Teaching and Learning (Part II): Access to knowledge not enough

Phil YoungbloodBy Phil Youngblood

I keep a cartoon in my office I have had since I went to college in the 1970s.

It’s of a bespectacled, mustachioed, lab-coat-wearing professor, arms folded, standing in front of a blackboard full of math equations, asking, “Any questions?”

Last semester, I asked my senior students if robots could replace teachers and their immediate answer was “yes!” On further inquiry and discussion, we concluded we could replace teachers who simply follow a textbook chapter-by-chapter or read PowerPoint slides they got online with machines.

I keep the cartoon to remind me that regurgitating information, whether by teacher or student, is neither teaching nor learning. The cartoon also reminds me that computer technology has given anyone with a Web connection access to vast amounts of information on nearly any subject and made the concept of “teacher as fountain of knowledge” obsolete. By extension, I am also reminded that merely accessing knowledge, whether from memory, textbook, or online sources, is also neither teaching nor learning.

The purpose of teaching at the undergraduate level is not to fill students’ heads with information, but to help students learn how to answer questions they will ask in life. Our first task then is to help students become curious enough to ask questions about their world. Not just “how do I do this” curious but “how does this work” curious and eventually “why is it that way” curious. Without curiosity, life is as static as a textbook or Web page.

Our second task then is to turn information into knowledge, into something with meaning and relatedness to our students so they will become curious about learning more. The problem with trying to share what we know with someone who has not shared our experiences is we have already reflected on, organized, and filtered them, so we write textbooks or teach classes that start with standard models or rules. PowerPoint slides add insult to injury by containing no detail. By the time we relate materials to “real life,” can we really expect students to have learned the models and rules?

I am trying a different tact this semester. I am asking my beginning computer programming class to create programs to sort names or solve a Sudoku game. In my upper-level telecommunications class, I asked students how they could connect their handheld or laptop device to someone else’s in another country (they chose China) if we did not have today’s technologies or companies. I think my teaching strategy will work in the first case because programming either works or it does not, I can introduce rules and standards as we encounter them, plus try flipped classroom techniques. In the telecomm class though, I can already tell that jumping straight to Creating (Bloom’s hierarchy) or Problem Solving (Gagné’s) will not work with half-business and half-computer tech students because the business folks do not have a foundation in computer networking, the techies do not know enough about business, and neither group knows much about the world. I have decided to have each group contribute to establish a base understanding of our problem and move up from there. Our third task as teachers then is to remain flexible enough to meet course objectives while conducting the class in a way so students actually learn.

As I wrote last time, the University of the Incarnate Word adopted Quality Matters (www.qualitymatters.org) standards for online courses and as a strong suggestion for face-to-face courses (supported by Blackboard’s course template). The QM rubric helps students to clearly understand how the course is conducted, not necessarily how teaching or learning will take place. It helps create a well-organized course, but instructors must build in meaning and flexibility. More on issues of teaching face-to-face vs. online in another article.

In 2016, I am writing about the “big picture” of technology and its impact on individuals and society. As always, I invite your feedback, dialogue, and differing opinions on this topic. \


E-mail Youngblood, director of the Computer Information Systems and Cyber Security Systems programs, at youngblo@uiwtx.edu


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