Teaching With Technology in Higher Ed? Start With Relationship-Building.

Opinion | Digital Learning

Teaching With Technology in Higher Ed? Start With Relationship-Building.

By Bryan Dewsbury     Jan 2, 2019

Teaching With Technology in Higher Ed? Start With Relationship-Building.

This article is part of the guide: 6 Key Trends to 21st Century Teaching.

During my early days of teaching in graduate school, educational technology was sold more for its posh than performance. Every new version of Microsoft PowerPoint allowed instructors to embed more and more media and wow students with visually appealing graphics.

Looking back, the whole enterprise seemed like a fruitless attempt to keep up with the expectations of the smartphone generation. But there has been progress, both with the tools themselves and the teaching practices we employ to incorporate technology into the classroom. And improved access to devices and high-speed Wi-Fi means that traditional classrooms lectures need not be limited to the physical classroom space.

These advancements are worth celebrating, but it leaves me wondering: Why should students still show up to a physical classroom? And what is the role of a professor as technology continues to make its way into the classroom?

My answer to that is humans are crucial to inclusive teaching, and that using tech successfully in the classroom starts with relationships.

How do we do that? In addition to using technology in my own biology courses, I also work with faculty across the country on how to teach with technology through an inclusive lens. Including student voices as active and important features of course design is a key component of a classroom based on dialogue, and this is what it truly means to be an inclusive instructor. There are certainly ways in which technology can aid this process, but the mindset of inclusion must determine the ways in which that technology is used—not the other way around. I have watched the mixed results of instructors trying to adopt technology to their progressive teaching needs. The narrative I often hear centers on how students may resist active learning approaches, a teaching style that often (but not always) is predicated on some technology.

I have also seen instructors blindly adopt tools without adjusting their pedagogy or thought behind what the human interactions would look like afterwards. For example, moving from lecture to small group work is only as effective as the nature of the feedback, the respect between stakeholders, and the understanding students have in how the process helps them grow both intellectually and socially.

For STEM instruction, inclusive teaching and relationship-building is often new and potentially dangerous territory. Without appropriate experience, instructors attempting to engage the emotional aspect of the teaching process risk displaying the social biases that result from unawareness. In my experience, graduate training in STEM tends to lack any discussion of this.

Pivoting one’s pedagogical focus to relationship-building thus demands a learning process about the self and the students, and there are practical steps an instructor can consider when embarking on this paradigm shift.

1. Provide opportunities for students to reflect.

Student reflection assignments have been shown to produce cathartic effects on academic performance and even health. But what if instead student reflections could be used to capture information about students’ sense of meaning and purpose?

The popular NPR program titled “This I Believe,” espouse this ethos on a weekly basis. On the show, individuals read aloud the beliefs and struggles that guide their daily lives.

This NPR program provides a framework for educators who want to better know their students in an increasingly digital classroom setting. When confidentiality is assured, students are often willing to deeply unpack the very unique ways in which they navigate their lives both generally, and in the context of the class that requested the assignment. This provides instructors a unique body of data from which they can learn interesting things about their students. The relationship with the students can be built on this uniqueness, and not generic assumptions of the student based on social stereotypes.

2. Prepare to learn about yourself and your students.

Asking students to reflect in deep and profoundly personal ways means that we need be prepared to listen and learn from it. This learning process is arguably the most difficult step.

STEM pedagogy has a historic culture that assumes problems in the classroom are mostly a function of student deficits, placing the blame on students’ weaknesses or learning differences rather than other factors influencing their education. The idea that the social environment we create (or don’t create) impacts the learning experience is sadly too new a concept in college teaching. In an inclusive classroom, the instructor must embrace their own history and privilege, as well as and students’ histories. Doing so involves complex learning and unlearning, but that can lead to the development of a more authentic relationship between the instructor and students.

Some of these lessons may be difficult, since not all instructors have considered how their own pedagogies may perpetuate unequal outcomes. Several books, such as “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream” or “Savage Inequalities” are good starting points to better understand how the way we teach can lead to exclusive and unequal education experiences.

3. Leverage partners.

We need not be dwarfed by the enormity of the task of teaching for inclusion. There are many scholars, societies, campus partners, and other groups more broadly engaging and thinking about this work. Learning through the literature is an important first step, but seeking the assistance of organizations, like AAC&U or the John N. Gardner Institute, who have turned equity theory into praxis will be helpful to learn how to apply these things for one’s own context.

4. Provide opportunities for yourself to reflect.

The social and intellectual development that both students and instructors undergo when we discuss and debate ideas is at the center of why we educate. Paradoxically, the abundance of technology in STEM classrooms, for me, has reprioritized the non-STEM disciplines that ask philosophical questions about human connection. There is something fundamentally unique about engaging a different crop of 150 students or so every Fall. Their stories teach me a lot about the human experience, and in turn, our role as instructors is to teach students how to leverage their personal histories toward becoming better thinkers and citizens of the world.

Technology and innovation in higher education matters, but only to the end that it supports the building of a respectful, open community of future scholars in the physical classroom.

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