There was a day when I was a conference junky. I took copious notes and sought every opportunity to touch base with speakers who captured my imagination. Being a teacher, I also got easily frustrated with colleagues. Our school would pay for us to attend the conference and then some would skip sessions to golf with a group of friends. While I never fell into the golfing group, my interest dwindled over time to the point where I would sneak out half or two-thirds of the way through a given conference day.
But my favorite conference, the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning hosted in Madison, Wisconsin was always different. While I’ve stumbled across a few less than interesting talks, the quality and practicality of speakers is consistently high. So, it was odd for me to skip out of the final presentation at the conference back in 2007. Chris Dede, Professor of Education at Harvard, was giving a talk on Evolving Emerging Models of Learning and Teaching via “Cyberinfrastucture.” Instead of listening to the talk, I had a great lunch with a former colleague who was working in Madison at the time.
But I didn’t miss the presentation. I postponed it a few weeks until the video was put online. Then, over lunch, I opened up the presentation on one monitor and my digital notepad on the other. I expected a great talk, but I didn’t expect to find a quote in the first two minutes that was so engaging, so provocative, that I could hear a room full of forward-thinking distance learning leaders mumble or possibly engage in a little nervous laughter.
On Dede’s first slide he explained that we are moving from asking “Can distance education be comparable in quality with face-to-face instruction?” to, “Is pure face-to-face instruction professional malpractice?” He briefly explained his point, but not much, so while I eventually listened to the rest of the talk, I clicked pause and spent an hour thinking and journaling about that one statement. Professional malpractice? I wasn’t even sure what he meant, but I intuitively knew that he had spoken something important. So, I typed the quote and printed it out as a poster that sat on the bookshelf in front of my desk for over a year, occasionally evoking a confused, surprised, or inquisitive response from visitors.
I looked at the quote several times a week for that year. The more I thought about it, the more I agreed with it, or at least saw some truth in it. Some may disagree with it on different levels. Some might argue that technology is simply a tool. But is it an optional tool? What if you hired a handyman by the hour who insisted upon not using power tools to get the job done? Or how about a doctor who preferred to bypass modern medical tools for those used a century ago? According to Dede, this is what people will think of educators of the future who are resistant to current and emerging educational technologies.
While I agree with the spirit of Dede’s comment, I’m not sure if the research supports him quite yet. Yes, there is research to show great student learning outcomes with blended and online learning, but there are still plenty of highly effective educators who use little to no current technology. The truth behind his statement begins to appear as we think about preparing people for 21st century living. What if I am preparing someone for a vocation that requires:
- strong Internet research skills,
- digital communication expertise,
- the ability to work with remote teams,
- doing ongoing professional development to stay current,
- the capacity to make presentations that make effective use of media,
- leveraging a constantly changing database to keep current and research and best practices in a field,
- using analytics tool to make data-driven decision,
- or organizing complex projects using digital tools?
If I refuse to model and explore these elements with my students on some neo-luddite grounds, then perhaps I am venturing into a type of malpractice. As explained by people at The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, we are obligated to prepare students for life in the world of the present and the future, not the world of the 19th and 20th century. This is true whether I’m teaching English or business, education or medicine, political science or media studies.
I realize that I’m mixing two distinct elements. One is about the content of a course and the other is about how we teach it. Dede was talking about the latter, but I’m not too quick to separate them. How we teach impacts how the content is experienced and understood. It impacts the ease with which we are able to apply the knowledge to authentic contexts. If I am equipping people to use their knowledge and skill in a technology-rich context, then perhaps it is best that I replicate part of that context in the classroom. If I refuse to do that, am I engaging in educational malpractice? Malpractice is a strong word, but maybe that is why it makes think twice.