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The New Online Omnivores

We teachers must adapt to our wireless students.

By Crawford Kilian 27 Feb 2008 |

Crawford Kilian, frequent contributor to The Tyee, will retire this summer after teaching for 40 years at Capilano College. You can read him on writing for the web here, at one of his several blogs.

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Laptops in class: Shutting out or opening up?

I really need to get out more.

For the first time in a long time, I recently drove clear across Vancouver. I was on my way to attend Northern Voice 2008, a bloggers' conference held at the University of British Columbia.

It made me realize that even after years of blogging, I haven't met many bloggers face to face. I certainly did at the conference, and a very likable and attractive mob they were.

More importantly, that face-to-face encounter taught me something about a problem that post-secondary educators are confronting: the role of the computer in the face-to-face classroom.

At Capilano College, we faculty are increasingly annoyed by students with laptops. Supposedly, they're taking notes. In reality they're, um, multi-tasking: vaguely listening to the teacher's lecture, while focusing on some new YouTube upload or a heavy-breathing e-mail from their sweetie.

Shut those laptops!

Many of us have simply decreed that laptops be closed during class. In some of my classes, however, the addiction is so strong that I have to repeat the decree two or three times during class.

And it really is an addiction. When I call a break, the laptops pop open, or the cellphones come out. It's like teaching in a crack house.

This is not entirely healthy. But we are now dealing with students who have no memory of a pre-web world. They live in the web, though they're often shockingly ignorant of how to navigate it for serious purposes.

We faculty are as addicted as our wretched students. Walk around our offices at lunchtime and you'll see us chowing down at our desks while blankly staring at one website after another.

A venue for learning

This is as bad for teachers as for students. I remember my first year in college teaching back in 1967-68. That's when I learned my trade in a faculty lunchroom over awful fish and chips. The older teachers taught us young dopes how to teach, and why it mattered. Nothing like that venue exists today.

But when I walked into my first conference at Northern Voice, I realized I was in a venue a lot like that lunchroom.

It was a big lecture theatre in UBC's Forestry Building, with some web guru holding forth in front of rows of terraced seats. A web page was projected on a screen behind him. In the seats, scores were listening . . . almost all with laptops in front of them.

Standing at the top of the theatre, I could see that they were logged in to all kinds of different sites, not many obviously related to the site the speaker was discussing. But they were engaged, clearly listening to the speaker while exploring other sites.

Moving into another lecture theatre, I saw a speaker who'd put words all over a chalkboard while his dozens of listeners hunched over their Macs and PCs.

Online, and on task

But they weren't off in some other world. They were listening, responding to the speaker's questions, and commenting whether or not the speaker pointed to those with their hands raised.

Most post-secondary teachers would kill for students like these: smart, articulate, funny and eager to learn more.

When I said my piece as a panelist in another session, the first thing I told our audience was that they looked like the future of education.

Here's why. The web in 15 short years has become an inescapable reality. We can't even get our students to schlep across the quad to explore the print resources of our pretty good library. We ourselves can't do our jobs any more without the web. When the college loses its Internet connection, it's like losing water or power. We might as well all go home.

But we faculty still think of teaching and learning as a face-to-face encounter between a standing instructor and a bunch of seated students, making notes of what the instructor says and writes on the chalkboard. This is simply not what our students are doing anymore.

Students in orbit

They are moving around and among the teacher's words, like asteroids orbiting the sun under the tug of the planets. These conflicting pulls sometimes speed them up, sometimes slow them down. In extreme cases, some passing force may fling them right out of the course, or even the school.

We'd be foolish to blame our students or their damn laptops for this state of affairs. We might wish they were dutiful note-takers, scrawling with ballpoint pens in their binders the way we did. But they're not. We don't do them, or ourselves, any good by trying to give them a first-rate 1960s education.

It's equally idle to assume we can send our students home to gain their educations entirely online. I've spent more than a decade finding out the hard way that online learning works only for the self-propelled and the desperate. For the vast majority, the face-to-face encounter with a teacher is critical.

Perhaps it's because young men always gathered around the most experienced hunters or warriors before going into action. The young women did the same with their grandmothers. You didn't just learn how to kill an antelope or bear a child; you learned who you were and what tribe you belonged to.

Facing a new kind of beast

My face-to-face encounters at Northern Voice taught me that educators are like old hunters facing a new kind of animal: If we're going to do the kids any good, we have to learn the nature of the new beast, drawing not just on our experience but on our own ability to learn.

This is a hell of a challenge for a profession as pathologically conservative as post-secondary education. We teach as we were taught, and following the rules got us our degrees and tenure. Unless we lecture in the nude, we're unfirable. So why should we trouble ourselves to learn a new style of teaching?

I could cite any number of solemn political and pedagogical reasons, but my fellow-panelist Meg Tilly had a better one. Telling us how she created her first blog post, she described her reaction: "Hey, this is fun!"

And teaching should always be fun, no matter how dull or arcane the subject. Nothing is dull if taught right, and the brain finds nothing arcane if it's got the neurons to deal with it.

If I'm reading my students right, the new beast of online knowledge will be hunted collectively, not individually. Face-to-face or online, students will work in teams to master some skill or body of knowledge.

They'll learn as much from each other as from their teachers. It won't matter what they've personally memorized, as long as they've memorized where to look for what they need, and how to judge it when they've found it.

A college or university with a student population like the bloggers at Northern Voice won't come out of nowhere. From kindergarten to high school, educators are going to have to get serious about that old cliché, "learning how to learn." And we ourselves will have to learn how to learn, or get out of the business.

We can't hold on to the bicycle seat forever while we tell the kid where to go. At some point we have let her go where she wants to -- and let her also learn from her bruises when she falls over.

Our students are telling us that they're eager to start exploring this amazing world Sir Tim Berners-Lee has given us. We'd better show an equal eagerness, or they'll leave us behind.

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