UP NEXT: Science Speak (Explaining Research Without the Jargon)
Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning
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When I Grow Up, I Want to be Just Like My iPad
I was an undergraduate student at Berkeley in the '50s. I had about 30 instructors. The vast majority were forgettable, as was the information I "learned" from them. Three of these teachers changed my life (I like to think for the better) and essentially made me the professional I am today. All three were as different as they could be.
The first was Jonas Gullberg. He was an internationally known expert on microscopes, and consulted for Leitz and Zeiss. He was a terrible lecturer. He stared at the ceiling, and spoke of light in biblical terms, almost like this, "Yea, the light doth STRIKE the mirror on its first surface!" Nobody had any idea what he was talking about. But on Tuesday nights, he would set up demonstrations, using equipment that he had made himself and which was unavailable anywhere in the world. These gadgets were astonishing, and gave a physical demonstration of difficult abstract concepts, like the difference between a real and virtual microscope image. All of a sudden, his lectures, which had been totally obscure, made complete sense, and all of us in the class realized we were being taught by a genius, albeit an eccentric one. Later, after I became a professor myself, following his example I always had my grad students make stuff, rather than buy stuff whenever it was possible, and took a lot of satisfaction in doing "cheap" do-it-yourself science-just like Gullberg.
Eight years later, my university teaching career began with teaching large lecture courses (500+) in 1969. Classroom technology consisted of two devices: a Kodak 35 mm slide projector, and a little electro-mechanical gadget that read the punch cards students submitted with their answers during exams. Perhaps a surprise to today's instructors, neither of these devices required any faculty time for preparation or operation. If I needed a projection slide, I'd tell Eric, the department photographer, what I wanted, and two days later I'd have a beautiful, professionally made custom slide. A department technician collected and fed the cards into the little machine after exams. My total time investment in the mechanical aspects of delivering an exam to 962 students and correcting it was zero. The same was true for preparing images for lectures.
Nevertheless, I loved technology and was a gadget freak. In the early '70s, a new educational technology came along called "multi-media." At the time, that meant using more than one slide projector at a time. To demonstrate my enthusiasm level for technology in teaching, I figured that if two projectors was good, six was much better, and I played them like an organ. Although students seemed to love these "shows," and they were an enormous amount of fun to put together, I couldn't see any measurable and repeatable effect on learning. Also as time went on, the department canned the photographer and the technician, and I had to take over all the work of preparation and correction. As the department slashed secretarial help (but gave the faculty computers), I found myself doing more and more routine things that secretaries used to do, but with the aid of technology, now I could do.
Despite this, by the early '80s, I was an advocate for what was called "CAI," or computer assisted instruction. At the time, this meant using computer terminals for drill and practice, "educational games," and some very crude simulations in labs. I am embarrassed to admit that in a letter I recently found that was addressed to my department chair during that time, I urged the adoption of CAI because among other things, in the then-current fiscal crisis we could eliminate a lot of grad assistant positions and save the university money. This once again demonstrates the truth of the old caution, "Be careful what you ask for; you just might get it," because that was exactly what happened.
Around this time I also began to notice a rather unsettling thing. When several studies, including one I made with colleagues at the University of Rhode Island, seemed to suggest that both reading speed and comprehension were lower when text was read off a screen rather than print, I began to wonder if perhaps we in the academy ought to slow down just a bit before abandoning the traditional ways of doing business and substituting technology, but Bill and Steve were not to be denied.
Now we are seeing the "traditional" live lecture facing extinction, to be replaced with online learning, distance education, MOOCs, and now blended learning. These might be fine for learning a body of knowledge, or even some techniques, but as we move away from a live, real-time lecturer, even in a large auditorium, I wonder if we might be losing something that might be even more important than "learning." Inspiration.
The second Berkeley teacher who had an enormous effect on my later professional life was Robert Stebbins, a herpetologist. He was an okay lecturer, but he (and the class) lived for the labs and field trips. He'd bring in all sorts of creepy-crawlies, and let us play with them. Once, he sprinkled some sand on the floor, and put a sidewinder rattlesnake on the sand so we could see its movements. He then reached for the rattlesnake to pick it up and put it back in its cage. We all cautioned him against doing so. He laughed and said, "Oh, they know when you mean them no harm." I don't know if he was right, but the rattler was docile as a kitten. Another time, we were on a field trip to the Mojave desert. I was seated next to him in the university car. He drove like an old lady all through the Central Valley, but as soon as we reached the crest of Tehachapi Pass, he gripped the wheel, stared intensely forward, and our speed crept up. Finally, I said, "Unh, Dr. Stebbins, we're going a hundred miles an hour." He backed off, laughed in an embarrassed way, and said, "That always happens when I can smell the desert." From Stebbins, I learned what it was like to really love the thing you study--and I eventually followed his example.
The third exemplary teacher was Richard Eakin, the embryologist, who gave the most technically perfect lectures I've ever seen. They started right on the hour, had a beginning, a middle, and an end, perfect pacing, crystal clear explanations, beautiful drawings, and ended EXACTLY at 50 after the hour. I later found out that he memorized every lecture, like the script for a play, so he would always have the exactly correct word and phrasing. He could also edit in his head, so if a student asked a question that took 47 seconds to answer, he'd STILL end exactly on time, and not leave out anything important.
The class had about 250 students, but Eakin visited each lab at least once a week, and would stroll around and visit with the students. I was an indifferent student at best, and had taken on the near-futile task of trying make a positive impression on my brilliant pre-med lab partner. One day, Eakin came quietly into my lab. I didn't see him because my eye was glued to a microscope, but I became aware of a-presence-standing behind me. I instantly thought, "Oh, God, he's going to ask me something about ectoderm, and Mary will think I'm a moron." Instead, he asked, "What have you seen that's beautiful today?" Well, I was a photographer, and had seen a lot of beautiful things in the 'scope. I spouted off, Eakin thanked me and vanished, Mary looked impressed, and I became a new disciple.
His last lecture of the semester was about his life as a young scientist, working in the lab of a Nobel Prize winner. It was eloquent, touching, and inspiring. Half the class was in tears because the semester was over and they wouldn't be seeing him again. I was on fire. I wanted to be JUST LIKE HIM, and be a motivating teacher and a good scientist, too. I spent the rest of my professional life trying to achieve that goal.
As we go more and more toward class technology and a "facilitating" rather than an exemplary role for college teachers, the opportunity for students to be personally inspired by ennobling figures like Gullberg, Stebbins, and Eakin gets less and less. Not every teacher will or can be like those extraordinary people, but students in their first years of college need to be exposed to at least a few. Students may be able to understand the idea of DNA synthesis better with sophisticated graphics and a virtual teacher than with a mediocre live lecturer but no kid is going to say, "When I grow up, I want to be just like Dr. Macintosh here." Things like TED and MOOCS are great for expanding the exposure of great teachers, but nobody watching those broadcasts has the feeling that the lecturer is talking to THEM. So, in the new world of large class college teaching where there is scant opportunity for students to be personally exposed to experienced, motivating teachers, how are we going to INSPIRE students, especially the non-traditional ones?
I'd like to thank Jeff Sack and Mike Heppner for invaluable help in preparing this paper.
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