Monday, September 22, 2014

Teaching Matters More than Ever in a Digital Age

Thirty years ago, I traveled to Argentina to study at the National University of La Plata for a year. It was a transformative experience, one full of café con leche and facturas in local confiterías, haunting book shops in Buenos Aires and La PLata, and incredible learning experiences in a country experiencing democracy for the first time in almost a decade.

Naturally, as my teaching career evolved, my experiences in Argentina (from that and future trips), played a significant role in the courses I taught on language and literature. The allowed me to give detail and weave narratives. They enabled me to provide a meaningful, added dimension to the information my students were processing.

I was reminded again of the importance of that added dimension as I read about the latest virtual reality (VR) headset from from Oculus Rift, the company purchased by Facebook this past summer. The company's latest prototype allows users to "explore the virtual environment as you would in real life." The reviewer comments that he found himself "regularly crouching down and moving around to examine the digital objects surrounding me me from all angles." All of which translates into a more immersive experience, and one that moves closer to capturing "the feeling presence."
I did come close to the feeling of presence, I think, during one portion of the demo that had me moving slowly forward through a giant disintegrating orb. I was stationary, of course, but my brain definitely thought I should be moving, and I found myself actively trying to balance myself as a result. It is the first time that I truly felt like the digital world had begun to take over more than just my visual perception. That sensation was fleeting, but Oculus' latest dose of virtual reality gave me a glimpse of presence.
 I have experimented with VR headsets in the past, and have long believed that, at some point in the future, VR will allow our students to experience the presence of relevant locations as part of their learning.They will be able to don headsets (or glasses) that will allow them to tour the landscape of the literature they are reading, or to walk through the streets of Buenos Aires as they learn Spanish, all without ever having to leave their actual time and space.

Of course, immediate questions arise when I talk about such technology trends with educators. "What will my role be?" "Will this kind of technology replace me?"

My answer to such questions is the same one I've been giving since I presented a series of lectures on technology in education to high school teachers around Oklahoma in 1998. "If your only purpose is to oversee the processing of information then, yes, technology will replace you (and be an improvement). If, however, your role is more than that, if it is about connections, understanding, and to facilitate the accrual of wisdom, you are providing a unique service that will always be in demand."

In fact, I would argue that teachers and teaching matter more in the the 21st century and the digital age than they ever have. In this era, every day in a course is much like the study abroad experiences I have enjoyed with my students. As we traveled along with me, they were seeing the same objects and had access to the same information I did. I didn't need to describe the Amazon ecosystem to them because they are experiencing it for themselves in real time and incredible technicolor. In spite of that, however, they still lacked the necessary context to really "see" it completely, to experience it meaningfully.

In the digital age, teachers and teaching matter more than ever because information/learning context is more important than ever. Today, students have access to incredible information resources, virtual experiences, and easy "answers," but what they need most is context and understanding.

This is what teachers do. They are the meaningful ligaments that make possible a true learning motion.

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