Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century

I Use to Perform, Now I Compose and Conduct

 At 76 I just published an iBook inviting public participation in a massive open online course (MOOC).

 This was not an endeavor I intended to undertake.

After a 15 years absence, I returned to the undergraduate classroom. I had in mind a book I wanted to write: “Forms for a Future” – the civic discussions we need to have to have a future worthy of living.

 In the fall of 2007 I negotiated an adjunct position in the Honors College, figuring a small class to enchant would focus my attention. The course met three times a week and had three required full length textbooks.

 I was not prepared for what I found. My students were all Millennials. One had an ear bud in his left ear. I asked him what he was hearing in his left ear? “Music.” His is right ear? “The Class.” Why? “I learn better that way.” Would that work for anyone else? “Yes.” Then he turned the table, in a very sincere tone: Do you find that disrespectful sir? “No, not now; but, I had to ask you.”

Now, in 2012, there are no textbooks. The Monday and Friday classes are virtual, there are no lectures, and all substantive material is delivered online. Students write, comment and challenge each other throughout the semester, meeting on Wednesday for a moderated exchange of ideas.

This transition started me reflecting on my evolution from lectures and printed books to an interactive iBook and a MOOC. It was not as sudden as it may seem. I actually had an experience 25 years ago that should have been a premonition.

At that time my university had three sections of Introductory Psychology of 350 students each. The classes met at 9, 11, and 1. The course was team taught. Each instructor taught their specialty to all three sections, gave a multiple choice machine scored exam, and was gone.

The students did not like the course. Their instructors were highly critical of the attitudes and motivations of the students. The atmosphere was one of competing agendas, not mutual engagement.

For example, positive ID was required to obtain a numbered copy of the examination, which served as an exit ticket when completed. The game was to thwart fraternities and sororities from building extensive files of the examination questions.

A  Sci-Fi story would have predicted the future of learning as evolving into an epic struggle between digital security technologies and mobile communication devices, and computer programs detecting plagiarism. Surely, that could not be the intended purpose of 21st Century teaching technologies.

One year I substituted in the rotation when the regular was on sabbatical. The fall semester was awful; there was so little engagement of any kind.

At first I blamed the students. Then, I entertained the idea that if we were going to herd students into educational feeding lots, it might also be our responsibility to change the way we teach.

The next semester I spent the first class standing in the middle of the peanut gallery second row from the back. I told the story of the 1964 Genovese murder case in New York in which 38 bystanders did nothing. I teased them about being nameless. Their syllabus included material for making a large name tag. For the next five classes I encouraged the students to hang them around their necks. By the sixth class nearly all of the class was wearing name tags; and, they discovered in their textbooks the five principles of social influence I had used on them.

Every class involved experiencing concepts from the textbook. By the end of my section, there were more people in the room than students enrolled in the course. Students were bringing their friends to class.

The experiment caused a bit of excitement. The Chair asked me to give a colloquium on my teaching methods. By the end of the year, however, the consensus was that I had pandered the students, and that this was something only “I” could do. But, by then, the regular was back and everything reverted to normal.

When I finally returned to the classroom in 2007, my first surprise was that listening to my “enchanting” lectures, and reading Jared Diamond’s book on Collapse, was not going to engage young people in serious civic discourse about their future. Once again, I had to entertain the idea that it might be my responsibility to change the way I teach.

In retrospect, I now realized that my colleagues of 25 years ago did not understand that it was not the performance that was responsible for the outcome, it was the composition. I had a new score; one that focused more on the students as learners, not on me as a teacher.

My biggest surprise was how much easier it is with 21st Century digital technologies to have even higher levels of student engagement with each other, the material and the professor. Now, I have choices. Occasionally I perform with enhanced dramatic effect – he speaks. But mostly, I watch the students perform my composition. And, sometimes I conduct by drawing out one of the thoughtful quiet ones we never notice when we are the ones performing. Now, my teaching is much more personal. Best of all, it is simply more fun.

The technologies are more respectful; they allow students to do their work in the time and space that best fits their life and their circumstances – which for many includes a job. Socially, they are more collaborative and participatory. Technically, they allow efficient access to material that is more comprehensive, engaging and up to date.

 My book is now finished, but not in print. It is multi-media and has become Forums for a Future on USF iTunes University. And, it is free, as well as available for credit.

I was very lucky. I almost missed the digital disruptions transforming the art and science of teaching and learning into something far different than what it has been for the past 600 years.

Edward Renner is an Adjunct Professor in the Honor College at the University of South Florida. His iBook may be downloaded for free from the iTunes Bookstore at It is also available in a static PDF format through the University of South Florida at: Anyone may pre-register for the free public course at: by creating a user name and password.