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Why Educators and Hackers Don’t Mix

2010 May 28

I began today by drafting a comment response to this article by Rey Junco about “why educators must become hackers,” but after I started writing, it became obvious that this deserved a much more complete response.

Let me start by saying that I agree with major points of the article – just not how they’re supported.  The article references a now-somewhat-archaic hacker ideology that I identified with in my earlier days (“hackers are interested in manipulating technology for greater personal and social/community benefit”).  The thrust of the article is that educators should take this same mindset when considering how technology can be used in the higher education classroom.

Like I said, I agree with the overall point, but a few things bug me.

“The old school conceptualization of the classroom as a place to receive knowledge has outlived its usefulness.”

That may be true in some fields where facts aren’t important, but in areas where there is a specific body of information that need to be communicated to and understood by students, it is very much a useful conceptualization.

I’ve taught statistics at the college level, and if I don’t work through the nature of statistics and their computation during class, students are lost.  Not just sort of lost, but incredibly lost.  It’s exceptionally obvious when a student does not come to class one day, and during the next class is completely unable to understand what I’m talking about, while everyone else is doing just fine.

Also, if all we did in class was discuss statistics and not actually work through them, no one would ever learn what they needed to know before the next class in the sequence.  Students must have a working understanding in statistics in order to understand research methods, and the duty of the statistics instructor is to make sure they have that understanding.

If you disagree with this approach, that means you aren’t interested in learning – you’re interested in entertainment.  Engagement for entertainment’s sake is not useful.  You must have a clear instructional rationale for the adoption of specific technologies.  If not, you’re just wasting your and your students’ time – and that applies to both higher ed and to corporate adult education.

Next come a couple of photos that make a quite unfair comparison:

One of the captions to these photos reads “Where do you think your students would rather be?”

These photos contrast what looks like a 150-person classroom of nameless students in a lecture style with a 10-person multicultural classroom in a seminar style.  At the risk of sounding like an administrator, that’s just not realistic – we can’t just magically convert high-enrollment classrooms with low-enrollments ones.  While participatory instructional styles may improve engagement, class size is not something most instructors have control over.   The only thing we should conclude from these photos is that “most people like smaller classes.”  Not surprising in the least.  What does this have to do with technology or social media?

The next quote that gave me a minor conniption:

Ask any pilot and they will tell you, that it is surprising how well humans can adapt to situations where we need to divide our attention between various tasks.

What a dangerous statement!  The evidence in psychology is CLEAR that multitasking reduces the cognitive resources that you have available to any given task.  While you CAN multitask, you will always suffer in terms of performance on all activities during multitasking.  The penalty is not as bad for the current generation of students as it was for the previous ones (I suspect due to the Flynn effect), but it’s still pretty severe.  Why do you think 25% of car accidents are related to cell phone usage?

The same principle holds for learning – the less time they’re paying attention to the material, the less they will learn.  At the same time, if they aren’t engaged, they won’t pay attention in the first place.  There is clearly a balancing act.  Throwing technology at the problem will not fix anything – careful consideration of learning goals and implementation of technologies that address those goals will.

Yet another:

Now, imagine your students processing information like pilots—in a typical day they are connecting, consuming, and creating in the digital space paying attention to many things at once. Then, they walk into the college classroom where things move a lot slower and engagement demands are low (possibly near 0). While I don’t expect faculty to be “entertainers,” I do presume that we’d capture more student attention, interest, and insight if we engaged our students at a higher level than we do in the traditional classroom.

This argument leads into a discussion that social media does just that.  And while that might be true, there are many methods to improve engagement – add videos to communicate topics, use student response (clicker) systems, implement interactive discussions, and so on.  Social media is not necessarily the answer, and more importantly, should not be the de facto solution to engagement or learning problems in the modern classroom.

Now having said all of this, I definitely don’t want this to come across that I am against social media in higher education.  My lab, after all, created a custom online social network for the Psychology department at Old Dominion, which we’re current testing with summer students.  It’s extremely popular!  But that didn’t mean that we went to each instructor and said “USE SOCIAL MEDIA BECAUSE YOUR CLASS WILL BE BETTER.”  That’s absolutely the worst possible way to go about this.  Instead, we asked instructors to consider how the social network might be used effectively in their own classrooms given its features, and we allowed students to log in and communicate if they wanted to regardless of instructor utilization.  “Use it however you think you could use it best.”  That gives freedom to instructors (who will not use a technology if they resent being forced to use it anyway) and also freedom to the students (in choosing what level of interaction they want with their fellow students).

So the overall message here?  Technology by itself solves no problems. Identify a need, create a plan to address that need, pick the tech that will follow your plan, and perhaps most importantly, critically evaluate its success.  It is only through this process that we can address real problems and improve education and training as a whole.

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