Not an Advertorial

I read a lot of higher-education blogs, as Associate Dean for my faculty — and frankly, just as a curious and voracious reader. Sometimes I read a blog post that really resonates with me, because it provokes me to think differently about teaching and learning, about course materials and lectures and the things you can only do when you’re face-to-face in a classroom. (I’ve already written about face-to-face time here.)

Who writes these posts? Mostly it’s other higher-ed researchers, administrators, and teachers like me, and key institutional players like D’Arcy Norman who support our work — but occasionally it’s someone who works for a technology company. They’re not writing advertorials, like the ones in my morning newspaper that masquerade as content, but smart and substantive posts like this one from Alyssa Atkins on TopHat’s Modern Educator blog.

That post is my reason for writing now: it raises a lot of key strategies for engaging students, and it’s deliberately not heavy-handed about advocating for TopHat or any particular technology. But first, let me set out a few criticisms. That post, like another one on “10 Ways to engage students,” does a few things I dislike:

  1. It’s riffing on the listicle model (“Top 10 looks for spring,” or “Top 15 James Bond villains”) for attention-starved media-saturated readers of Listverse or shared Facebook posts. But hey — so am I, right now. And that’s good: you take a model, you add smart content, and your message co-opts its medium. Atkins smartly writes in the same post that educators need to “commandeer” (good word) our students’ technology if we want to earn their attention.
  2. But her post also indulges in the kind of technological ‘solutionism’ that Evgeny Morozov has critiqued, as have I for higher-ed problems. Our answer to problems isn’t always “There’s an app for that.” Atkins presumes that lectures are obsolete by definition, and that students are consumers — like so many Apple customers (as, admittedly, most are). This is where her role as TopHat’s advocate might be subtle, but it’s there.

But enough of that: “Cavil you may, but never criticize,” is my motto. Or should be. Atkins’ post is exactly right about a few things:

  1. Student attention is a scarce commodity, and has ever been thus — as the rhetorician Richard Lanham wrote a wonderful book about a few years ago. Educators have to earn it, not presume we deserve it.
  2. We need to commandeer students’ devices, as much as their eyes and ears. Run the polling app on your iPhone instead of Facebook Messenger, or at least alternate between the two. For what it’s worth, I’ve tried Socrative but not TopHat (yet), although my university now has a contract with the latter.
  3. Gamification is a great way to engage students — to give them multiple paths to success/understanding, to introduce healthy competition, to build productive failures into learning. The post is shallow on the details, but hey — any listicle is a buffet of provocative ideas, not a main course.

The last idea is my favourite — and Atkins’ post is directly informing the project I’m undertaking now to design my intro-to-Shakespeare course next term. But more on that in a separate post. Thanks for reading.

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