Doing What Works in the Classroom

There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the Edtech blogosphere about this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education:  A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working.

The subject of the article is Michael Wesch, a popular, innovative professor at Kansas State who has garnered much recognition for his willingness to embrace a wide variety of technologies in the classroom, especially web 2.0 ones. But when other professors attempted to copy his approach, things fell flat. The article contrasts Wesch with another professor at the same institution, Christopher Sorensen: a highly regarded, lecture-loving, self-described “old fogy”. Both of these professors are beloved by students, and both do what they do very, very well.

After thinking about why his tech-intensive methods were not equally successful for other professors, Wesch has concluded that – more than technology – what makes for a successful learning experience is the bond between professor and student.

Here are a few excerpts from the great conversations this article has sparked:

EduGeek Journal: “I think at some point we are going to have to realize that old methods aren’t all bad, and new methods aren’t always the saviour.”

Lisa’s Online Teaching Blog: “Few of us were asked to consciously develop pedagogy when we began teaching. We were either left alone or given a specific model to follow (deliberately or accidentally). We assessed our own effectiveness through how well we thought students understood, and what grades they earned according to our standards. Most of us got upset when students did poorly, and changed our pedagogy and materials (often every semester) to try to “get through” and improve results. In this development, we came to believe that certain things were important and other things were not, and through experience created our own pedagogical framework. We operate within that framework every day, keeping what seems to work and changing what doesn’t. But we must learn to articulate why, to understand our own strengths and the reasons we teach the way we do.  . . .You cannot use a technique effectively if you can’t do it well, and none of us does everything well.”

Agile Learning had some great posts about this topic. First, check out his insights about about what wildly innovative teachers do (and don’t) bring to the table. Namely, good teaching is more than personality and smart technology: it’s the writing of measurable and specific learning objectives, the design of assignments, the depth of discussion questions, and the ability to keep the learner engaged, among other things. These are skills that can be emulated by professors across the university. The key is to use technology in service of these goals. On that note, he makes some great points about the ways in which one fairly easy educational technology, clickers, can help professors in many disciplines meet the needs of their learners.

Second, he’s also got a wonderful discussion of the principles of effective learning environments – an effective learning environment is, after all, the desired outcome, no matter the method. Drawn from the work on cognition and learning environments summarized in How People Learn, he recounts that optimal learning environments are learner-centered, knowledge-centered, assessment-centered, and community-centered. Putting these principles into practice can use high-tech tools, low-tech tools, or even some of each in order to achieve the different goals. In fact, he’s written some wonderful paragraphs about the ways in which clickers can help engaged, thoughtful professors excel in creating each dimension of an effective learning environment (do go read his re-cap of each, if you’re at all interested – you won’t be sorry!).

Indeed, technology done well – thoughtfully selected, pedagogically grounded, and subject to careful reflection – can meaningfully enhance the learning environment (and may also let your personality shine through and build a bond between professor and student, as added bonuses).

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