Cultural Rift: When Will Education Get Personal?

Just checked out David Wiley’s talk at Penn State on Open Education. I can’t help think about my own teaching experiences and the positive impacts that getting personal with students has had. The traditional notion of education, courses and institution has us expecting a certain experience when attending a course. This experience, which I believe is a sort of ‘suicide paradigm’ that I work every day to break out of with students, includes this notion of learning being a one-way street from professor to student. Student comes to a class, listens to the professor and supposedly ‘gains’ knowledge that adds to their credits for attaining a degree (there will be a test on this later..ugh).  I’m not saying that there is no need for making sure people have skills in certain arenas, most certainly I would want my surgeon to have been thoroughly practiced before my procedure. But what I am saying is this model of education that we have been perpetuating since the industrial revolution, and the model that has big-bureaucratic backing, is inherently impersonal and unapproachable, and just so happens to be in-charge of one of the most personal things to humans… learning.

Now, lets compare the concept of personal vs. impersonal when it comes to education and individual lifestyle. People are personal by nature and design. We are social by nature and design. We need to know that what we think, say and do is valid, socially acceptable, respected and admired by someone else. Ever wonder why so many people post what they had for lunch on Twitter? It’s not because they find their ham sandwich so interesting, or the best ham sandwich ever, its all about the small, yet important feeling that they are sharing something personal with someone. It’s mostly psychological in nature. Technology and our mobile/digital-social connected nature has allowed us to FEEL more connected and part of something that we can directly affect. When you go to that old-paradigm classroom, you are essentially the same as the person next to you. You all learn the same information, and are given the same test. Sure there is time for discussion, but not much, and the discussion is typically centered around validating a set topic, rather than creating new directions to explore. Discussion is the most social part of a course, so naturally the most engaging for us as humans.

The other notion of personalization is our transition to a very mobile-centric lifestyle and learning space. Most students probably learn more about their friends and family per day on Facebook than they do reading a textbook on some subject. So what has changed? While teaching a few weeks ago, I was in a great discussion with my students about how mobile devices have changed not just the way we consume and create content, but physically the way we interact with consuming and creating content. As we move from mouse-input experiences to touch experiences that user our REAL HANDS, we instantly become more personal with something, as an element of abstraction has been removed from the equation (the mouse). Because we use our hands to explore a device, the device has naturally become a more personal experience. Try this: ask your students at the beginning of class to give up their cell phones for the entire class time. Tell them they will be put on a table in the front of the room, and they can not touch them for the whole class time. Just observe their facial reactions. You may see something like ‘your about to rip away their child from their hands’.

So the combination of our need as social beings, combined with services and devices that allow us to share our personal experiences to a public space has caused a huge rift in the big bureaucracy of education, and the natural inclinations of it’s students. I do believe that if institutions don’t start and continue to get personal with it’s students, they will ultimately be unable to survive. The world has changed, students have changed, learning is everywhere, all the time, and traditional education has waited far too long to play catchup.

So what’s my strategy with my current students?

  • Yes, I friend my students on Facebook. Students appreciate the fact that you are the same person on, and off the field. 
  • Yes, I ask my students what’s happening outside of their educational walls. This commonly leads to reasons why students may be struggling.
  • Yes, I ask students to bring things they are interested in to their assignments.
  • Yes, on the first day I ask students what they expect from the course and try and integrate it during the semester. This allows students to feel they have some drive over their learning.
  • Yes, there are topics/subjects that I lecture, but emphasis of learning is clearly placed on the students
  • Yes, students can make mistakes, collaborate, work in groups and learn as much from each-other as they can from me

At the end of the day, treat your students as colleagues in stead of subordinates. Learn from them as they learn from you and each-other. Getting personal is not taboo, just relate it back to the work and learning process. Always find ways to bring students personally into their learning. They will have a much more transformative, and personalized learning experience. Learning is 24/7 (yes we learn while dreaming), and extremely personal and unique to each individual.

So in your next class meeting, take 10 minutes to ask the class how they are doing in other classes, at home or work. See what changes in the students learning process.