What I’ve been doing lately other than blogging…

I wrote this for our local paper, the Pueblo Chieftain, with the title “New Education, Same CSU-Pueblo.”  I learned today they published it earlier this month, but  I missed it at the time since it wasn’t online.  Since it wasn’t online, I’m guessing they won’t mind if I publish my last available draft of the article here:

Did your college education look like mine?  Not that long ago, I listened to instructors lecture in huge rooms, wrote papers, and took tests that were graded by teaching assistants.  I barely talked to my professors at all.  

Things have always been a little different at CSU-Pueblo.  We’re a relatively small school with classes where it is difficult to get lost in the crowd.  Faculty are always available in their office hours to talk to if a student is having trouble.  The college experience is changing thanks to the Internet, but CSU-Pueblo is keeping the same friendly, personalized attitude towards education that we’ve always had.  

You’ve probably heard of online education.  It is now possible to take nearly any course using a computer, usually at a time that suits the schedule of anyone who has other things to do with their life.  They’re really useful if you already have a career, or need to work while being a full-time student.  

CSU-Pueblo now offers a range of online and partially-online courses because having this opportunity can make the difference between students dropping out or graduating.  

For the last year and a half, I’ve been working in our Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), developing my own fully-online history class and helping other faculty learn about the tools available to them so that they can make the most of what’s on the Internet in their courses.  In all my research into this subject, the most important thing I’ve learned about online education is that all online classes are not the same.  

Plenty of them are dull, largely-automated, cookie-cutter classes designed primarily by for-profit companies and taught by faculty who are not really paid to care whether their students graduate.  The universities that run their online classes this way are just looking for a quick buck by expanding enrollment opportunities to as many students as possible.

At CSU-Pueblo, the CTL is encouraging faculty to bring the same friendly environment with individual attention to the university’s online courses as we do for our face-to-face classes.  Take an online course with one of our instructors, and you won’t be treated like a number.

If you have trouble, you’ll be able to find your professor on campus during office hours.  Enjoy the experience, and you’ll be able to take a face-to-face class with that professor next semester if you’re so inclined because plenty of our best professors are taking the plunge into online or partially-online courses.

The Internet also is changing the way that face-to-face teaching is being carried out on campuses across the country.  In my case, I gave up lecturing a few years ago so that I could concentrate on teaching the students in all my classes the kinds of Internet-related skills they’ll need to thrive in the modern world.  

Much of the time, my students create media projects rather than write papers.  Instead of memorizing historical facts, they contribute to the pool of reliable information on the Internet by building wikis or editing existing Internet resources.  By acquainting faculty with these new online tools, we are helping our colleagues update their pedagogy for the 21st Century.

The term “digital natives” gets thrown around a lot these days in order to suggest the existence of an online-related generation gap between the old and the young.  In my experience, however, both young and old alike have an unreasonable fear of trying anything on computers that is more complicated than running the average iPhone app.

Sure, many faculty show PowerPoint slides during lectures, but unless the lecture is about the Internet, what does that teach their students about how to handle the technologies of the future?  Right now, as the Internet moves from a novelty to the center of nearly every aspect of daily life, is a perfect time for faculty and students to come to grips with technology together.  

Go ahead and enroll in any old gigantic online program if you want to experience a poor substitute for a traditional college education in which the professor plays only a minimal role.  At CSU-Pueblo, we’re building a different kind of  online course as part of this different kind of education.  It’s both cutting edge and personal, because the introduction of new technology doesn’t mean we have to give up being the same friendly campus that we’ve always been.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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