Friday, September 18, 2009

Teaching, Technology and the Liberal Arts

Guest Writer, Nancy Evans
The 1990s was, among otherthings, the decade of the "change agent" in education. Change was tocome from the ground up, starting in classrooms, and for many, technology wastouted as the change agent of choice. This was back in the time when instructional technologists and "early adopters" were trying to lead the way and the unstated goal in many cases was to change the way students were taught under the guise of using technology. In other words, technology was one way to get rid of the"sage on the stage" and replace her with the "guide on the side." But the technology itself was a big obstacle. It was new and complicated and made for a lot of uncomfortable moments — losing documents, breaking floppy disks, crashing operating systems.
Technology was not yet wellfunded and granting agencies tended to focus on training; that is, training inhow to use the darn thing. All-in-all, the focus was on the technology (and, tosome extent, still is). We needed to know what is new, how do we get it, how dowe use it. Instructors have been particularly frustrated with this approach since it hasn't left much room for the art of teaching or even to ask "Why?"
But today is different. Jose Bowen is on to something new in "Teaching Naked" and it isn't the technology or even the information that is new. It is learning that matters andteaching that facilitates it. If a liberal arts education encourages communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creative problem-solving, expanding one's thinking, and making connections between subjects, then technology opens the world for students to ask questions and discuss with students elsewhere, to experience the lives of others in other places, to pick the brain of an expert,and put it all together with other students in a variety of ways. It's agreat big open library where we are all curious. A bit of the old with the new. (see Laura Blankenship, "Technology as a liberal art" for more on the liberal arts and technology.)
Much of the next generation of technology is found in Web 2.0 which refers to web development characterizedby communication, collaboration, and shared resources; nothing solid and tangibleat all. Examples of Web 2.0 tools are blogs, wikis, shared documents, studioprojects, and the plethora of web-based, free tools to organize and sharestudent work (see tech tidbits on the ATS web site). Technology has never been more conceptual. Web 2.0 is notjust the Web technology. It is a way of using the Web as a gathering placewhere students can create, cooperate, and experience the world. This technologydoes change how one teaches.
Web 2.0 is not really veryscary. It has something in common with drinking wine (or a beer) and with your colleagues and talking about your favorite research topics. (Don't be cynical, it could be lively.) If we are all curious and creative and have a natural desire to learn, then given facts and guidance from professors and some quiet moments to take it all in, perhaps students can allow their natural curiosity to take over as they collaborate, create and share.


  1. Do we really want to get rid of the "sage on the stage"? Might not the "guide on the side" approach present its own problems? Students should be encouraged to apply their own points of view to a topic. But they must absorb basic concepts and techniques before they can tinker.

    A sage need not be condescending or elitist. Ideally, he or she follows the precept "a master is someone who got here before you", and is someone who shares the delight of learning.


    I think a little "show and tell" will help or go a long way. We need a multimedia or audio-visual version of Teaching Matters at LU where people will come or go and demonstrate Teaching, Technology and the Liberal Arts or whatever they have done with technology or Web 2.0 in the classroom or with liberal arts: "Teaching Matters at LU - Demonstrations and Experiments - What Works, What Doesn't, What Might."

  3. Technology of any type should be considered after one developes a strategy based on what is being taught and the starting point of the students. Technology is a means not an end. Sage or coach visual, verbal all have a place in an consciously planned approach.

  4. I would agree that "students should be encouraged to apply their own points of view to a topic. But they must absorb basic concepts and techniques before they can tinker." If the implication, though, is that they learn those basic concepts best through listening to lectures (sage on stage) I disagree. That may work for some (I have wonderful memories of exciting lectures that I sponged up in grad school) but certainly not for all. I think one of the important questions is how best to teach those "basic concepts and techniques," and I think that technology offers some expanded options.

    On a different aspect of the topic, I was excited at one particular idea in the Blankenship article. She described how one professor videoed his response to a student paper, highlighting things as he went along, and then posted the video for the student to see/hear/read. That seems like a wonderful way to do the sort of online tutoring that we grad faculty do with our commuting students who aren't around to come in for office hours. It would be, I think, much more effective than just using "insert comments" in Word and emailing papers back and forth. So my question to you all is what sort of equipment and software I would need to do that? Do we have it at Lincoln and whom can I ask for a demo?