Ed Tech Academy Takeaway — Day Two

Yesterday was the second, final day of Roane State’s Ed Tech Academy. Donn King was our keynote and afternoon presenter. He spoke and presented on the role of teachers in the Internet age. His afternoon presentation offered practical advice to faculty who have flipped their class or are considering the inverted model. We also had excellent presentations on the use of iPads in the classroom (David and Ronda Blevins) and challenge-based learning (Dr. Jeff Horner and Dr. Abigail Goosie).

I don’t plan to walk through each session here. You can do that for yourself by following  #rscceta on Twitter.

My takeaway from day two is this: Teachers and librarians who believe their main responsibility is to transfer information to their students are doomed to frustration. The internet can transfer information faster, easier and better than any person can.

Mere information has become so easily shared that it is often wasteful and counterproductive to spend lots of class time transmitting information. There are exceptions, but this is true most of the time. When we lecture over content available in the textbook or review notes verbatim, we devalue the importance of those resources and undermine opportunities to connect with our students. Information transfer is not what teaching is about. Information is plentiful. Context is scarce. As Donn puts it, speaking outloud is for big picture context; writing is for detail.

I think about this often when writing an email inviting people to do something – attend an event or take a survey, for example. I have learned that most people only read short, actionable emails, and so, I often try to pare my message down to a few attention-getting sentences with a link to more information.

The same is true with teaching. Our direct instruction time with our students is limited.  Attention spans are limited. Cognitive load theory tells us that our students, no matter their age, won’t remember most of what we tell them. They will actually remember very little. Rather than play roulette with their learning, we can be more successful by focusing most of our time on helping them understand a few important ideas or concepts and then connect them with the resources to dig deeper and discover the detail. Students can’t really learn without first understanding why they need to learn. Connecting students to the “why” is the challenge and province of the teacher. This work requires creativity and persistence. This work is the connecting path to those lightbulb moments. Working with the goal of context rather than information transfer makes teaching much more meaningful. Working with the goal of context rather than information transfer makes teaching a whole lot of fun.

Remembering a Master Teacher

My college lost an extraordinary colleague today. Dr. John Thomas taught history. He died after a long struggle with cancer.

I won’t eulogize him here. There are so many people who knew him so much better than I did. They will tell his story.

What I want to say is this: when I think about the point of educating and becoming educated, I often think about a lecture series John put together in the aftermath of September 11. In the frenzied, frightening months after the violence of September 11, 2001, John Thomas delivered a series of lectures about British mercantilism. John’s stories of the British sugar, tobacco and rum trade with the American colonies helped me understand why the study of history matters. In the lead-up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, John’s impassioned, amusing stories helped me see my own times in a more rational light. I majored in history as an undergraduate, but John’s lectures were the first time I felt that I really understood what the study of history was about.

I wasn’t learning about mercantilism, colonial politics or international conflict. I was learning about the kinds of questions historians ask. I was learning how historians think about the problems they encounter in their own lives. I was observing how the well-disciplined mind brings patience, perspective and light into confused, chaotic times.

John helped me understand why teaching and learning matter. We teach to help others discipline their minds to think in useful ways that make new kinds of ideas possible. We learn to train our own minds so we can become more patient and perceptive.

John’s response to the fear and uncertainty of September would have been the same no matter what discipline he taught. It could as easily have been math, literature or biology. The subject content is not the point. Teaching can be an act of bravery, a  bold affirmation that our learning leads us forward, gives us clarity when times are unclear and offers the right questions when everything feels uncertain.

I am grateful to John Thomas and the other master teachers I have known. They remind us that the work has dignity and purpose. They remind us that the work is vital.

Mobile learning is about student expectations

I love my wife. She makes me stop and think about why I am passionate about the things that matter to me. Tonight at dinner I was telling her about Friday’s mobile learning mini-conference at Roane State. She shrugged and asked, “Why should you want faculty to teach mobile-ly? Isn’t it hard enough to teach already?”

After talking to dozens of people about what mobile learning needs to be and reading hundreds of articles, this was a fascinating way to phrase the question.

Obviously, tablets and smartphones should make teaching more powerful, not more difficult. The technology we use should help solve teachers’ problems and make teaching easier. I get inspired by the potential for responsive touchscreen graphics and animations to help make abstract concepts real to students and offer teachers ways to connect classroom learning to out-of-the-class learning. If students are only thinking about the course material while sitting in a lecture hall chair, they are not really learning.

But there is an even more basic element: access to course materials. Mobile learning is about helping faculty appreciate the ways our students expect their course materials to be available. Students expect to be able to access their course materials wherever they are, whenever they want. Students expect to be able to work toward class assignment deadlines on their own schedule and to connect in some way to their professor in between classes. Students want to always know how they are doing in the class and want to create things that are both challenging and personally meaningful.

They want to connect with others. They want to share stories. They want to be engaged.

Mobile learning isn’t about iPads, Androids or Kindles. Mobile learning isn’t really about technology at all.

Mobile learning is understanding how students expect to access and use the learning resources available to them. Once we have done that, we can help students  expect much more of themselves. We can help them discover they are capable of being creative, interested and involved in their own learning.