Saturday, May 16, 2009

Weapons of Class Instruction

My first opportunity to teach came in the fall of 1988 at the University of Texas at Austin. My students were almost entirely undergraduate business majors and I was assigned to teach them an introductory course in Management Information. I was excited to be given this opportunity although this was part and parcel of my Assistantship responsibilities. I had previously spent five years in industry as an MIS professional and was also involved with a software startup, and so I believed I knew a lot about the field. I took it as my responsibility to tell the students everything I knew and interpret for them all the information that was contained in the hefty (and colourful and expensive) textbook prescribed. I was proud that I understood pretty much everything between the covers of the book and a whole lot else too. I was a one-stop teaching shop, at least for the course. Or so I believed.

But I had never taught before in my life. How was I to get through all the material? Well, technology made the task easier. This was a time before Microsoft Powerpoint became the de facto standard for beating massed audiences over the head with information. There was another product out at the time, if I recall, Aldus (later, Adobe) Persuasion which ran on the Mac, my favorite computer. But those machines were not available in our classrooms. In fact, we had no computers in our classrooms then, only in the computer lab. There were whiteboards and we could use overhead transparencies. So I spent days and nights vomiting all my knowledge on to transparencies; I made scores, perhaps hundreds of them, with bullet points, drawings and all, and in color. My students were very pleased, or so I trusted.

When computers began to be available in the classroom, I switched over to using Powerpoint slides and spent long hours building them up. Well, a couple of decades have passed, and I don't rely on overheads or slides very much anymore. I apologize to all my early students for inflicting information on them. I was so utterly mistaken about the goals of education. I understand very well now that education is not about shoving information into people's heads. Unfortunately, academic institutions continue to believe that that is indeed what they are supposed to do. And with each passing year, they increasing quantity of information they seek to funnel into the heads of students, employing the latest technologies to increase -- in their warped perception -- the efficiencies of such transfer. I wonder when the singularity (also here) will occur in education. At that point, students would have reached their limit and technology wouldn't be effective any more in the achievement of this narrow objective.

I have now learned to carefully pick occasions where I believe props such as Powerpoint slides might add something useful to the process. I avoid slides of bulleted lists of points wherever I can.

More often than not technologies and other props are used as crutches by those who cannot teach. Learning certainly involves the transfer of information, but that's like saying life involves the beating of a heart -- yeah, sure, but there's a whole lot more going on, and the beating heart is but only a start.

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