Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Teaching and Technology, Part I

With the beginning of school upon us, a lot of the big feature stories in the news right now are about education. And while more than a few of those are very local in nature--the opening of a new school, just to name one popular theme--there have been quite a few stories lately about teaching and technology, with one big theme being this: In a classroom full of younger students who have fully embraced the latest gadgets and social networking sites, but led by a teacher or professor who may still be warming up to email, what's the best way to communicate? Is any one way better than the rest, and should anything in particular be avoided?

Let me start by explaining a little bit about where I stand with this, and I'll cover the rest of that later: As far as new technology goes, I'm about as plugged-in as the vast majority of my students, and most of their favorite ways to communicate are mine as well. (In case you're new to the blog, here's some further background: I teach both at the college and secondary [middle and high school] levels, though in the latter case, it's all private lessons, which--mostly due to the fact that I don't give grades for what I teach--serves to differentiate me a bit from the students' regular classroom teachers and places me more in the category of a mentor or personal coach. At the college, I direct music ensembles and also teach privately, so while I do award grades, my situations are not of the typical "I lecture, you listen" variety.)

The large-scale discussion started last week with an article at the Inside Higher Ed. blog about a college in Georgia that is outfitting its 300 faculty members with high-end smart phones in an effort to improve communication between the profs and their students. The idea is that the profs are supposed to respond to text messages or calls from their students within 24 hours. (The cost is estimated at $1000 per phone, which obviously means that the school is kicking in for most, if not all, of the calling/texting plan as well.) And so far, the college says that the idea appears to be working:
[Georgia Gwinnett College vice president for instructional technology Lonnie D. Harvell] says the college has observed a bump in faculty productivity as a result of the phones equivalent to “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in labor. For example, Georgia Gwinnett faculty are not required to hold office hours — the idea being that a big bulk of outside-of-class communication with students can be handled via the mobile devices, allowing faculty to deploy their energies on other things. Also, the desktop phone bills are down and inter-faculty communication is up, Harvel says. “A cost analysis demonstrates that the program saves more money than it costs,” Harvel says (though he adds that the benefits are “only valid if the institution is intent on expending resources on student engagement”).
And the professors contacted by Inside Higher Ed. don't seem to consider the added connectivity to be a burden, and they tend to set appropriate boundaries right away, some of them even playfully rebuking excessive texters to check the syllabus or other readily available sources for answers to questions that don't really require professorial help. (The comments to that post are, as you can imagine, all over the map, and several Georgia Gwinnett faculty chime in as well.)

This story was picked up by one of my favorite blogs, Althouse, where the bloghostess--a noted law professor--falls into the naysayers' camp:
You want students dashing off little notes full of typos and abbreviations and professors struggling with teensy keyboards and adapting to the ultra-concise writing form? And what happens when there are misunderstandings? These are inevitable in texting.

Leave texting to friends and family and to coworkers who interact casually. Professors — however friendly they may seem in person — must relate to students in a professional way.
Count me as one who doesn't believe that those two things--using texting and relating to students professionally--are always mutually exclusive.

Althouse's commenters are as divided as those at the original post, but this time, as a semi-regular at Althouse, I chime in:
There are situations where texting could come in handy; mine is one of them.

I teach music ensembles and applied music (a.k.a. private lessons), so I'm rarely able to answer the phone during the business day, and emails get checked only every few hours. In addition, since I'm not yet a full prof, my "office" is shared with 100 other profs, and no way do I want to burden the administrative assistant with taking phone message for me, as I wouldn't likely get them in a timely manner in the first place.

Since most of my ensembles (jazz combos) are one person on a part, you'd better believe that I want to know ASAP if the drummer is sick and can't make rehearsal today, as that gives me a lot more time to find a sub. So I'd much rather find out this news right away (via text) rather than, say, a few minutes before rehearsal starts (which could happen if the student emailed me instead). We also have a lot of non-traditional students (who may work as far as 20 miles away from school) in one of my groups, so a quick "I'm running late" text is appreciated, as taking a quick peek at the screen is much less disruptive than listening to a voicemail once class has started.

I've had texting capability for six years now, and for me, it's been overwhelmingly positive, and I have yet to have a student abuse the privilege.
So texting is a plus for me (as it appears to be for many of the Georgia Gwinnett faculty), while others seem to think it would be a really big minus. Is it a generational thing? (And let's assume "generation" might be a "where you are inside your head" idea, as opposed to strictly chronological age; I know that I skew a generation younger than the one into which I was born.) Is it truly the wave of the future, and will those who don't embrace it inevitably get left behind?

It's been a while since I've had a vigorous discussion in the comments, so I'd love to hear from lots of different people on this one. Let me know if you're a teacher, student or interested observer, as well as where you fall in this debate. And there will be another angle on this subject tomorrow, as it has many different angles.

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