Hey Professor! It’s not 1985!

Hey, Professor! It’s not 1985!

By Michelle Kassorla, Ph.D.

We are teaching 21st century students who will be expected to become adept at selective analysis, critical evaluation, and archiving as part of their daily lives, then communicate that collected knowledge by utilizing modalities as diverse as short film, infographic design, and social media networking. In this environment, I can no longer teach my students as if it is 1985. In order to help my students thrive in this age of information, I, as a professor of writing, must move beyond traditional modes of writing to teach skills, such as research, with a full understanding of 21st Century communication technology and theory. Yes, my students must learn the “basics,” but communication with technology is the new “basic.” Teaching writing (or any subject, for that matter) without technology in the 21st century is educational malpractice. Every student must learn how to research, write, and network with technology, or I have failed as an educator.

So, what is it that distinguishes today’s educational experience from the educational experience many of us shared only a generation ago?

The overwhelming crush of information.

Scholarship in the 20th Century was based upon the acquisition of information hidden in the depositories of library card catalogs and microfiche spools. As a 20th Century scholar, I was patiently shepherded to the library for “research sessions,” and lectured to about the proper way to “dig into the stacks” to find information in journals and periodicals. I remember endless lectures about the significance finding pertinent information to substantiate my premises, and how I needed to plan, weeks in advance, if I needed to borrow a book from another library to complete my research.

Today, while waiting in line for an espresso, I can Google a topic on my mobile phone and have instant access to millions of sources. There is almost no topic, no obscure journal, no yellowing newspaper headline that is outside the scope of my research potential as I stand in the Starbuck’s line. It is what I do with that volume of information that is key to research in the 21st Century because only a small fraction of that information will be useful, appropriate, and timely. Yes, as a professor of writing, I can still bring my students into the library to introduce them to the information contained therein, but, for at least the last ten years, librarians have lectured my students about how to limit their resources and differentiate between high quality “scholarly” resources and lower quality “junk” resources. The importance of research today is not in the acquisition of knowledge—it is in the validation and cross-referencing of specifically tailored knowledge. Research and scholarship is nothing like it was in any time prior to this generation, and it will change and grow from here. There is no earthly reason why I would teach composition the way I learned it. I must adapt my techniques and my pedagogy to the 21st Century and to my students’ 21st Century communication challenges.

Twenty-First Century Communication is instant, visual, and collaborative. My students, stuck at the business end of an endless fire-hose of knowledge feel helpless, and they need, more than anything, an understanding of how to organize, process, and store the knowledge they to which they are exposed. The foundational skills of 21st Century writing and scholarship must begin with the premise that students must first learn to use specific tools to organize and utilize the information they access. Although most students are adept at entertaining themselves and communicating with one another through technology, they have never been instructed how to use technology in education and business.

At the start of any class I teach, I begin with some instruction in the organization and structure of knowledge and communication in the 21st Century. I teach my students about networking and collaboration through “Professional Learning Networks” (PLNs) via social networks, learning management systems, and blogs; and how to organize their online spaces with “Personal Learning Environments,” (PLEs) using free dashboarding programs like netvibes and symabloo. I assist them in understanding how to use tools to finely sift research sources (such as Google Scholar) to evaluate their validity, and how to archive and Zoteroretrieve the sources they need with tools like Evernote and Zotero. This begins the the structural focus and vocabulary my students require to begin harnessing technology toward scholarly goals.

I am proud to say that these foundational strategies in writing with technology have helped my students beyond my class, preparing them for challenges in other classes as well. It is not uncommon for my students to contact me long after a course is complete to ask advice on which tools or techniques they can use to complete graduate school and even business goals. It is this student feedback–often years later– that is the most valuable to me. My students often tell me how I have changed their lives by pushing them to use the tools they already had available and provided them the basic skills they needed to compete and succeed today and into the future. I believe that is the ultimate goal of any educator.