MARC D. HAUSER
The art of good teaching is to allow the student to discover alternatives, to see the elegance of a good argument, and to understand how to engage in a conceptual revolution, overturning some of their cherished beliefs. This can happen in large class rooms or in seminars. None of this denies the importance of the digital age, nor does it ignore the fact that students today rely on digital media for learning. But such knowledge will not replace, but rather, compliment what goes on in the university. In fact, many professors are finding new ways to challenge their students in class, even large classes, by taking advantage of new technologies.
For example, in a large core science class that I have taught for many years on human nature, we have used digital clickers to engage students in class with questions as well as demonstrations of data collection. For example, I will often present an experiment in class, have students enter a response, and then immediately , pop up a graph of the class data.
This is fantastic as it not only engages every student in a large class, but shows them how they contribute to data collection and why it is important. It is also possible to use this technology in a different pedagogical mode. I ask the students a question, and they answer. If less than 75% of the class gets it wrong, I ask them to turn to their neighbor and discuss the problem. Virtually without fail, when they give their answer a second time, the scores go way up. Thus, I engage with the students, they engage each other, and a pedagogical circle has been formed. It is magic.
Tapscott's article thus underestimates the ingenuity of good teaching, that from my perspective, continues to thrive in many universities, and is not based on the premise of a blank slate student, waiting for professorial scribbling. Although I realize that many universities are turning to online classes, with virtually no personal engagement with the students, I find this trend sad. There is nothing more riveting than the dynamics of a class, when it is buzzing with discussion, to and from student to professor.
I'm not sure I've heard of many dinners hosted by Ameritech lately. Perhaps I'm missing something, but I suspect that the hundred universities represented that day are still in business, virtually every one of them bigger and stronger than they were in 1997. When Tapscott spoke, Peter Drucker had already spelled the doom of universities, and most recently Mark Taylor did so in the pages of the New York Times. We're still here.
I grant you there are days when the busy provost thinks that a little doom would have its points. I've got books to read and books to write and a little quiet time in the rubble might not be all that bad. But we're still here.
What strikes me most about Tapscott's essay is how far out of touch it is with current realities. Oh, I give you the NetGen kids pounding their phones to tweet each other and the hyper-multitasking and the creativity that arises in such settings. (I'm tweeting a little myself now, quite content that no one is following at http://www.twitter.com/Eugippius — all my tweets are quotations from Greek or Latin authors that I'm thinking about. Content of a new medium is always an old medium, and that can be quite powerful, bidirectionally.) I freely grant that there are dismal moments to be survived along the educational path. And I know with piercing clarity just how challenging a business model we've chosen for ourselves.
But there are three big things about contemporary higher education that I find our wellwishers fail to notice:
Break that, demise that, huff and puff about collapse and the like: fine with me. My bets are on the faculty and the students of the modern university, still the most powerful engine for social and intellectual advancement I know.
Always have been. Still are. Hanging in there.
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