Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Best Practices.

A journalism prof at a college in Illinois sends in this excellent post in response to some ideas posted earlier today. They are especially appropriate as many professors go back to work this week. Enjoy:

The post by the Washington State History Prof notes the meticulous detail he provides IN PRINT, BEFORE IT IS NEEDED to his "pomo" (postmodern) students. My adminstiration makes each of the faculty at my school do this in the name of best practices. This is a mistake, IMHO.

Growing up with information at their fingertips and a computer that can search and find so effectively at their fingertips has altered the sense ratios of our students as Mr. McLuhan would say. We of the old school, hungered for a well-organized text with answers to our questions. Our stance is to read carefully before we begin (weren't we taught that in school?) and then to refer back. We've been conditioned to see something and recall about where it occurred on a page of text within a sheft or codex of text.

Today's learner has been conditioned to take in a screen's view of information, much of which isn't text, but is iconic (think signs and signifiers.) When they have a question, they do not brook the search that yields pages of information. They want the precise information at the time they require it. In some circles, this is called "just in time" support.

Ask yourself, do you "RTFM" (read the %$$% manual) when you get new software. I am over fifty and obviously text-oriented, so I actually do read the manual for a day or so before I touch the software. How my children laugh at me! They (my children are college-age and will serve as stand-ins here for my students and yours) bootup, click, navigate and go. When they are confounded, they will seek "Help" and it is usually "contextual" not generalized with pages to scan over. If they don't find help in "Help" then they will go to a forum or seek advice from a larger pool of expertise.

As Mr. McLuhan said, I am not judging this, but to understand something you have to observe it and be able to describe it first. Most of our students have been on internet since 4th grade, if not earlier. They are often the computer expert in their homes. They engage with devices based on the "just in time" help model for many hours. This should give us educators pause.

What if the detailed syllabus was handed out on a cheap flashdrive and organized as an indexed "Help" file. What if we didn't tell students anything beyond what they needed to know at the moment, and let them look for the help they needed when they needed it with procedural questions?

Would we get more substantive questions? More effective classroom operations? And we could train students who haven't learned to effectively search electronic documents for help to do so while we teach ideas and concepts.

Alas we teach in the ways we were taught, and tend to confuse the good with the nostalgic and familiar. We need to always remember we teach people, not subjects.