Enter the Classroom: 21st Century Education

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Also available on The Chronicle of Higher Education

Though intriguing, the article, “Actually Going to Class, for a Specific Course? How 20th-Century,” in the Chronicle of Higher Education begins with a false premise. Dekunle Somade assumes that access to a podcast or video of a lecture and PowerPoint slides is equal to engaging in meaningful discussion with fellow students and faculty. This is only true if when we say “education” we mean the accumulation of facts that can be regurgitated on command. Perhaps this is how some professors view education. Certainly I have had professors who simply stood in front of a class, spilled out information and then tested students to make sure they could reproduce the same information on an exam. I learned almost nothing from these professors. On the other hand, other professors – true educators – ask students to take in information, make meaningful connections between that information and their own lives and then creatively use that information to gain a deeper understanding of the world we inhabit.

This is true of traditional brick-and-mortar classrooms and online settings. I have taught courses online, in addition to traditional settings, and there is actually less difference than one would expect. Of course, in asynchronous online classrooms students and educators are not in the “classroom” at the same time and we never get to see each other. However, the discussion portion of the class experience is still a crucial component. This is the only time students get to engage with one another and my presence, as the faculty member, is equally important. I ask questions that help students work through the course readings and students ask questions of each other (and of me) in order to fully integrate the coursework into their understanding of the world. In addition, class discussions allow students with various perspectives to test out their ideas, get valuable feedback from their peers and (often) change their perspectives based on this new knowledge. This is simply impossible if we believe “education” can be gained by students sitting alone in a dorm room memorizing PowerPoint slides.

I do agree, however, that some previous ideas about education are outmoded. For example, the article notes that some class experiences consist of “[p]rofessors talking for 16 weeks or so, assigning readings, and then testing students often appears to yield a bunch of quickly memorized facts that are soon forgotten.” This is clearly outmoded and I doubt that it was ever a very interesting or effective way to teach. The most telling sentence in the article came from Virginia Tech: “…making recordings of lectures available to students after class can help drive home the lack of interaction in many classrooms.” Why is there a “lack of interaction” in classrooms? Because faculty haven’t designed their courses to engage students, to foster discussion and debate, or to have students interact with technology within the classroom. There was also recurring theme that we (faculty) expect little from our students. Faculty should be demanding more from students. Perhaps, in an era of salary reductions (in the form of furloughs, ending the tenure system and shrinking benefits) and increased adjunct faculty (who are overworked, grossly underpaid and almost never receive benefits), the incentive to demand more from our students has fallen by the wayside.

It seems as though creating a classroom in which students interact, discuss and are held accountable for their education makes more work for faculty. The opposite is actually true. The more the students speak, the less the professor speaks. The more students are allowed to do meaningful projects (rather than take meaningless exams), the less tedious grading faculty do. And impressing upon students that they are, in fact, responsible for their own education reverses the current paradigm. Faculty do not grant an education to students (by dint of their lectures and spilling the contents of their well-educated brains). Students must actively seek out an education that helps them attain their educational (and future employment) goals.

The side benefit of this is that students begin to realize their own power and gain control over their own lives – both inside and outside the classroom. And this is the true meaning of education.