From where I sit - Where passion trumps technology

January 27, 2011

With the new academic year in Australia set to start in a few weeks, I am savouring a time of quiet contemplation before the madness begins. Naturally, I think about fresh strategies for teaching classes with ever-increasing student numbers and how best to use the new technology that lecture theatres offer.

We hear much today about how this technology can help. In some classrooms, mobile phones are now being used so that students can text answers to tutors' questions anonymously without fear that the wrong answer will embarrass them; in others, tablet computers are being distributed to students for use in interactive teaching and learning.

These days, we have the audio and video recording of lectures; unit websites that typically present PowerPoint slides with computer-generated graphics and links to YouTube clips, as well as tutorial notes and other handouts; and online library catalogues with links to e-books and e-journals.

It is easy to forget that what we are doing is fundamentally the same as what educators were doing when tertiary institutions were established in Australia in the mid-19th century: passing on knowledge from one generation to the next. The University of Sydney (founded in 1850), the University of Melbourne (1853) and all the others that followed were, of course, modelled on a European tradition that goes back to the University of Bologna's inception in 1088.

Students are notoriously nonchalant. When the lecture finishes, a few say "thank you" in passing, a few stop to ask about assignments and the like, but for the most part, overt displays of enthusiasm are not the norm.

At the close of one lecture last year, however, I was delighted to receive unanimous applause. It was one in which I left the safety of the lectern and its microphone, stopped the PowerPoint slides and simply talked directly to the students, without media interference, about a subject I really knew.

Later in the year, I had the opportunity to sit in on the lectures of a more senior colleague who consistently achieves top marks in student surveys of her classes. She stepped away from the lectern in every lecture. Her technique was to start at the lectern, but not to stay there.

She stepped towards the students on this side or that, immediately making their experience more personal, engaging their attention more fully (except for one student at the back, who invariably went to sleep halfway through - oh well, there's one in every lecture group). She accompanied her lecture with slides and a couple of film clips, but these never dominated the class.

In essence, my colleague was calling on what is always best in successful public speaking: she spoke from the heart. We would all do well to remember that, while YouTube clips, colourful slides and reams of handouts can be helpful, they cannot take the place of an engaging, thought-provoking lecture by a lecturer who really knows their stuff, is passionate about it and has taken the time to construct and deliver a talk that both instructs and inspires.

So this year, my aim as an educator is to get back to basics: while still allowing all this wonderful new technology to aid my delivery, I will keep foremost in my mind that what is most important is the delivery itself.

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