What higher education’s obsession with technology often overlooks

Perhaps it’s the unseasonably cool weather we’re having here in Boston, but I’m already looking ahead to the start of the new school year. On my radar screen today was the topic of technology in higher education.

Given the skyrocketing costs of higher education and the potential use of the Internet and our electronic gadgetry to deliver courses in flexible, less expensive formats, it’s not surprising that technology remains all the rage in colleges and universities. At institutions emphasizing online learning, of course, this is de rigueur. But even traditional, brick & mortar universities often deluge their faculty with messages promoting the use of technology in instruction, and distance learning is being pushed like never before.

While I believe that affordable, high quality, face-to-face learning remains the ideal, I support flexible and distance learning options as useful alternatives, especially for adults who are busy with jobs and families. In fact, I have benefited personally from excellent distance learning programs completed as an adult student.

What’s missing

Nevertheless, higher ed’s infatuation with technology often neglects the interpersonal role of the educational process. On this note, let me once again invoke one of my favorite books about education, Parker J. Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life (10th ann. ed., 2007). Parker offers this short statement of purpose in his first chapter:

This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.

The rest of the book espouses that philosophy, while recognizing that contemporary education at all levels resists it. Palmer takes on a culture of teaching “that fears the personal and seeks safety in the technical, the distant, the abstract.”

The heart of higher learning

Whether it’s a traditional classroom offering, a small seminar, an online course, a skills workshop, or an independent study project, the personal qualities of the instructor usually account for the difference between a poor or mediocre course and a good or even excellent one.  They go well beyond mere techniques, which can be more or less learned. Rather, they bring into play, as Palmer notes, the teacher’s identity and integrity. If we want to create valuable, memorable learning experiences for our students, we would do well to pay greater attention to this aspect of the educational enterprise.

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