By Derek Graf
Teaching has traditionally centered on instructors as the gatekeepers of knowledge. Students, though, can now type a few words into their phone’s web browser and find the same content they would hear in a lecture-based class. Immediate access to a wide range of lectures, models, and examples has many students asking why they are paying enormous amounts of money for educational material that is often available for free. And instructors who cling to the gatekeeper model of education risk overlooking their own redundancy.
This is not to say that the internet has replaced the instructor. In Teaching Naked, José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher College, argues that instructors should embrace technology both inside and outside the classroom. On the one hand, it is obvious that “technology can be harnessed to enhance the widely desired goals of increased student engagement and faculty-student interaction” (x). Less obvious, though, is Bowen’s claim that technology “is most powerfully used outside of class as a way to increase naked, nontechnological interaction with students inside the classroom” (x).
Central to Bowen’s argument is his observation that “technology has created new competitors, new expectations, and a global market for higher education” (24). Teaching Naked contains a unique sense of urgency because of Bowen’s consistent reminder that students, as consumers, are beginning to question the university as a business. Working within this global market, instructors who ignore or dismiss online learning from the classroom environment alienate 21st-century students and put the traditional university system at risk of seeming outdated and irrelevant.
One way instructors can demonstrate to students that the university remains in step with technological advances is by utilizing social media for communicating with and among students. Because classroom communication can involve much more than trading information about assignments and deadlines, Bowen offers creative ways to use social media. For example, he advises that “if practical problem solving is a goal of the class, you might send a daily tweet or message with a new practical problem” (138). Using Twitter, Facebook, or Snapchat does not necessarily increase student engagement with the course material; however, it can allow for varied forms of communication between instructor and student.
Changing how we communicate with our students shows them that our courses do not exist only in the physical space of the classroom. An online discussion board, for example, “is an easy way for your students to constantly reengage with material and concepts while they are away from your classroom,” and this helps to establish “learning communities that integrate learning into residential life” (141). Rethinking the classroom space in this way can lead to changes in the curriculum. As Bowen says, “picking a textbook and a list of topics was never a learning strategy, and ignoring that the world has changed will not impress your students” (127). When we ask students to consider questions and concepts through informal means, such as a tweet, we expand the content of our courses and encourage a larger network of student engagement.
The importance of speedy communication
Using technology to communicate changes one-on-one meetings with students as well as how, when, and where instructors hold office hours. Bowen claims that “millennial students are much more interested in the speed of your response than in your physical presence” (41). As someone who often struggles with the question of whether office hours are beneficial for all my students, I find this area of Teaching Naked particularly useful. While I want my students to know that I am available and accessible, I also wonder whether traditional forms of availability, such as physical office hours or email, are the best ways for students to reach out to me. Bowen offers the following strategies for instructors interested in shifting office hours to such digital formats as Skype and Facebook:
- Pick a time frame when you will be online and available for calls from students.
- Combine the video session with chat technology. You can use the chat to keep a queue for your Skype calls. When there is no Skype call, you can talk to as many students on chat as you can handle.
- Give students choices. Tell them they can contact you on Skype or by text or post questions to a class Facebook group.
- Don’t overlook the value of (nontechnologically) getting out of the office. Try a local coffee house, find a student lounge or find a spot next to your class and get there an hour early.
Throughout Teaching Naked, Bowen urges his readers to make deliberate choices about the most productive ways to communicate with students outside the classroom with the goal of increasing learning inside the classroom. For those who feel comfortable incorporating different forms of interaction, platforms like Facebook and Twitter are valuable tools. For those who are hesitant to increase the channels of communication students can use to seek help, it is still important to increase our visibility and transparency. We limit the range of student learning when we assume that all learning must occur in the classroom.
While it’s difficult to argue against the pedagogical benefits offered through a more comprehensive use of technology in and outside the classroom, the issue of treating students as customers remains troubling. Bowen admits that “the demand for customer service can be tremendously annoying,” but he also encourages instructors to “think about the possible benefits to learning” in the customization of education. One central concern in Teaching Naked is how students are first exposed to new material, an exposure that often takes the form of assigned readings followed by lecture. Bowen argues that “even if reading followed by lecture were the best way to reach the most students, it would still be teaching only the students whose learning preferences favor reading and listening” (55).
Reading this passage, I cannot help but wonder if it’s plausible to customize one’s course to take into account students who do not “favor” reading or listening. Of course, not all students learn the same way, but if instructors consider students customers first and learners second, we risk seeking to please the customer rather than challenge the learner. Varying one’s pedagogical strategies is always a good idea, yet the problematic implications of complete customization remain open for inquiry and debate.
Derek Graf is a graduate fellow at the Center for Teaching excellence and a graduate teaching assistant in English.