Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education online ran an article titled, “A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working,” a tale of two professors with two seemingly widely divergent instructional methods for connecting with their students. Michael Wesch, associate professor of cultural anthropology at Kansas State University, is the “tech-happy” professor, utilizing all manner of technology tools from Twitter to YouTube videos to collaborative Google Docs in the active process of engaging his students. The article begins by describing Mr. Wesch’s teaching-with-technology evangelism, and how some encounters with other instructors that have tried his methods unsuccessfully set him on a path of rethinking those methods.
Enter Christopher Sorensen, who also teaches at Kansas State University as a professor of physics. Mr. Sorensen applies a decidedly low-tech approach in his classroom interaction, avoiding tools such as clickers and even PowerPoint–which he feels would get in the way of his teaching. From the article:
“Exactly how he connects with a roomful of students is unclear to him, but he senses that it happens. ‘I walk into the classroom, and I get into a fifth gear, you might say. My voice goes up and down. It’s almost like being an actor. But don’t get me wrong, I’ve never been an actor or anything.'”
Elsewhere in the article it is mentioned that Mr. Sorensen has seen research that indicates students retain perhaps 20 percent of the material they are exposed to through the lecture format, and that he is still a strong proponent for lecturing as a method of classroom engagement. Of course, I’m curious as to what his thoughts are on that research, but there was nothing in the article to give an indication. This point raises another question that was not answered (or asked) regarding both professors: what are their students’ outcomes? It’s difficult to assess the effectiveness of either approach without some data (and while Mr. Sorensen was shown research regarding his method of engagement, there was no information regarding his particular case).
The question of presentation style in the classroom does not have a one-size-fits-all answer, and much depends on the level of comfort an instructor has with the particular methodology he or she utilizes. Mr. Wesch encountered other instructors that tried incorporating some of his techniques only to find that the results were not as expected (or desired). That isn’t necessarily surprising, given that the other instructors may have been unfamiliar or uncomfortable with making the approach actually meaningful for their students. On the flip side, were there any instructors that used Mr. Wesch’s techniques to great success? The article does not state so (although it does point out that Mr. Wesch has rethought at least a portion of his message).
This article reminds me of an anecdote I like to share when I make presentations regarding the role of technology in offering solutions to new challenges: the story of NASA and the Space Pen. In the 1960s, when NASA sent our astronauts into space with the intent of conducting experiments, there were no devices like tablets or laptops, so the way they recorded the experimental results was through pen and paper. However, pens did not function well in the low-pressure, micro-gravity environment within the space capsules. So NASA spent several years and millions of dollars developing the Space Pen; a gas-pressurized writing instrument that can write in zero gravity, upside down, or even under water.
The Soviets, on the other hand, sent their cosmonauts up with pencils.
The point being that the proper technology is the one that works, and often there are “low-tech” solutions that will fit the bill just fine, while certainly in other cases, more technologically complex solutions might be required. What happens in the teaching and learning environment is dependent upon many factors, including students and their learning styles, instructors and their level of comfort with different tools, and the resources and support available to facilitate learner success. And if we’re going to discuss the use (or non-use) of technology in the classroom, we really need to include student outcomes as an essential part of the conversation. If the outcomes aren’t satisfactory by reasonable criteria, then whatever we are doing needs to be carefully reexamined.