Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Higher Ed: The Final Frontier for Freedom?

Recently we’ve been seeing FaceBook and Twitter help fuel social movements that are bringing down tyrannical governments in the Middle East. That struggle with tyranny is unfortunately mirrored in microcosm in university classrooms across the country. Tyrannical professors, when faced with student insurrection in the form of questioning class values, or web-surfing and receiving cell-phone calls in class, often react by becoming even more tyrannical and autocratic. I was concerned to read earlier in an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education of a professor who routinely refuses to let a student re-enter the classroom after taking a phone call outside.

Things are getting a bit out of control. Let me advocate that faculty emulate Egypt, not Libya.

Please lighten up on the cell-phone ban. I tell students that it’s OK to receive cell-phone calls in class, but to please take the resulting conversation outside (and I let them back in). When a cell-phone rings in class, we pause to rate the coolness of the student’s ringtone. Believe me, after that it seldom rings twice. Humor is a much more appropriate and useful reaction than anger. I take cell-phone calls and messages in class too. How I do that is of course a role model for my students.

While actually in class, it is high time to get away from the Talking Head model of teaching. Don’t just read from PowerPoints, or even worse, read from the PowerPoints that came with the text. Instead, adapt your class in real-time: visit websites, write things in real time, show what really can be done with the new tools that the internet gives us.

Knowledge is no longer King; remember that there is a ready source of knowledge on the internet. What students need is help in navigating that knowledge, not by rote but by applying critical thinking. Make them part of the discussion, have them search the web on the subjects you are lecturing about, as you lecture, reporting back on the spot. Don’t take attendance; it is up to you to make your presentation so packed with information and relevance that they simply cannot bear to miss a single class.

We use a revision control system called Subversion so that I can monitor the amount of work that students do throughout the semester and give them feedback on the iterative process of design, creation, and analysis. Consider connecting with another class across the country or across the world using Skype video calls during class time so that students can get direct hands-on experience collaborating online with students who are very different from them. I’m trying that in class this semester with a colleague at Gallaudet University in DC.

My experience is that when you loosen up on the tyrannical behavior in the classroom, the result is not anarchy, but liberation. Join me.

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