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Volume 8, Number 7: April 29, 2002

Technology and Learning: Lessons from the Field

By Jude A. Rathburn, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee

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"If we are to live in this brave new world and retain our humanity,
our true battle lies not with technology, it lies within."

-- Philip Toshio Sudo (1999)

Last summer I bought a compound mitre saw so that I could install molding in the living room and dining room of my 80 year old house--molding that has been absent ever since I tore out the carpet and refurbished the hardwood floors a couple of years ago. The saw still sits on the floor of my basement workshop, and no molding graces the hardwood.

So what has kept me from finishing the project? I do not know how to use the saw. I have read about the saw, watched a few contractors use it, and seen two do-it-yourself segments on television about making compound mitre cuts. I know I am capable of using this saw, and I am motivated to complete the project. And still, I am immobilized by fear. After all, a mistake could cause me great physical harm and possibly damage the saw. Without someone to teach and guide me in its proper use, I know the saw is doomed to sit unused on my basement floor.

I see the same signs of fear, reluctance to try, and desire to avoid potentially disastrous mistakes in my students and colleagues when it comes to using unfamiliar learning technologies. These emotions are normal, yet our challenge is to move through them and show our students the path as well. I hope that this article might allay some of those fears, as well as provide some ideas about how instructors can make the best use of technology in their own teaching and learning.

Much has been written in recent years about the challenges confronting higher education and those of us who earn our living via the professorate. One familiar theme is the call for improvement in the teaching and learning that occurs in colleges and universities across the country and around the world. Lazerson, Wagener, and Shumanis (2000) conclude, however, that "many in higher education … wonder what the fuss is all about…. Either students come to college with the skills and motivation to learn or they do not…. This belief that the problems of learning are someone else's, not theirs, provides professors with an enormous defense against rethinking their responsibilities toward students" (p.5).

I would like to suggest that technology and the ever-changing demands it places on us to be productive members of society, requires that we rethink our responsibilities towards students and ourselves. My time as a Teaching and Learning Scholar has provided this much needed opportunity for reflection on my role and responsibilities as an educator, as well as the roles and responsibilities of my students as learners. There was a time in the not so distant past, when merely showing up for class and telling students what they needed to know was sufficient to earn the mark of a successful teacher. Likewise, the student who consistently attended class, listened attentively, took good notes, and aced multiple-choice tests was virtually assured of earning an A. In most college settings these conditions no longer apply, yet many teachers and students alike continue to behave as if these former "truths" are still relevant. Somewhere deep inside, we all know that these old rules no longer work, but we are not quite sure how or with what to replace them.

In my work as a Teaching and Learning Scholar with UWM's Center for Instructional and Professional Development, I have spent the past two years investigating how technology impacts learning. I have listened to hundreds of students, as well as numerous colleagues describe their experiences learning with, or in spite of technology. These conversations, as well as extensive reading on the topic, have lead me to the following "truths"--truths that may be self-evident, but never the less need to be stated.

TRUTH #1 - Everyone in the college/university setting is capable of learning how to use technology in productive ways--yes, everyone. Some of us might be afraid to learn, but we are all capable, just like I have the ability to learn to use the mitre saw that is gathering dust in my basement.

TRUTH #2 - Most of us need some help when it comes to learning new technology and how to use it well, whether that assistance is in the form of training manuals, online tutorials, job aids, phone or face-to-face interaction with someone who knows more than we do about the particular technology in question. It is okay to ask for help.

TRUTH #3 - There is no better time or place to learn how to use unfamiliar technology than right now in our capacity as teachers and models of lifelong learning.

TRUTH #4 - We are in this together with our students. We can and should learn from each other, motivate each other, and congratulate each other as learning partners. This interdependence is a good thing. It helps create a sense of community, builds self-confidence, increases satisfaction, aids in time management, and uncovers new enthusiasm for learning. It is an opportunity to learn from our students and reinforce the notion that we are taking this journey together.

TRUTH #5 - Okay, this all sounds good, but (list your objections here) … what about the time commitment, issues of equal access to technology, the other demands on my time, inconvenience, stress, rapid obsolescence of technology skills, etc.?

As a business professor, I think it is appropriate that I point out that the benefits of learning technologies greatly outweigh the costs associated with these and other objections. Yet, we must still overcome the fear that rests behind the "buts." Here are some of the ways I have learned to move through the fear and other barriers to using learning technologies effectively.* Some of them may work for you, too:

  • Attitude means everything; so does motivation to learn.
  • Stretch to use technology in new and unfamiliar ways - be a model of lifelong learning.
  • Discover ways to use technology to deepen students' engagement with course content.
  • Use learning objects** when appropriate. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel.
  • Reward students (and ourselves) for taking responsibility for learning a new technology or a novel way to use a familiar technology.
  • Teach students (and ourselves) how to be critical and active users of technology rather than passive consumers.
  • Show or ask students to demonstrate how their use of technology in this class can be transferred to other classes and life situations.
  • Incorporate technology in the assessment of student learning if it saves time, increases efficiency, and adds value for learners.
  • Meet learners (including ourselves) where they/we are right now. Build on what they/we already know.
  • Use technology to connect with, acknowledge and appreciate students' experiences. Help them find ways to use technology that are meaningful to them, in the context of their lives.
  • Use technology to help build connections with and between students, and the communities in which we live.
  • Teach students how they can use technology to make more effective decisions or solve real-life problems.
  • Ask students to reflect on their use of technology and encourage them to be purposeful and intentional when they use technology.
  • Never use technology for technology's sake. Always have a purpose for the use of technology and share that purpose with your students. If the purpose does not make sense to them or add value for them, you may need to rethink and/or redefine the purpose.

Together, teachers and students are creating this brave new world in which we live. Technology is here to stay; yet as Philip Toshio Sudo said in the quotation that opened this essay, "our true battle lies not with technology, it lies within. Live it well.

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Endnotes

*If you would like to discuss examples of specific activities, exercises, or assignments please contact the author via e-mail at jude@uwm.edu.

**A learning object is "any digital resource that can be reused to support learning" (White, 2000). Visit the MERLOT website (http://www.merlot.org) for a searchable database of examples.


Selected References

Lazerson, M., Wagener, U. & Shumanis, N. (2000, May-June). What Makes a Revolution? Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 1980-2000. Change, 1-6.

Sudo, P. T. (1999) Zen Computer: Mindfulness and the Machine. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Wiley, D. A. (2000). Connecting Learning Objects to Instructional Design Theory: A definition, a Metaphor, and a Taxonomy. In D. A. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects: Online Version. Retrieved March 22, 2002 from the World Wide Web: http://reusability.org/read/chapters/wiley.doc.

 

Jude A. Rathburn is a Lecturer in Management and a Teaching and Learning Scholar with the Center for Instructional and Professional Development (CIPD) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She earned her Ph.D. in Business Administration, M.B.A. and Master of Counseling degrees from Arizona State University in Tempe, AZ. Her current research interests include managerial cognition, the role of organizational learning in organizational decline/success, the impact of technology on learning, and the interplay between multiple intelligences and the effective use of technology. She can be contacted via email at jude@uwm.edu.


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