Thursday, April 18, 2013

Faculty & Technology

This is a continuation of my First Search Committee post, largely inspired by respondents answers to questions about technology. I broke it into a second post for several reasons: there were no good responses to technology questions, the first one was already pretty long, & I have a specific interest in educational technology. It's not merely that I'm a library technologist, it's also that I serve on a distance learning committee that exposes me to a lot of major issues with the way we deliver education online. When we framed what we wanted in a candidate, experience teaching online was one of our primary attributes. Despite receiving numerous, well-qualified applicants, this was the one area where we couldn't match our desired qualifications.

Bad Interview Responses

Students love watching videos! I use lots of YouTubes.

I asked a question about online tech usage during the phone interviews and no one gave a convincing answer. The worst were neo-Luddite and the best contented themselves to list a series of proper nouns as if that demonstrates technical competence: BlackBoard, WebCT, YouTube, PowerPoint. PowerPoint is never a great answer to any question, but it's particularly bad answer to a question about online technology. What I really wanted was an honest, critical opinion of tech. Tell me how you use it and why, not what you use. Your specific tools are time-sensitive and prone to making you look foolish if you name something antiquated. If you have proficient in WordPerfect on your CV, now would be the time to remove it. Honestly, my solitary question about online technology was easily the most troublesome part of the hiring process. Many instructors are comfortable using technology but few seem thrilled about it or possessed of any rudimentary understanding.

I love technology, but Twitter/texting is ruining my students writing.

Really? That's interesting, do you have any longitudinal data to share? I assume you ran a multi-year study, comparing students who use Twitter to a control group who do not, to come to this conclusion. It's a bit controversial, because virtually every piece of research on this subject disagrees with you: the more someone reads and writes, the better they are at reading and writing. Thanks largely to the ubiquity of cell phones, students are reading and writing more today than they ever have in the past. Those students who write poorly today may have been near illiterate without the added practice of texting or tweeting. Secondly, consider that one of the faculty members you're talking to might be hella into Twitter. I identified myself as the Emerging Technologies Librarian before asking my question; anyone with any familiarity with Twitter probably knows it's popular among those in the tech scene. When you say "Twitter is turning my students into idiots," the snarky response that pops into my head is: I use Twitter, do you think I'm an idiot?

Students are good with technology! They show me how to do things!

I like the admission that one learns from one's students. I don't mean to indict that. But the blanket generalization that all students are good with technology is not only false, it's damaging. I know these faculty members. They're the ones who ask students to make a chart in Excel without giving any instruction. They ask students to make a video presentation without knowing how to do it themselves. And when the students become frustrated and get stuck, they come to the library, where we patiently try to guess what the faculty member wanted and assist the student in completing the assignment. That's a big part of my job and I'm not complaining about the helping part; I love it. I'm complaining about the poorly written assignment that assumed a skill base that didn't exist.

The Myth of the Digital Native

The assumption that students are skilled and comfortable with technology belies a much more disconcerting issue: the myth of the digital native is alive and well in academia. The myth, for those who are unfamiliar, is basically the kids these days are so good with computers. It's an assumption that growing up today, our younger students are so inundated with technology that they somehow magically glean a deeper understanding of it than prior generations. The fact is, many of our younger students know how to log onto Facebook, send a text message, and little else. If you ask them what web browser they use, they will say Google. And they don't mean Chrome, they mean Google. They can't differentiate between the address bar and the search box in Internet Explorer 8. Many have a cursory understanding of the use of some pieces of tech and but no conceptual grasp of the larger edifices of the web and computer operating systems.

To be clear: some students obviously do understand tech, the issue is when we assume they all do.

At a community college, the digital native assumption is even more problematic. When you say students are good with technology, meaning that the younger generation is, what I hear is I don't understand that many of my students will be adults, some doubtless older than I am. We have a lot of adults returning to higher ed. For many of them, calculators were the only computing device involved in their prior education. Now we ask them to understand the bloated behemoth that is a Learning Management System, to juggle several different accounts, to manage at least two emails, to complete assignments using specific software packages (e.g. PowerPoint). It's a major struggle for many of them; again, I know because I end up helping them in the library. A faculty member simply assuming technical competence is severely damaging their ability to deliver effective instruction.

Where Do We Go From Here

I don't have a solution to the problems I've raised. As a job applicant, I would avoid naming specific software, instead describing the broader category to which they belong (e.g. word processing, presentation). I would also take some time to think critically about how you incorporate technology into instruction. Do you use it to increase collaboration? To make instruction less top-down & more interactive? Or are you simply showing amusing YouTube videos because the students seem to like them? There's a vast gulf between using technology and using it effectively.

Finally, I want to impress one hopeless plea upon the graduate schools of the world: offer—ideally require, but I'll settle for offer—an instructional technology class for all disciplines that covers the basics of technology, its technical underpinnings, how to use it, and finally how it can fit successfully into different pedagogical strategies. As a devotee of two-year, teaching-focused institutions, I already think it's tragic that most faculty members don't receive any teaching training. They become brilliant researchers and writers, but they're mostly left to their own devices when it comes to teaching. Knowledge of educational technology falls by the wayside as a consequence. Its use can be learned on the job but I wish grad schools would do more in this area.

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