Monday, September 1, 2014

Six traits of highly effective tablet teachers

Biography of a tablet fellow

I'm in my mid-30s and just starting my third year as an assistant professor of biology at Fresno State. One of the reasons I chose to accept a position here is because of the California State University (CSU) system's balanced approach to the faculty workload. Of the three "pillars" of tenure (research, teaching, and service), research and teaching are fairly evenly balanced in the CSU system. Because I really enjoy training students in how to conduct research, and because I enjoy teaching and helping students develop their understanding of the living world, I felt that I would be a good fit as a faculty member in the CSU.

I have no formal training in education (which is, unfortunately, fairly common among scientist-academics). I have taken loads of courses as a student (4 years as an undergraduate; a few years worth of courses as a graduate student). As a graduate student, I was a teaching assistant for one academic quarter (ten weeks). As a post-doctoral scientist, my formal teaching experience comprised guest-lecturing twice in one faculty member's class, helping teach a course in bioethics, and participating in one webinar on blended learning). Fortunately, partly because of my upbringing (my father has been a college biology teacher for more than the last 45 years, and is retired but still teaching), I enjoy thinking deeply about how I can be more effective at teaching. I can only assume that my thoughtfully-crafted teaching statement is what landed me the tenure-track position interviews I had at several colleges (and relatively few universities). It certainly wasn't my extensive track record of teaching!

Is being an academic scientist at odds with being an effective teacher?

One internal struggle that I have as a professional educator (aside from a lack of formal training in teaching) is that the reason I wanted to earn my Ph.D. degree is diametrically opposed to what I now know about effective teaching. Partly through my own exploration and partly because of exposure I've had in training as a tablet faculty member, I've learned that effective instruction, which ideally provides students with deep (long-lasting) understandings of content and often its application in "the real world," requires teachers to be a "guide on the side" and not a "sage on the stage" in the classroom. What these clever phrases mean is that faculty should not teach in the manner in which we were taught (50 minutes of faculty lecture: professor talking, students madly scribbling notes on paper) but rather as a facilitator, tasked with finding the best way for each individual student to build their own framework/understanding of the material.

This conflicts with my desire to be the world's expert in something. That's a big reason I wanted to earn a Ph.D.: not for the self-important, big-headed reason that it sounds like, but because I find it very intellectually satisfying to be a resource that others can draw on and because I like helping others. Earning a doctoral degree was also a perfect fit for me because I enjoy esoteria: I'm a very objective and quantitative person (probably a little OCD, although I like to think this stands for objective-compulsive disorder, as this blog is titled) and am energized by understand the finest details of how things work. To me, living things are more interesting, so biology (and not physics, engineering, etc.) is a great fit for me. My doctoral dissertation made me the world's expert in the evolution of sex chromosomes of the threespine stickleback fish (and close relatives). Definitely esoteric, and definitely a topic in which I became the world expert and have reveled in understanding the finest details of how evolutionary forces shape DNA.

So, I love helping others, and I love to be an expert. Being a faculty member, to me, seemed like the end-all and be-all of career destinations: I'd establish myself as an expert in genetics (which I am, to a reasonable extent) and tell as many students as I could as many cool things and interesting stories and real-world applications of genetics as I could! The perfect job (and it has been so far!)

Tablets provide an opportunity for professional growth

Recently, however, I'm re-imagining my role as a professor. Just because I have all of the discipline-specific knowledge I've amassed over the last 18 years I've been a biologist in higher education (as a student, research technician, post-doctoral scientist, and faculty member) does not mean I need to inundate my class with all of it. Just because I was taught in almost entirely lecture-style courses does not mean that this is how I should teach (as the "sage on the stage.")

Deciding to teach one section of my genetics course with tablet computers has given me the motivation and resources to put more effort in becoming a more effective instructor. For me, being part of this exciting initiative is personally rewarding and, I think, a good career move for an untenured faculty member in the CSU system, where excellent (not just sufficient) teaching is mandatory.

Should you consider teaching a course with tablet computers? What's in it for you?

Is your campus going to support you with the time it will take to revamp/redesign your class? If not, are you willing to foot the effort bill on your own? I am not currently receiving assigned time for course redesign from CSU Fresno, and I am spending a lot of additional time preparing my tablet class this term. However, I'm motivated in part by the thought that the time I'm spending now in recording advance lectures for students to watch online in advance of class ("flipping the classroom") and in developing in-class activities is going to save me time in future semesters by reducing the effort it will take to prepare to reteach this course. Heck, maybe I'll be well positioned to push into the online-only course realm, if it becomes apparent that my campus would smile upon efforts to do so, or at least to be able to offer the same course to more students than our typical enrollment limit (I often have many more students than can be accommodated clamoring to get into a genetics course). Beyond that, I'm confident that my redesign efforts are helping me be a more effective teacher. This itself is deeply (inherently) valuable to me (and to my students, who will recognize this eventually if they don't already), but whether the extra investment on my part has value to anybody else is still an unanswered question.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned that computer proficiency is a pre-requisite for teaching with a tablet. I'd like to dispel a myth: you do not have to be tech-savvy to be a tablet professor! I had never touched a tablet computer before President Castro handed mine to me at our tablet faculty fellow investiture ceremony in January.

What does it take to be a tablet teacher?

Here are my reflections (now two weeks into the term) about what it means to be a tablet faculty fellow. I think that what is really critical for success is to embody the following six characteristics:

  • excited to learn something new
  • blessed with a number of colleagues who are available to build a supportive faculty community together! These folks don't even have to be on your campus (hey, we're in the digital age!)
  • committed to helping students succeed
  • motivated to reflect on teaching and make improvement
  • willing to think deeply about the core knowledge students in your discipline need and then to swap out some content in order to incorporate active learning in the classroom?
  • willing to try something new in front of a class of students, to fail, to make a change, and to try again


Some of my colleagues have expressed concerns to me about whether teaching with tablets means compromising professional/academic quality or integrity. I suspect that this somewhat visceral response might come from a couple of different perspectives: 1) that things potentially perceived as "trendy" (or that might yet be lacking rigorous evidence of validity?) should be tried out elsewhere first, or 2) that the addition of anything else to the syllabus of a course already stuffed full of content will somehow diminish its ability to ensure the production of thoroughly-educated students. As a scientist, to those who argue the former: I'm more than happy to try new things to try to keep my students more engaged (and hopefully to increase four-year graduation rates for my campus) instead of maintaining a status quo.

To the latter, I say: don't fall for the fallacy that bigger is better and that more content means better retention or better-prepared students! Having being forced to reflect (even more than I already had) on the really, truly fundamental concepts I need to help students learn is helping me help students develop deeper (longer-lasting) understandings of those core topics that they can build on in subsequent years. I am now regularly and consciously reminding myself that it has taken me twenty years since I first heard about meiosis to really (REALLY) feel like I understand its purpose and importance. Only in the last couple of years have I really come to appreciate the mathematical beauty of how meiosis produced Gregor Mendel's observations of trait segregation in his pea plants. Now my mission is to conjure ways to help students most efficiently arrive at the same point. Employing active learning (which I can do with a tablet) is one tool to help me get there. We are not spending every minute of class time using tablets - we employ them in a thoughtful manner, when using a tablet to enhance student learning makes sense.

From this faculty member's perspective, being a tablet faculty member is a win-win situation: done properly, it is beneficial to the students as well as to the faculty. If you get the opportunity, I suggest taking it!

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