Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Smart campuses sans smart professors

Can a smart campus make its professors smart?

From The Statesman
ND Batra

Today an institute of higher education with graduate and post-graduate research programmes needs a sophisticated environment of virtual learning that allows its students and faculty to access not only its own databases but also global intellectual resources. Some universities such as MIT, Yale, John Hopkins, UC Irvine, and others have made available their courses, including audio-video lectures online, which are open to the public. Through their opencourseware, these universities have established global collaborative relations with other institutions and in the process built up their social capital and enhanced their reputation. MIT offers more than 1,800 courses online and many of its faculty members have become global teachers. Its opencourseware site has received 2.4 million visits since 2004.

US campuses are increasingly becoming broadband and wireless, enabling students to use their laptops or mobile devices from anywhere. Classrooms are getting “smart” in the sense that teachers can connect to Internet sources from their classrooms, besides using other instructional tools. I live very close to Dartmouth College and whenever I visit the campus, I see students using their laptops everywhere. Many professors put up their class notes and other teaching materials online. Online discussions and wikis are becoming common teaching tools.

Making a classroom “smart” and globally available requires the university to have a professional studio/staff to help faculty members to digitise and upload their lectures and other teaching materials online, apart from having enough server space to accommodate requests for access from the general public. It is an expensive undertaking.

At the graduate level, some universities have created virtual campuses that are supplemented with periodic on-campus residencies during which students and faculty members make presentations, hold symposia and seminars. For example, at Norwich University where I am a faculty member, the graduate school uses Blackboard Learning System for its teaching and it is working all right at present. But in the age of Second Life, YouTube and video podcasts, I don’t know how long graduate students will be satisfied with the present method of asynchronous teaching.

As a graduate faculty I would like to virtualise my presence through Second Life and offer Web seminars. Last week I attended a live Webcast seminar (http://w.on24.com/r.htm?e=100367&s=1&k=69ADCF54195868AF1164D05CCF308FF4) presented by Dow Jones, “Latest Trend in Social Media: How to Listen Effectively and Engage in the Conversation,” which in its one-hour presentation included voiceover PowerPoint, graphics, instant participant surveys and question-answers. I thought this might be a wave of the future for virtual teaching. Some universities, for example, Harvard Law School, have begun to offer some of their courses in Second Life.

Of the various instructional methods used for teaching by American professors, the use of computer-aided instruction, especially at the undergraduate level, is limited to PowerPoint or video primarily to break the monotony of a long lecture. PowerPoint gives teachers an illusion of mastery of their subject matters but its excessive use can be a barrier to engaging students in class. Some students resent the technology because it tends to shut them out of live exchange. No one has come up with an equally good alternative to lecture-discussion method that has been at the heart of teaching-learning experience since ages.

Lecturing is done partly to establish intellectual and personal relationship with students even if the same material may be available in the textbook. Sometimes lecturing becomes a necessity, especially when a tough topic and fundamentals have to be explained. When the textbook along with supplementary readings is brought to bear upon a discussion topic in the classroom, you see the beginning of learning, which is further enhanced through projects, term papers, weekly essay assignments, and the stimulus of quizzes, and mid-term and final examinations.

But online teaching is raising some interesting possibilities. While in classroom discussions some students, especially girls, hesitate to participate, I have personally found that most students participate very enthusiastically in online discussions. Many of them express themselves freely when I encourage a free-style discussion, de-emphasising grammar for the time being. Online discussion creates a level playing field between the extrovert and the shy type.

Of course students and professors miss a lot when there are no face-to-face encounters, dramatic moments which occasionally result in witticism, humour and other minor confrontations that enhance teaching and learning and make the dialogue ~ the dialectic ~ such a joy.

Information technology causes stress on the campus, simply because no one can always keep up at the cutting edge of technology. Even younger faculty members who have grown up with the Internet feel stressed due to the fact that information technology is not user-friendly.

Teaching online requires a different attitude because communication between students and teachers is asynchronous. Many adult students find working on their own time a great advantage. But how to get your point across without facial gestures and vocal cues is a challenge. Classroom liveliness and vibrancy, the thrill of being with students is absent online. Lecturing is performance and some of us become teachers because it gives us a sense of participation in the learning process. Physical presence and face-to-face meetings can bring out the best in students. The juice rush that one feels in the class when there is something unexpected, the laughter, the body language and voice inflection, and the instant feedback, including sleeping and yawning, all are absent in the virtual classroom. How to bring one’s personality into the virtual classroom is a serious challenge.

Can a smart university campus make its professors smart? Global exposure can be an incentive for some professors to improve their teaching but the jury is still out whether a smart online presentation is all that what we mean by good teaching. Nevertheless, you can’t disagree with the MIT’s motto “Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering minds,” whatever it takes, virtual or real.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University, Vermont)

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