Strange Reluctance

Yesterday I listened to this podcast:  How to teach the students of the 21st century.

In this podcast three experts debate the use of digital technology in the classroom, and mingle this with online teaching. George Siemens taught at Athabasca University, Canada’s only fully online university and teaches now at the University of Texas at Arlington. Cathy Davidson teaches graduate students how to teach at the City University of New York and is also on the board of the Mozilla Foundation. Elizabeth Hanson teaches Renaissance English literature and Shakespeare at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

George Siemens was in on the beginnings of MOOCs (a form I do not think can work in a ‘for credit’ university system) but now sees their problems, but advocates for the use of digital tech in the classroom and for fully online courses.

Cathy Davidson is an advocate for digital technology as a means to expand the ways a classroom teacher can make courses interactive and interesting for students.

Elizabeth Hanson prompted the title of this blog post, however. She is an old school university prof who dislikes digital technology in the classroom and even more so dislikes the idea of online teaching. She comes up with all sorts of strange critiques. For example she references a classroom system that allowed students to post comments that appeared on a big screen behind the prof (not her) and apparently some were posting pornographic comments. This seems so odd to me as every form of technology I have ever used, either in the classroom, or online automatically identifies the student posting anything, by name and student number. She also stated that her university was now on its third ‘Learning Management System’ – D2L at this point (which is used at my universities, the U of Guelph and  Guelph/Humber). She was upset that she had to waste time learning a new system – taking hours out of teaching and research time. This struck me as being even odder than her other complaint as it took me about 5 minutes to become accustomed to D2L when my school switched from Blackboard (another LMS). I suspect she did not want to learn.

Behind her criticisms were two beliefs, one I accept and one I reject. Firstly, she stated that the growing use of digital technology was so professors could teach more students and save money for the university in salary costs per student. I agree that universities are most probably using this technology as a cost saving feature, rather than in any belief it expands upon pedagogy (even if it does do that). Secondly she admitted that online teaching could work in courses such as Statistics, but not in Drama, for example. The latter requires close attention and personal contact. I am not sure here if she meant actual theatre as in acting, directing, stage management. In that case, of course you need to be hands on as this is a skill to be learned in a face to face environment. But if she meant teaching the theories of drama, or history of same, then no, she is wrong. In any case, there is a long stretch of university level courses that can be taught effectively between these two extremes. George Siemens did mention that all the research indicates that outcomes are equivalent in academic terms between classroom and online teaching.

As I have noted in other blog posts here, you cannot fit old wine into new wineskins. Online teaching requires different techniques than classroom teaching. This brings to mind another thought. Elizabeth Hanson indirectly denied she was rejecting innovation, just wrong innovation. She stated that universities have always been the primary cradle of innovation. This is simply not so. I did a quick search and indeed universities often do produce innovations in intellectual work, but as often, or perhaps more often in recent years, innovation has come from persons who are not connected to universities, or are drop outs. As her complaints spring from the age of computers and the internet, I will list some of the people involved in that revolution, which is as much cultural as technological. Steve Wozniak was an electrical engineer, but he did not finish his degree until many years after building the Apple 1 and even 9 years after the Apple II. Bill Gates began writing code while in High School, and taught himself. Eventually he went to Harvard, but dropped out to begin Microsoft. The only connection Harvard had to his innovation was he used their computers to develop his coding skills, on his own. Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the world wide web in 1989 and built the first web page in 1991, worked at private corporations until late in his career when he went to head a research group at MIT in the U.S. He developed the WWW while employed initially at the CERN super collider laboratory in France, which is not connected to a university, but is a funded research institute. Mike Lazaridis, the technical brains behind Research in Motion (now Blackberry) and the first usable smartphone, did study electrical engineering with a minor in computer science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, but dropped out two months before graduation to found RIM. Later he founded the Perimeter Institute for research into theoretical Physics, which is not connected to any university. The only case I can find where a large, innovative corporation involved in the computer revolution did come out of the university environment is OpenText, begun by two professors of computer science at the University of Waterloo.

The reason I went off on this tangent, prompted by Elizabeth Hanson’s remark, is connected to my personal experience. For nearly 20 years I worked in a corporate head office of a large U.S. owned manufacturing company in Hamilton Ontario: Westinghouse Canada. In my last years there, the company underwent a culture change caused by its then Canadian president, E.B. Priestner. The company went out of its way to flatten hierarchy and foster innovation even in areas that were not technological. I worked in Payroll and we began to have training sessions in innovative and critical thinking techniques. The U.S. owners buggered up the company and gradually sold off all its operations, which eventually caused its disappearance. I left to return to university to study for a PhD in History. The culture shock was profound. I went from a work place that encouraged, even required, flexibility of thought and innovation in all aspects of the corporate mission, to a place which seemed stuck in the 19th century.  Professors stood in front of classes and lectured. Some were very good and also entertaining (as all the best teachers have always been). Some were boring and dry. Textbooks, paper note taking, whiteboards, (the only innovation) and overheads were the order of the day. Gradually innovations in technology crept in, but greeted reluctantly as in the case of Professor Hanson at Queen’s. Guelph is unusual in its support of online learning, as it had always had a distance education department which had formerly used the post office to send material out. This was a natural fit for the world wide web of course and for the developing Learning Management systems. But universities were not in the forefront of innovation as Elizabeth Hanson claimed. They were walking quickly as they were reluctant to break into a run, to catch up.

Well, to tie this up, my title ‘Strange Reluctance’ expresses my puzzlement that universities seemed to be behind the times. Perhaps they did begin to catch up with modern technology in order to save money and as a function of the regrettable corporatization of universities (a point where I agree fully with Prof. Hanson in my dislike for this process), but universities should have been in the forefront as sources of collected intellectual capital. Strange indeed.


About notlimey

I paint with words Poetry and prose I teach online and write about online teaching
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