The internet and higher education
MUSCAT: With the existing internet technologies, university professors have a new dilemma on their hands. Now, students have the answers to all the problems discussed in the classroom at their fingertips, anytime, anywhere.
This is true at least with undergraduate courses where almost everything that we teach there is about theories and problems that have been fully developed and answered, respectively. It is no surprise then if students, especially good ones, choose not to attend a class whose main purpose is to explain a topic that is readily available on the web.
In education, the process matters most, not the content.
The web has uncovered a failing aspect of the higher education systems of many countries, where the emphasis is put on the material to be covered in a degree, and not so much on making sure that, students are being provided with a valuable learning experience.
Ask any undergraduate student and they would tell you that they often forget almost everything about a course within a few months from taking that course. So, what does that mean? If students forget most of their course contents, then what lessons do they leave with after graduation that will have a positive influence on their lives in the future? More seriously, is the student’s GPA a real indicator of their ability to pursue a graduate degree, where independent thinking is crucial. Where in our undergraduate curriculum do we teach our students to think independently?
We think that the web provides educators with a much-needed opportunity to develop answers to these and other questions that have been hindering our ability to attain the real purpose of a university education, which is about equipping students with the kinds of skills needed for them to deal with open problems.
Now that all the information is out there on the web, a university professor can use their class time to focus on what matters most in the educational process. Nurturing aspects of the student’s character like independent reading, independent thinking, the joy of learning on our own, the opportunity to develop our own questions, the opportunity to make our own conclusions (whether right or wrong, it doesn’t matter), and the opportunity to take responsibility for our own learning are the kinds of activities that, I believe, make a university education worthwhile. Here are a few tips and ideas for university professors to help their institutions achieve that goal.
1. Make independent thinking a top learning outcome of your course.
2. Provide your students with an authentic education. By this, we mean that everything you do in class, as an instructor, must be related to real-world situations, preferably of interest to your students, which, in turn, assumes that you are aware of your students’ interests and backgrounds. Here, one thing to keep in mind is that there are no stupid students, only non-interested students, and it is your job as an instructor to make your subject interesting to your students.
3. Encourage your students to cooperate rather than compete with each other. One way to do so is to divide your students into groups and assign a portion of the course grade to group work. This activity turns your classroom into a tutoring centre of its own, based on peer teaching.
4. Invite guest speakers from related industries to your classroom to give your students firsthand account of the challenges facing those industries and the skills expected of future employees.
5. Adopt the notion of flipped classrooms from blended learning and use your class time for class discussions and problem-solving.
6. Turn the LMS pages of your course into a focused web for your students. This is important because asking the students to search the entire web for information creates another problem of its own. Students can be easily intimated by the wealth of information on the web and become reactive to the ideas they find there, while in principle we want to encourage our students to be critical of what they read and develop thoughts of their own.
7. Think about ways on how to respond to plagiarism. It is not true that plagiarism caused by the web technologies can be dealt with using another technology like TurnitIn, for example. Instead, try to engage your students in continuous discussions about why plagiarism is unethical and why it is natural and expected that their thinking gets influenced by the thoughts of others.
Fouad Chedid, the writer, is the Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at Al Sharqiyah University in Ibra. He has taught at several universities in the USA, Japan, Lebanon, and Oman.