The only way to get with the program

April 23, 2004

The tables are turning on US campuses as tech-illiterate faculties hire students to bring them up to speed on the latest software. Stephen Phillips reports

The image of an ageing lecturer struggling to operate an overhead projector before a class of laptop-wielding undergraduates poignantly highlights the generation gap between today's students and many of their teachers.

In an attempt to tackle this imbalance, professors on about 100 US campuses are being taught by their students to embrace the information age.

The corps of student volunteers, known as "techcats", "tech gurus" or "tech mentors", earn an hourly wage or academic credit in return for their time.

Programmes span the gamut of skill levels and needs, and mentoring ranges from intensive one-to-one tutoring to student-manned drop-in centres.

"People have discovered that this is a very powerful idea in terms of helping faculty members deploy technology in the classroom," says Ann Thompson, an education professor at Iowa State University and founding director of the Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching, America's longest-standing student-teacher technology training programme.

She is an "immigrant in the world of technology", she says. "I did most of my schooling without technology - it's like I'm speaking a foreign language. Today's students are native speakers."

At South Dakota State University, there were a number of faculty struggling with technology, according to Pat Rueschenberg, telecommunications coordinator at the campus' Educational Technology Center. The centre has hired 73 students as technology gurus, paying them $12 (£6.50) or so an hour.

"This seemed a way to utilise the expertise of students and expose them to working conditions and education issues."

Driving such programmes are student expectations - many have been exposed to computers in the classroom from their earliest schooling, says Kenneth Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, which tracks how US institutions are getting wired. "Students are coming to campus to learn about (and with) technology, and that's a challenge to many faculty members for whom computers were not part of their training."

For students, mentoring schemes offer an opportunity to hone their teaching as well as their computing skills. "Our faculty also understand that they are helping students learn about the teaching of technology - we think about it as learning together," Thompson says.

Nevertheless, subverting the traditional transmission of knowledge from senior authority figure to younger student makes for a novel dynamic that hasn't sat too easily with some staff, Rueschenberg notes. "Some staff have been reticent, I don't know if they feel it's a control issue," he says.

Role reversal wasn't an issue for Jerry Jorgensen, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at South Dakota State, who recently tapped the campus'

student technology gurus to brush up his webpage authoring skills. "What matters to me is whether they know what they are talking about. And they do."

Thompson says Iowa State, whose programme was founded in 1991, has "had no problems with faculty feeling uncomfortable". In fact, some have been with the programme for seven years. "No one learns about technology in one semester," she says.

Key to the success of the programme is matching students and faculty members who can work well together. When the chemistry is right, mentoring represents a positive experience for both parties, judging from the glowing online testimonials of participants in the University of Vermont's Technology Collaboration Action Teams programme.

Elementary education lecturer Susan Baker supervised student Gretchen Ide one semester and swapped roles recently.

"I am a technological neophyte - I could never have learnt this much in a class or workshop setting. I needed a tutor, someone who could follow my dinosaur path and see where I go awry."

For Ide, the experience has opened her eyes to technology she had previously "taken for granted".

Academic studies have identified lack of knowledge and administrative support as major hurdles to technology adoption on US campuses. "A lot of faculty staff feel they have enough demands dealing with teaching and research, and that making everything technology-enabled is just one more thing on their platter," Rueschenberg says. "So they look pretty favourably on any help and support they can get."

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