Changing Times: Meshing Lessons and Gadgets

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This column originally appeared in St. Cloud Times, Monday, March 10, 2014. 

I am among the generation of children who grew up on the Internet. My daily life revolves around different screens, from my laptop to smartphone to music player. I am addicted to instant information. And I am drawn to cultural memes that I consider funny, intuitive and expressive.

But I am also a scholar-teacher. While working on my master’s degrees, I am teaching a first-year writing course where I work closely with college students. The small talk in my classroom often hinges on celebrity gossip, new models of technology and social media. My dual role in the higher education context has informed me about what it means to be a student, as well as how to be a teacher for students of the 21st century. I find the latter part of the equation becoming more and more crucial in my professional development as technology evolves.

Paradigm shift

Most literature on education in the digital age discusses the paradigm shift of the traditional, face-to-face teaching model into network-mediated, nonlinear delivery methods. Cynthia Johnston Turner, a music professor at Cornell University, urged educators to adapt to the evolving digital culture.

“Some of us might find this concept unsettling, disturbing or even dangerous, but a paradigm shift is occurring and educators need to evolve with it,” Turner wrote in USA TODAY.

I couldn’t agree more. When I started teaching, I simply recreated what I knew about instruction from my observation as a student: I stood in front of the classroom; I lectured from my notes; and I assigned homework.

Yet during just the past few semesters, I convinced myself I was wrong. I have learned that classroom control is indeed an illusion. Students are probably just waiting for that split second when the instructor is not looking to pull out their phones.

I found myself committing the same transgression in my own graduate classes! I realized in most class sessions, I set my phone on the desk and tap it occasionally. I would scroll through Facebook feeds and check my email.

Just use the tools

Instead of seeing myself as the benevolent dictator, I wanted to change the climate of technology use in the classroom.

I now designate BYOD (bring your own device) days where students do individual and group work in class using their writing technology. During the semester, I introduce applications and software that are helpful for students’ learning management (such as note-taking and vocabulary apps). Outside class time, students can communicate with me and their peers via a closed Facebook group. I have also designed some assignments that center on issues with technology.

As a result, students are becoming more aware of their use of technology. The classroom becomes a site for students to think critically, as well as to reflect and share their experience with technology. Learning hence becomes student-centered.

Students also like their assignments more when they consider what they are working on relevant to their daily lives.

Echoing Turner’s advice, the evolutionary changes that teachers are experiencing in their classrooms today are something that needs to be recognized and respected.

On teaching in the 21st century, Turner remarked, “What can we do about it (technological innovations)? We could blow up the traditional model and start over, including putting a halt to all of the expensive building happening on campuses. Or, we could recognize the problem and start changing how we teach, day to day, class to class.”

While I am not an expert in education, my experience in the classroom has given me useful insights about teaching and learning in the 21st century. That is, we have to evolve with time and technology.

Otherwise, as Turner put it, “we may go the way of the dinosaur.”

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