“What Exactly Do Our Students Need from Us?” by Tim Kelly, PhD

Recently in an online pedagogy class, I was assigned to watch “A Vision of Students Today.” The video is clearly a challenge to the teaching methods so many instructors currently use as it illustrates what students believe they need to learn in a technologically driven world that is so rapidly changing.

Let me state first off that I’m no Luddite.  I’ve been teaching online courses in U.S. History and American Government for nearly ten years now. What originally sparked my interest in online teaching was that it was still unexplored as a field back in 2001 when I finished grad school. Unlike perhaps most PhD candidates, I was interested in teaching rather than research (to the chagrin of my graduate advisor), and made use of UC Irvine’s web technology as a TA and lecturer; but the technology just wasn’t there to do a living, breathing course. One conference I attended back in Costa Mesa at that time dealt entirely with innovative ideas to teach online courses (many from companies hoping to make money); and because it was such a new field, everyone in attendance felt like pioneers getting ready to embark on a new adventure (with the hope that we wouldn’t end up eating each other like the Donner Party).

So as I watched “A Vision of Students Today,” I found it to be most perplexing. Was the point of this video to say that students refuse to learn because they’re too busy tweeting and listening to iPods? Or that since a Maxine Hong Kingston novel or Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is not specifically necessary for their job skills, reading Kingston and Lincoln are therefore a waste of time? The message from these students appeared to be, “I reject your old methods of learning. Adapt to my needs and desires (and don’t interrupt me while I’m on Facebook during your lecture).”

Okay, I’m exaggerating here; and the generational battle over what is and what should be taught in the classroom has been ongoing I’m sure since Socrates tutored Plato. But precisely because technology has linked into our lives in a way it didn’t for previous generations (Socrates, after all, didn’t have to worry about Plato texting his girl friend), I do believe the calls for relevant material and learning methods is particularly more contentious, both in terms of attention spans for this current generation (that’s a separate post entirely I suppose), and what students do in fact need in the way of more skills today than previous generations in order to survive in a globalized (and very competitive) world. But a college education (if that is what they seek by coming to West Valley College) must be more than learning the latest computer code or iPhone 5 app.

Moreover, I get terribly irate when we are told as instructors that we need to adapt to students’ “needs” (or more accurately “desires”) with little recognition that students still have a responsibility to the one fact about the learning process that is as true today as it was when charcoal was first put to stone: they must read the assigned material. What I found most frustrating about the film was its implied message that students are simply much too busy in their technological world to do the required reading for a course, no matter what the subject, and no matter what its inherent value to attaining a well-rounded education. These students appear incensed that they are being held accountable for not doing the required work.

Yes, there are many ways we can make teaching and learning more innovative and tech savvy (as I hope I have done in my own teaching); but students need to recognize a college education is more than just what skills they will need “on the job.” And they also need to recognize that learning the material is more than a quick scan of their search results on Google.

Tim Kelly teaches history and political science courses in both face to face and online modes at WVC. In 2007 he published an essay, “A Cold War Home Front, 1945-1963,” included in an anthology titled Daily Lives of Civilians in Wartime Modern America From the Indian Wars to the Vietnam War (ed. by David Heidler and Jeanne Heidler, Greenwood Press); in 2009 he was nominated as “Outstanding Full Time Instructor”; and currently he continues to represent faculty in WVC’s Academic Senate.

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