Sometimes What’s Broke in Education Can’t Be Fixed by Tech, says Michael Wesch

Recently The Chronicle of Higher Education said it more emphatically with the headline: “A Tech-Happy Professor Reboots After Hearing His Teaching Advice Isn’t Working.” According to the Chronicle, it seems that Internet superstar/Youtube ethnographer, Professor Michael Wesch of Kansas State University is rethinking his anti-chalk-and-talk tech-infused simulation-styled classroom. It would seem that many are following his lead and ditching the stand-and-deliver classroom style for the small group simulation/project-based style and it’s not working. According to the Chronicle Wesch was being approached by collegues who said, “I implemented your idea, and it just didn’t work… The students thought it was chaos.” Wesch recognized that, “They [the other professors] would just be inspired to use blogs and Twitter and technology, but the No. 1 thing that was missing from it was a sense of purpose.”

The Chronicle article then went on to profile a decidedly no-tech physics professor and colleague of Wesch, Christopher Sorensen who felt that even the use of PowerPoint would take away from his lectures. A veteran of 34-years, Sorensen mentally rehearses his material, like warming up before a race. Sorensen looks at his lectures as a performance or even a sales pitch, to convince students of the importance of the subject matter, so that when they do the assignment it’ll have even greater impact or meaning for them. Wesch noted, “”He’s a lecturer. He’s not breaking them up into small groups or having them make videos. That’s my thing, right? But he’s totally in tune with where they are and the struggle it takes to understand physics concepts. He is right there by their side, walking them through the forest of physics.”

In case it’s not too obvious, but we’re meant to interpret Wesch’s observations of Sorensen’s style and the failure of other’s to replicate his own success to mean that Wesch is reconsidering his original premise that traditional lecture-hall educational structures are doing a disservice to our students. I mean, look at how successful Sorensen is without any devices or special effects. What was it that failed with the others who employed Wesch’s blogging/videoing/small-group-simulation style while Sorensen warms-up and delivers year after year? The article abstractly notes the use of the word “wonder” in Wesch’s talks and forthcoming book.

I’m beginning to wonder why organizations and the public are always looking for one-dimensional answers to complex problems. Look at the words in his original videos, “If these wall could talk what would they say?” The physical structure of the classroom/lecture hall is more than a literal impediment, it represents what no longer works in education: the passive absorption of knowledge. Wesch began by attacking the physical status quo of what higher education was supposed to look like and used emerging technology to forge a different path. But this was only the first part of the problem. The next part is that those “educators” who might adequately function in the passive lecture-hall style might not be well suited for a more interactive/technology-rich style. Put another way, if one is not a very good educator or is only living up to the status quo of the old system, then no amount of technology is going to make one a better teacher. This is why Sorensen can just plug away year after year. He’s not just going through the paces and living up to some artificial status quo. He’s a great teacher, who is right there with his students as they struggle through the concepts he’s trying to teach. By shear force of talent, he succeeds despite using a method that’s completely out of touch with his audience. This is no small thing. And it’s important to note that Sorensen succeeds because he relies on the one thing that every great teacher needs, with or without technology, the ability to connect and identify with their students. What’s broken in the lecture-hall style of higher education isn’t the lecture hall or the lack of YouTube, but the reliance of educators and organizations to hide behind the system and structure and do their job while failing their students literally and figuratively. It’s not enough to show up, deliver the content and grade the papers. With or without devices, education is about humans working together to collaboratively raise the understanding, capabilities and actions of one another.

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