Learning to Teach with Technology: Is it an Individual Activity?

A couple of days ago I met with a new cohort of VCU faculty members in the CTE’s Exploring Tablet PCs in the Classroom program. This is the third year the CTE is running the program, so there are a growing number of faculty members who are engaged with using tablets in their teaching. It is a small – grassroots program, and this year we have sixteen folks from a range of disciplines.  We will be meeting once a month during the academic year to explore software tools, share instructional uses, and discuss what seems to be working and not working. This represents a significant commitment on the part of faculty members in the program.

One of the things we attempt to do in the design of some professional development opportunities at the CTE is to build programs that sustain engagement over a longer period of time, in many cases a full academic year. Past experience has shown, as you might suspect, that interest ebbs and flows as faculty participate in these programs. There is the initial excitement of getting a new toy – in this case a tablet PC – and learning more about its functionality. Then comes the challenge of using it as a tool to support teaching and learning, and this needs to be balanced with other demands of working in the academy.  What often happens, is that we tend to use technologies in ways that reinforce our existing teaching practices. Technology integration gets translated essentially as “old wine in new bottles.” Innovative instructional uses of technology often mean that we must change our practice to do something new or different, something we would not be able to do without the technology. Changes in teaching practice tend to happen slowly over long periods of time…if at all.

At the beginning of the program I ask faculty members in a survey whether they think that learning to teach with a new technology is more of an individual or social activity. Responses vary a bit, but for the most part faculty members in this program have tended to hold the view that learning to teach with technology is an individual activity. The current cohort of faculty members is mostly split in their views, a change from previous groups. I’m not sure this really suggests anything, other than perhaps subtle preferences for learning in general.

At the same time, I think there is a dominant model of learning to teach with technology that is often implicit in the ways we talk about / promote technology, and in the default expectations for using technology in higher education that are rarely discussed. The message is: learning to teach with technology is a rather uncomplicated activity you do on your own, an isolated endeavor.

Maybe there is nothing wrong with this approach; it seems to work for innovators and early adopters who are often more inclined to play with technology on their own, and seem more comfortable with the inherent risks . However, I have questions about whether largely individual efforts can work for the majority. There seems to be too much time and risk taking involved for solo efforts to result in broad-based adoption.

I continue to think about ways to engage higher education faculty more generally in the use of technology to support teaching and learning. How do we get beyond the low-hanging fruit of working with early adopters? To what extent is the individual learning model a dominant one in higher education? Is a more socially engaged and collaborative approach to learning to teach with technology desirable? If so, why, and how might such an approach be promoted and supported? I’d be curious to hear other experiences and perspectives, as well as thoughts about whether the individual v. social learning view I’ve presented is a false dichotomy.

In any event, during the orientation meeting of the tablet PC program, faculty began to explore the use of their tablets as I provided an initial tour of the hardware and software tools that support digital inking. It was encouraging to see them working together, helping one another and sharing their views about what was interesting and how they hoped to use the tablet in their teaching. I find this kind of work and learning – energizing. I think it builds networks of support and collegiality that do not seem to be a part of the silo systems that define much of higher education. My hope is that the faculty in the program will find collaborative learning valuable, and contribute to some shared understandings about what it means to learn to teach with technology.

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