Call me Carl.

Like a lot of people on my timeline, I got back from #dlrn15 yesterday. Unlike a lot of people on my timeline, I spent a lot of my time at Stanford negotiating a rather bright line. A lot of my now-old friends involved in digital pedagogy kept asking me when I was going to start doing this stuff full time. I told them that history will always be my day job (although – come to think of it – offer me enough money and I’ll definitely reconsider). On the other hand, when hanging out with my fellow techno-skeptics, it felt like I had to continually explain why digital pedagogy is not a cult.

The best evidence for my explanation was the presence of people like me at #dlrn15 in the first place. To quote my new friend, Adam Croom:

I’ll tell you: dLRN was a conference where I was continually impressed by the level of critical discussion as much as anything else. This was a group that is deeply literate in the complexities of the field of digital learning and education, and I was continually moved by different attendees abilities to challenge an idea without belittling it.

That doesn’t happen in a cult.

These differences seemed particularly stark while reading Twitter in airport on my way home. In the moments between updates on the Broncos game (6-0!), I kept seeing tweets about that defense of the lecture in yesterday’s NYT. If you somehow missed it, here’s my favorite part:

Absorbing a long, complex argument is hard work, requiring students to synthesize, organize and react as they listen. In our time, when any reading assignment longer than a Facebook post seems ponderous, students have little experience doing this. Some research suggests that minority and low-income students struggle even more. But if we abandon the lecture format because students may find it difficult, we do them a disservice. Moreover, we capitulate to the worst features of the customer-service mentality that has seeped into the university from the business world. The solution, instead, is to teach those students how to gain all a great lecture course has to give them.

Not coincidentally, the author is an historian so of course all the historians on my TL seemed to love it. The digital pedagogy people, less so. Count me with the historians here. If nothing else, I think students should have to sit through lectures so that they can learn to go through life without having to check their phones every ten minutes. Old ways are not always bad.

While listening throughout the conference, a thought experiment kept coming into my head. Imagine the best professor you had in college, assuming you attended college before the Age of the Internet began. Then dig them out of their hopefully happy retirement and put them in front of a classroom again. Assuming they’ve been keeping up with their disciplines between golf games and playing with the grandchildren but otherwise offered the exact same class they did in 1985, would that be acceptable pedagogy in 2015?

Here’s the way I eventually answered my own question: if the best professor you had back in 1985 was somehow teaching again, they’d almost certainly be the first ones in line at the professional development workshops to learn this stuff because that’s what made them such a good professor in the first place. The willingness to learn. To evolve. To change with the times.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think there’s nothing wrong with a good lecture every once in a while (and perhaps a lot more in survey courses), but I’m increasingly getting sick of listening to myself talk. Give me some good technological balloons and I really can take my classes to exotic places that they won’t see otherwise.

That doesn’t make everybody else who clings to the old ways an old fogey. It just means that I get to have a lot more exciting adventures before I hit retirement than they do.

Posted by Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

1 comment

[…] Many colleagues wrote reflections about it: Catherine Cronin, Kristen Eshleman,  Josh Kim, Jonathan Rees, Tim Klapdor,  Alyson Indrunas, Adam Croom, Whitney Kilgore, Matt Crosslin, Laura Gogia, Patrice […]

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