The Sesame Street Syndrome

Michael suggested I might want to comment on issues other than the eMM during this visit to his blog, so today I (Stephen) want to talk about the wider use of technology in the learning environment. A recent article in the Communications of the ACM started me thinking about the issues that face institutions engaging in e-learning. The environment that we experience as academics and as students is so ingrained into us that it makes dealing with technological change a dangerous challenge to a comfortable world view.

The September Viewpoint article by Dennis Adams “Wireless Laptops in the Classroom (and the Sesame Street Syndrome)” discusses the “problem” of students using wireless Internet access during lectures for activities unrelated to the lecture itself.

This article makes a mistake common in academic discussions of teaching and learning involving technology. Learning is not a consequence of what the teacher does, it is a consequence of actions the learner takes. The role of the teacher is to provide an environment that assists the students in learning efficiently and that supports the student’s engagement with the material at hand. Students attend lectures in the hope of learning; after all they can just as easily sit in a cafe or dorm room and use the Internet. The mistake is falling into the trap of labelling students, either through learning styles, or the use of terms like “Sesame Street Syndrome” or “Digital Natives”. In essence blaming the student for failings of the educational environment under the control of the academic. Rather than blaming the students for switching off from a ‘passive’ experience, Professor Adams might ask what it is that he is doing that is not engaging the students?

He’s not alone in observing that students are often not engaged with traditional lectures. A student noted in College Week:

“My professor right now is talking about something important and world-historical, but instead of listening, I am writing this article. I just e-mailed my editor telling her I’d finish a draft by tomorrow, but before that I was clicking through old New Yorkers and checking NBA box scores. Normally I’d IM with a friend about how boring the lecture is, but I can see that today she brought a pen and paper and is idly staring into space. Lame.”

Professor Adams states as his goal the transformation of “a Sesame Street Syndrome student into a deductive, intuitive, passive learner”. Why would a learner want to be constrained to a passive role? Extensive research in the field of higher education suggests that students are able to flexibly adopt styles or techniques of learning as necessary in response to their environment. If the lecture is replaced with an active learning experience then students will be engaged personally in their learning and won’t be tempted to seek more interesting alternatives.

A colleague once complained that since he had placed lecture materials online the students had stopped coming to the lectures. On investigation it transpired that the ‘lectures’ consisted of his reading the transcript to the class; no interaction, no attempt to engage the students as active participants. Personally I wouldn’t have bothered attending either. The spoken word is inherently less efficient at conveying complex information than the written word. An effective lecture compensates for that inefficiency by providing a structured social environment for interaction with peers and a genuine expert along with the information. The teacher actively engaging with the students to draw out their experiences and demonstrate the relevance and importance of the material being discussed. A lecture becomes ineffective and essentially worthless in the absence of that interaction, the students may as well surf the Internet and read the textbook when they feel the need.

The discussion of multitasking is a further example of blaming students “[t]his ‘evaluate, chose and move’ process consumes time and energy and encourages the pursuit of more instantly pleasurable inputs. The boring lecture gets fewer and fewer time slices.” Replace “boring” with “irrelevant” (from the perception of the student) and you might start to question the person nominally in control of the lecture: the academic, rather than the student at their mercy.

Finally, the idea that preventing wireless access to the Internet will somehow prevent students from engaging with the wide and growing variety of mobile information devices is doomed to fail. The near complete ownership of mobile phones by students and the associated communication options means that bored students will simply seek alternatives: paper notes and books were used prior to the Internet for the same purposes.

The article concludes “I must still work to reach that student. I just want a fair fight” And I would suggest that the student just wants to actively engage in their learning, not just be a passive bystander to their own education.

I wouldn’t want to be accused of making the same error as Professor Adams myself however. The real responsibility for improving the quality of the lecture experience lies with institutions; those who employ academics. Its a well used aphorism in higher education research that “we teach as we were taught” and the reality is that traditional lectures have been dull for generations. Most academics are not supported and trained in delivering active learning experiences in lectures. Far from it. In many cases they would like to be able to, but the pressures of tenure, or research performance measurements like the RAE in the UK and PBRF in New Zealand, mean academics continue to deliver lectures that are much like those of old – boring.

The misuse (or not) of technology in lectures is merely a symptom of a wider malaise in university teaching. Giving academics a “fair fight” must mean giving them all of the resources, training, time and support needed to be effective teachers, not just the bare minimum needed to be boring lecturers.

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