Game changing or missing the boat?

This week’s EDUCAUSE Mobile Computing 5-Day Sprint (…and what a creative event this is!) is yet another in a growing list of things I have bumped into lately that have me thinking for a few weeks now about teaching and learning and higher education (including but not limited to the role of technology)– what’s important, what’s not, what this is REALLY all about.

Back in January I read about the release of ‘Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa described as a ‘must-read-most-important-book-on-higher-education-written-in-recent-years’ (at least according to Richard Vedder over at the Chronicle). I’ll admit I have not read the book…only reviews. I can’t critique methodology or quality of the evidence that might be presented to support the assertions the authors make. But the review and descriptions have me thinking – a lot – about narratives of declining rigor and detached and disinterested students and faculty who do anything to win the beauty contest that is on many campuses the student evaluation process; including but not limited to grade inflation. Really?

I have had a search column running in my twitter desktop app all semester following the DS106 phenomenon. (If you have not looked in there, you should. What a creative and powerful model of ‘collaborative learning’ – disparaged by some as a weak sister to individual effort and thought and study…).

One of the assignments for DS106 included this talk from my good colleague Gardner Campbell: ‘No Digital Facelifts’.

Take a break and listen – really listen….to Gardner’s passion for what he is telling us.  There is so much in there it is difficult to distill down into one or two most important points, but suffice it to say that the thoughts in that presentation lead me back to a book by Parker Palmer: To Know as we are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. I have a whole set of blog posts brewing about my current re-reading of this book and its alignment with my observations of DS106 and Gardner’s ideas, but some things stick out right now in the context I am describing. Okay, full disclosure here. I greatly admire the work of Parker Palmer. I have for a while now. To say his books have been transformational for me and my teaching practice would be an understatement. I am going to borrow some quotes from To Know as We are Known that I think are of critical importance to conversations about teaching and learning….most especially where we talk about lack of rigor, or ‘game changing’ technology like mobile devices or whatever. Here they are:

  • “…what good teachers have always known – is that real learning does not happen until students are brought into relationship with the teacher, and with each other, and with the subject. We cannot learn deeply and well until a community of learning is created in the classroom.”
  • “We do not learn best by memorizing facts about the subject. Because reality is communal, we learn best by interacting with it…good teachers bring students into living communion with the subjects they teach.”
  • “…the practice of intellectual rigor in the classroom requires an ethos of trust and acceptance. Intellectual rigor depends on things like honest dissent and the willingness to change our minds, things that will not happen if the ‘soft’ values of community are lacking.”

Fast forward to this week and following the tweet stream from the #EDUsprint hashtag. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE this week-long immersion in a topic idea. And a whole lot of great conversation is going on. But I can’t help feeling that it is yet another cause celeb: that if you aren’t doing mobile stuff on your campus you are missing the boat because everybody’s doing it and students have these devices and so we should be using them and …on and on…

Yes gentle reader, I am coming (albeit slowly) to a point. Here it is. The ‘truth’ here that is easily missed is the relational nature of teaching, and learning, and knowing, and ‘education’ in general. The absolute crux of the matter is that ability of a teacher to create safe places and relations with learners where the kind of deep consideration of the subject – whatever it is – can happen. The one and only point for using technology – mobile, collaborative, social, whatever – at all and ever is the extent to which it helps to accomplish that relation-building. Yes, mobile devices might be the latest possible tool for facilitating that process. But observe: Appreciate the passion with which Gardner speaks about his ideas for teaching and learning. He has been described by some as ‘electric’. Think of what it would be like to be a student in his class. Think he works to build relationships with students and the subject matter they consider together? How about with colleagues? And how about DS106? What’s important there? Was it the tools the distributed community used/played-with? Nope. Again, it was the incredible learning community Jim Groom and other course builders created and nurtured. Gardner and Jim are master teachers. Not measured by usual pedigree or traditional academic accomplishments (although they both have plenty of those). It is because of the gifted way in which they bring learners into relation with each other and with the subject matter they consider. Is there rigor? Very high expectations in fact. Is technology affordance brought to bear? In very novel ways – but focused on the relationships….with the subjects/ideas and with fellow learners.

So to me the point is not what standardized tests say students don’t learn, or whether we are catching the wave of the latest trend – like mobile devices. It is well said in today’s video installment for the Mobile Computing Sprint, by Shelli Fowler  from Virginia Tech (at about 1:47):

“…Pedagogy’s still the driver…we need to help faculty get comfortable in their teaching self with learners and all these devices…”

Until we are all comfortable with our teaching selves – and our ‘situated-ness’ between and amongst students, our disciplinary contexts and whatever devices are in question at the moment, none of the rest of this stuff matters – at all.

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