More College Disciplines Join the Digital Dance
Jun 07, 2012 Comment
Not surprisingly, computer science educators tend to be on the cutting edge of e-learning and ed-tech innovation. For a professor who is teaching tomorrow's software programmers and network engineers, creating and adapting digital tools for pedagogical purposes is a natural next step.
For your average English or art history professor, however, the brave new digital world can be daunting. Even for those who have strong digital literacy and who are comfortable with technology, the limitations and learning curves of existing tools can prove frustrating.
Not only do computer science educators blaze new technology trails because they have the skills and vision to make it happen, but it also would seem that that computer science and math classes lend themselves to what digital tools most naturally enable, whether it's a flipped classroom, game-based learning, or a MOOC (Massively Open Online Course) like those offered by Coursera.
From what's being taught to what needs to be tested, it can be more difficult to envision how to effectively integrate technology with courses in humanities and social sciences, especially for subjects where the answers aren't black and white. Solving a statistics problem and explicating an e.e. cummings poem are two very different tasks. (True or false? "life's not a paragraph / And death i think is no parenthesis".)
Recently, a friend of mine who is an English professor commented that the concept of flipped classrooms sounds like the way literature courses have always worked: students read the text and background information at home, and class time is devoted to discussion and analysis. As an English major twice over and former college English teacher, I concur. While an English instructor might occasionally lecture to deliver key information, smaller class size and the nature of the educational endeavor tend to encourage student participation and Socratic questioning, even during lectures.
So what role should new technologies play in the humanities and social sciences? Where does this leave courses in literature, history, art, music and philosophy? What about political science, sociology, current events and communications?
Ideally, the primary goal of educational technology should be to increase student engagement, regardless of the discipline. The Chronicle of Education recently featured an extreme but inspiring example: John Boyer's "World Regions" class at Virginia Tech, which has an enrollment of nearly 3,000 students. Boyer teaches in person in a huge auditorium, but he uses technology tools, inside and outside class, to keep students actively engaged with the concepts and current events covered in the course.
Online office hours are held using a UStream video feed, with Boyer responding to questions submitted via instant messaging. He uses Twitter and Facebook to send out updates and announce pop quizzes, and the class Twitter stream (hashtag #wrvt) is projected on a giant video screen while he lectures. He has used Skype to interview high-profile guests, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader. And how does Boyer lure big names to speak to a class of undergraduates at Virginia Tech? YouTube invitations, naturally.
This "supersized" approach to education would not suit everyone's teaching style (certainly not mine), but it shows the power of technology to keep students connected. When I think back to my larger undergraduate lecture courses, I can think of several dynamic professors who could have taught similar numbers to great effect.
And even scaled down to a class of 30 rather than 3,000, the same potential for engagement exists. Looking back to the introductory English courses I taught in the early 90s, I can start to see how digital tools might have enriched my classroom while allowing me to interact more productively with more of my students.
When thinking about technology's place in the classroom, Thoreau's lament comes to mind: "But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools." This is what we must avoid. If technology is mandated and course content must be forced to fit an e-container, education (and educators) will suffer.
On the other hand, if humanities and social science instructors have an array technology tools that they can choose from and customize based on their needs, then their students have as much to gain as students in STEM courses, even though the way tools are employed and the pedagogical goals may be different.
Finally, let's not forget that educators in the so-called "softer" disciplines specialize in cultivating abilities that help students succeed in school and in life, including critical thinking, communications skills, creativity, and civic awareness. As educators in the humanities and social sciences become more involved in developing and fine-tuning educational technologies, they will help shape the future of higher education. The computer science wizards who led the way might even learn a thing or two.
Have you taken (or taught) a class in the humanities or social sciences that used digital technologies in interesting, effective ways?
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