Repurposing Old Lecture Halls

I have mentioned Michael Wesch’s classic video A vision of Students Today in a previous post. Michael has used the video as the centrepiece for a post in of all places the Encyclopaedia Britannica blog. Here he reflects on the message of the video and laments the just-getting-by attitude of most students today, and their wandering attentions in class via their wi-fi laptops and handheld devices.

Nevertheless he emerges in a somewhat optimistic frame of mind at the end of the post. He encourages lecturers to embrace the fact that lecture halls are enveloped in the vast Internet information cloud. Class activities, even lectures, can ask students to work in groups and use their Internet-capable devices to conduct relevant learning tasks akin to those they will be undertaking in the real world. Michael’s quote sets up a lofty ambition:

… stop denying the fact that we are enveloped in a cloud of ubiquitous digital information where the nature and dynamics of knowledge have shifted. We can acknowledge that most of our students have powerful devices on them that give them instant and constant access to this cloud (including almost any answer to almost any multiple choice question you can imagine). We can welcome laptops, cell phones, and iPods into our classrooms, not as distractions, but as powerful learning technologies. We can use them in ways that empower and engage students in real world problems and activities, leveraging the enormous potentials of the digital media environment that now surrounds us. In the process, we allow students to develop much-needed skills in navigating and harnessing this new media environment, including the wisdom to know when to turn it off. When students are engaged in projects that are meaningful and important to them, and that make them feel meaningful and important, they will enthusiastically turn off their cellphones and laptops to grapple with the most difficult texts and take on the most rigorous tasks.

To a degree I have been able to experiment with some of these concepts in my use of our new pod room during this 083 semester. I have encouraged students in an IT subject to bring their laptops and have set them some tasks, individually and in groups, that require Internet search to accomplish with the outcome being a series of wiki pages accessible to the whole class. In addition, for a couple of semesters, I now hold online final exams in labs where students have full access to the Internet and a virtual machine where they can download and run any software during the exam itself. This forces me to set quite different questions, none of which are of the type ‘What is meant by the term …’ and instantly answerable using Google. Even answers to coding questions can be found online but at least this fosters code reuse and the student must understand if the code actually supports the required answer. They can also test the syntax if not always the semantics of the code, so assessment is made more convenient. Being electronic text, the answers can also be fully tested by the assessor.

Thus I am already moving in the direction espoused by Michael Wesch. However, to fully embrace the teaching approach will require major restructuring of existing subjects and will require an incremental approach over an academic year or so – something I personally welcome.

[Via Dave Parry at AcademHack]

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About Michael Rees
Academic in IT interested in Web 2.0 and social media

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