new. The other extreme is to put our heads in the sand and say that only old-school teaching methods are good and that nothing positive can come from new technolgies.

I'm going to exerpt the last few paragraphs of the essay and comment on them.

Another reason I’m cranky today is that I detest these facile characterizations of our students. At some point, I expect the next newest generation to be labeled “USBs” or “ScanDisks” or “Intels” or “iLearners.” These names and framing metaphors, of course, support all sorts of false notions of knowledge and learning and teaching and success and most frightening: humanity.

Kids today are just the same as always -- cool, lazy, hardworking, procrastinating, social, sullen, passive, overcontrolled, aggressive, bullying -- the whole gammut. Something I think we tend to forget is that not every kid is as plugged in or connected as the rest. There's a digital divide even within the net generation. Some aren't as interest or have the same aptitudes, some have had bad experiences with cyber bullying, or any other reason. I think we have to resist the temptation to assume all the kids in the current generation are the same.

And I’m cranky because this attempt to equate pedagogy with technology confuses ends with means. “Student engagement” has become the latest assessment buzzphrase, and thus, the newest once-and-for-all measure of and purpose for learning. In other words, any desire to understand the value of learning to individual students is replaced with the desire to promote the most efficient and engaging mode of learning by as many students as possible. And faculty better get in line to be online.

Hmmm. I'm torn on this one. On one hand, it is important to recognize that all students are different and have different learning styles and needs. On the other hand, there's really no reason why the technology can't serve those diverse needs just as well, if not better, than older methods. Especially if we find a way to let students mix old and new in a way that works best for them.

Techno-teaching and ilearning are also best because that’s what our students expect from us. They are the current experts on learning, they know how they best prefer to learn, and we should deliver unto them what they want in the way they want it. Thus I’m cranky because in between the government money pouring into institutional assessment and the tuition pouring in from 18 year old students, faculty members get shortchanged.

Letting students decide how we should teach them is like letting the inmates run the asylum. Very true. If most students could decide what and how they could learn, if would be "nothing" and on the beach to boot. On the other hand, we run asylums quite a bit differently now than we did in the 1800s. We don't even call them asylums any more. The university learning experience hasn't changed that much in the same time period. Maybe we should listen a bit more to what our students are telling us about ourselves and spend a bit less time proclaiming our authority. We should do what works, not because it's what students think we should do but because between us we should be able to find some solutions.

Finally, I’m cranky because I have to confront all of this professional development ruckus to claim my own professional authority, to say that I am smart enough to keep track of my own discipline and the latest pedagogical advancements without having to be lectured to two or three times a year about what college students need.

Most annoying part to me. Something as a librarian I sometimes encounter from students is the attitude, "Hey, I'm a millennial and you're an old fart librarian. There's nothing you can possibly teach me that's worth knowing." Or, "Hey, I'm a faculty member,and you're an old fart librarian. There's nothing you can possibly teach me or my students that's worth knowing." Ok, more than a little exageration for effect, but we've all seen that dismissive look on people's faces or the polite refusal of help. I think we all need to admit that we don't know everything, that other people can help us, that they have something to offer if only we'd just take a minute to listen. And I include myself in that category of needing to listen more.

What our students need is not more of what they come in the door with. They don’t need more of the same in the same way they got it before. They need to be confronted with people who talk about ideas that matter. They need to become people who can confront and talk to other people about ideas that matter. They need to sit in a room of people and learn about humanity.

This one I agree with totally. This is what education is about and we risk loosing this kind of interaction at the deadly peril of irrelevance. And students of all times and places have resisted getting their minds expanded. But shouldn't we expand the definition of door a bit? And doesn't he realize he accused himself of the same narrow-mindedness in the previous paragraph?

Also, not more Facebook, but more faces in books, extended periods of silent and sustained reading and writing, developing intellectual stamina and the ability to ask questions that don’t lead to easy answers or a quick and final Wikisearch.

Another good point. A lot of learning is more than just multitasking, more than just surface skimming, it's sustained, narrow focus on important texts and ideas until they begin to make sense. But again, I would submit that we should expand the definition of "book" until it might even include, well, FaceBook. You can learn through intense, narrow, focused conversation, interaction and collaboration too. I think students might be more receptive to reading books if they saw them as integrated with a much wider information landscape, the landscape they are more intimately familiar with.

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