60 Seconds on Teaching (Actually 75 seconds)

This is not my TEDTalk by any stretch of the imagination. In my wanderings and associated interactions around campus I’ve met a few people involved with teaching and technology. These individuals associate teaching and technology with me, too. Our local faculty development center IT manager asked me last week if I’d like to do a bit about something teaching practice I like to employ in the classroom, to which I replied, “Sure!”

This video is not really anything new or ground-breaking. I’m basically prattling on about “teaching by walking around.” I don’t like being trapped behind a podium or lectern. The classroom is mine and I should be able to walk around the classroom as I want, stand where I want, and engage any person in the classroom I want to engage with.

I’ve acquired a few teaching tips and lots of advice over the 20+ years of being in front of the classroom. One of the aspects of teaching I’m slowly coming back around to is actually conversing with students. Face-to-face conversations, relaxed dialogue. For as much as technology permeates our classrooms with clicker-based response systems, or apps students can use on their phones, tablets, or laptops, we still have to communicate with students in order to challenge and improve thinking. I’m not precisely sure the same impact can be had collecting anonymous responses from an app, then discussing response results without then finding someone willing to discuss the various sides of the topic or concern. We, as educators, in other words, must still continue to pursue in-class dialog with people, draw out thoughts and arguments, and show by demonstrating how to rationalize and deconstruct arguments in order to rebuild them. We can’t rely only upon anonymous clicker response systems to collect anonymous statistics.

This is also one of the critical flaws in online learning. By critical, I mean critical and self-destructive. I feel justified in stating this as I have taught online for almost 16 years. I can say unequivocally the online learning experience does not approach the in-class, face-to-face learning experience. I can hear the criticism directed at me: “Well, that’s because you aren’t trying hard enough. My online students are getting precisely the same experience as my in-class students, and probably more.” Sorry. I disagree. To qualify my criticism, I will say if you are teaching less than a dozen students online you may be able to fairly well replicate the in-class experience and provide a similar learning environment. I have seen this in a few graduate level courses. Even those I have participated in or was a witness to still do not hold a candle to face-to-face learning. And, forget about MOOCs. MOOCs are great for gaining exposure to specific topics or esoteric material. MOOCs fall into the category of “schooling,” as in: “Yes, I have received instruction in this topic or material.” MOOCs, almost by definition, are excluded from being considered “education,” as the student receives little to no feedback, no real way of gaining access to the mind leading the course, and, at best, may only receive comments from some talented graduate student. One may receive schooling via online material, may receive training via online material, but real education is a vastly different animal.

OK – on with the show. After the video I have provided the script I developed for the video. The script is longer than the video. One minute sounds like a long time. It isn’t. My script is about 2:44. I edited my script down to about 1:44. The final video version is about 1:15.

[Script]

“This is my 23rd year of being in front of the classroom, reaching back into my days as a graduate student. In my face-­to­-face courses I try to be as forth­coming about teaching and presenting material as I can. My audience, the students, I remind to bear in mind one day they, too, will be in front of an audience, presenting material ­ in the case of providing testimony, conducting a workshop or training seminar, or perhaps being an educator like myself. I encourage them to realize the activity of leading a discussion in front of a group of people is not something unique to higher education.

I’m a big fan of the “Managing By Walking Around” philosophy. Walking around helps a manager/supervisor gauge the “temperature of the room,” so to speak.

Getting out of the office, and getting out from being the lectern is one of the best ways to quiet rude whisperers, to discourage inappropriate use of technology and encourage participation and attentiveness of an audience. The barrier of aloofness needs to be broken in higher education and stepping out from behind the protective armor of our lectern is the easiest way to accomplish this.

Our audience, the students, the people in chairs in front of faculty are no longer directly from high school. Many of our students are adults back in school, with a wide variety of experiences, valuable experiences abroad, perhaps. Many have served in the military and have unique experiences with local population, experiences which can drive topics in economics, finance, geography, language, or social work.

Stepping from behind the podium or lectern makes the faculty person more vulnerable but can also have the effect of making us approachable. We should be trying to have conversations with students; after all, we want them to be somewhat conversant in the material we are attempting to convey.

Teaching…being an education communicator…is being a coach. Coaches don’t stand behind podiums or behind lecterns. Coaches are out there on the floor with the players, demonstrating offense, defense, communicating theory and methods and techniques. As an education communicator I feel like I must be on the floor with my participants to help demonstrate theory, methods, and techniques.

To share an anecdote: the most fun I had in a classroom was teaching World Geography GSC 110 in the auditorium in Mason Hall to about 100 students. Nearly double my normal class size, I struggled at figuring out how to keep 100 students tuned-­in. Thankfully, the auditorium had wireless handheld microphones and I could nimbly dash up and down stairs asking questions and providing reasonable responses while showing my Powerpoint notes with the help of a wireless presenter. The students were always tuned-­in, for the most part, as they were never quite sure if I would stick a microphone in their face, like David Letterman.

Teaching is part science, part communication, part entertainment, part coaching and to hit your audience on different levels I recommend being as mobile and as active as possible to keep your audience’s mind engaged.

So, get out there on the floor and away from the podium.”

[End]

I’ll never forget a meeting with an assistant dean from years ago. During the meeting he proceeded to describe the computer systems I was responsible for administrating, servers and workstation in my experience he may have never actually laid eyes upon. I remember sitting there as he is telling me about the IBM AIX servers my area had divested ourselves of a decade previous in our transition to Windows servers and workstations as if they were still in use. The experience left me really disenchanted with management within higher education. How can one make good choices, make good decisions, understand not just the complex workings of a particular department but stay in touch with the simple mundane details by staying inside a 12-ft x 12-ft office 340 days or whatever per year? I still shake my head. I’ll never be a chair, never an assistant dean, never a dean. I screwed up my career a long time with a really bad choice. However, higher education really needs to adopt better management practices to breakdown the historical inertia of ancient teaching practices and bureaucratic hubris.

I tell my students on our opening day: “We are all adults, and I am not going to treat anyone here as if you are anything but. Unless you demand or persist in acting as a child. If that is the case, just go, and come back when you’re an adult.” Pause, and see if anyone leaves.

The reality is, ALL of our students are adults (with the exception of a 17-year old, or a child prodigy) and we need to remind them of the fact and remind ourselves of the fact. PAX

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