Tuesday, March 16, 2010

From Lynn Nielsen at UNI - How to teach effectively with computers in higher ed

Lynn Nielsen at University of Northern Iowa wrote the following message and gave me his permission to post it here.

I teach at a university in the Midwest in the graduate and undergraduate programs in elementary social studies education. A friend recently sent me an online article titled Laptops vs. Lectures: Let's Ban Lectures! found at http://link.social.com/c/twitter/1349941/1268664428/b/cTEW0S/b8E8RD

In this article the author, Mike Elgan asserts, "Lecturing professors nowadays face a room full of students paying full attention -- to their laptops. One science professor achieved minor YouTube fame recently when a video surfaced showing him freezing a student's laptop in liquid nitrogen, then smashing it on the floor. The professor commanded: "Don't bring laptops and work on them in class!" (I wonder how many university students watched that video during class.) A lecture, by definition, is a method of teaching whereby a person talks and an audience pays attention. But a laptop is an interruption machine that fragments attention. Lectures and laptops are incompatible activities.........."

I teach all of my graduate courses online and my undergrad courses in a computer lab. My response to Elgan is summarized in the following paragraphs:

I don't think teaching is either/or--either computers or lectures. There will always be the place for a really good lecturer. Most professors however (me included), are not all that good at lecturing. I'm fine as long as I am giving directions about procedures or explaining concepts. But delivering a powerful and breathtaking monologue on the importance of the American Revolution, isn't my forte.

So..........teaching in a computer lab I start class with an announcement--"two-minute warning to close down your personal email, Facebook, MySpace, etc." Then I ask students to find the syllabus and the web page that supports the topic for the day. While I'm introducing the topic I ask them use their little Google search box several times to keep them doing something while I'm talking. The questions all depend on the topic.

For example, we were addressing teaching and learning history the other day. I had them Google "American history timeline". The first link up was a long convoluted timeline that isn't a story at all but rather an index of dates drawn from American history. So I asked my students to look over the timeline to find a story. They couldn't find one. They found pictures of presidents and dates and events. Then I talked about the Declaration of Independence. Who wrote it? We Googled it to confirm Jefferson as the author. I told them the story of Thomas Jefferson going to his grave angry at Congress for excising text from his original draft of the Declaration. We Googled images of the original draft and found lines crossed out, etc. I asked them how they might use this document from history with their students when teaching writing. Then I told them a couple stories about Jefferson in Paris and how Abigail Adams kept a running correspondence with him. More Googling........and giggling. She and TJ didn't always agree on everything. I asked the students to find the name of the woman who was TJ's mistress for a brief time while living in Paris--not Sally Hemings. That led to discussion about history and story. I keep a thread of continuity moving through the class period while at the same time following a few rabbit trails here and there, partly because it's the nature of the WWW. One idea links to another.

To demonstrate the connectedness of history I send my students in pairs to the Yahoo homepage. They are to identify a news issue for the day--important or trivial--to see if they can make six or more leaps of free association traveling through history and geography--TIME and SPACE.. Example: Yahoo--1) Lindsay Lohan's house in Los Angeles is burglarized; 2) Movie stars were the object of the McCarthy investigations in the 1950s; 3) McCarthyism was an artifact of the Cold War era where the US and the USSR were competitors for world dominance; 4) The Soviet Union started in 1917; 5) the Russian Revolution of 1917 was led by Lenin; 6) John Lennon (homophone) was part of a different kind of revolution, a cultural revolution of the 60s and 70 in the West that eventually spread to the entire world..........etc. Students use Internet resources to confirm information they believe to be true or to complete partial understandings about historical facts. This activity takes about 5 minutes but uses the power of the Internet to rapidly access information to connect one fact with another, one location to another. History is fundamentally about connections over time and space. Unfortunately history teaching is usually reduced to the study of an historical indexing system (dates) with little if any story. My students get the picture.

I am very clear with them regarding my expectations. While in class, they are not to be on unrelated sites such as Facebook or their personal email. But if I maintain enough interactive work with the computers, there's no problem. I also grovel a bit telling them that I have a very fragile ego and if I even suspect they are not finding my class to be the pinnacle of academic inspiration, I go sleepless that night. So I ask them to pleeeeeeeeeease help me sleep by paying attention in class and not doing Facebook while I'm talking or giving directions.

I give a lot of spontaneous "let's find out....." questions during class. Almost any topic can be connected to another about which we may want to find more information. If I see students begin to look tired, I crank up the searches. I don't ever want to teach F2F without computers again. One of my classes this semester is scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays but only with computers on Thursdays. I've substituted a lot of F2F Tuesday classes with online independent activities because I can do very little of value in a room where I'm talking in front of a screen. It's a paradigm shift I don't think I can undo. It's hard to put the toothpaste back into the tube.

"Just remember.........If we're not having fun (online), it must not be social studies."

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