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In my opinion

Faculty need to walk the talk

It's not enough to teach about teaching technologies – use them!

BY ANTHONY GURR | JUN 08 2009

My graduate adviser, an academic of great wisdom and wit, is currently on a one-year sabbatical from Simon Fraser University. A few months ago, he was living large in the picturesque alpine town of Chamonix in France, where he communed daily with herds of goats, took classes in making ratatouille, and wrote about the inherent benefits of serving wine and cheese in seminars.

At least, that’s what I imagined he was planning when I first learned about his sabbatical. Actually, he says he is using this time to finish multiple projects, including a literature review on the future of education for health professionals. Thanks to the wonder that is the Internet, I am compiling a wiki of research articles for this review, sending regular e-mails to him about my progress, and holding direct meetings each week, using the Skype voice software package. There are nine time zones between Vancouver and Chamonix. The physical distance doesn’t get in the way of direct collaboration online.

As a professional software developer studying for a master’s in educational technology, I often describe computers as eccentric toasters. Nothing about them frightens me – I laugh in the face of Windows Vista! However, I’ve noticed that while professors in the faculty of education encourage their students to use computers and the Internet, not all of them “walk the talk” when it comes to incorporating information technologies into their teaching. They still hand out paper copies of course outlines and assigned readings to the class when they could put all these materials and media resources online through a blog, website or wiki. Consider the delicious irony of attending a weekly four-hour seminar in a room full of gleaming computers, all networked together, but rarely incorporating the technology into the discussion. Has this ever happened to you?

Today’s university students naturally accept information technology as part of their daily life. I confess to suffering from pangs of withdrawal if my Internet connection goes down for more than 15 minutes. I recently discovered the joy of blogging with WordPress; now I’m building an online presence that complements my areas of interest.

But there appears to be a gap between technology-savvy education students and their professors that requires urgent attention. Faculty need to incorporate the web into their lectures and demonstrate how to use it properly for academic research. Just because students know how to surf the web doesn’t mean they really understand how to critically evaluate information online. Faculty need to use online resources like the wiki as a collaborative tool with their students so the class explores and shares what they learn together. (Wikis also prevent the family dog from eating homework!)

Faculty need to learn how to better use presentation software like PowerPoint in their lectures and seminars – it’s quite versatile for delivering information and media content in a creative way. But this software is criticized – unfairly I believe – because many people have no idea how to use it effectively. I’ve sat through many academic PowerPoint presentations that were not well thought-out and didn’t provide a useful reference for what the professor was trying to say. I’ve also attended seminars where no visual presentation was given when it was desperately needed, for example, in a class on statistical methods.

Professors need to learn how to use VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) software like OoVoo or Skype to provide an additional communications channel during office hours and when they and their students are not in the same place. Such systems also let students hold meetings online when they can’t get together as a group. Discussing academic progress in real time over the Internet when the professor is on the other side of the planet makes graduate studies almost a magical experience, compared to what was possible just five years ago.

So, when they’re exhorting graduate students to take advantage of today’s information technologies, faculty members need to walk the talk. I’m not saying that new technologies should replace reading books or collaborating at meetings and seminars. But they do provide a very useful set of software tools to complement these activities. Faculty need to incorporate the web into their instruction. They need to learn how to collaborate using a wiki. They need to know how to design informative visual presentations that are meaningful to students. They need to use VoIP software to promote accessible communication. They need to demonstrate how to use online research databases and apply good research practices.

Then they need to arrange for a seminar retreat in Chamonix!

Anthony Gurr is a video game developer studying educational technology at Simon Fraser University. His first academic paper, “Video Games and the Challenge of Engaging the ‘Net’ Generation,” will appear this fall in Educational Gameplay and Simulation Environments: Case Studies and Lessons Learned, published by IGI Global.

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