Options help students with
by Guy Bensusan
When all course members are on the same campus, the one who can get to the library first has the best and broadest opportunity to check out the needed books and materials. The second student to arrive gets what the first one left on the shelves, and the third is either out of luck, or must be highly creative in searching out and finding what has been catalogued in a different manner. We might honor the learning that this last student acquires, but that is not the equity principle we are talking about here.
Of course, the professor can alleviate and improve these conditions by putting the necessary readings on short-period reserve, or the library can make it possible for each student to make a photocopy in accord with current copyright regulations. But other than that, many if not most students will not be able to get at the information they need, or rather, that they supposedly need. I say "supposedly," because I have watched and listened to many students find ingenious circumventions, that is, learn how to get around the requirements. I did it myself in graduate school, when the demands exceeded the possibilities and time frames. We professors have not usually expressed concern about the potential inequities in our traditional methods, perhaps rationalizing that "the early bird gets, in this case, the reading material," which may be an underlying national ethic.
But these are not birds, national or otherwise; they are students, learners paying for their learning and their eventual degree. When we take into consideration what this idea means in a changing student demography and ever-more competitive educational market, it would seem that the competitive conviction is out of place and will not hold water much longer. Students who believe they are not getting what they pay for can and will "leak out" or move on to other educational providers who will accommodate them. We already see this in the programs that employers create within their corporate entities. The arrogant affirmation that the "really serious students will come to study with us and will do what we tell them because we know best," demonstrates how out-of-touch with the extra-mural real-world many professors are.
When I first began teaching full-time, ninety-seven of the students enrolled were just-out-of-high-school, and two were "older." We were all in the same classroom. In that situation, I could treat almost everyone alike or nearly alike, hovering over the "kids," and letting the two "adults" have some latitude in what they did.
The world may have changed drastically since then, but I still see many professors assuming all students are alike and treating the ones with more complicated responsibilities in the same fashion as the others. It does not work and our assumptions are erroneous. Many younger students have requirements that limit their options. In the total-equality teaching game, everyone is supposed to do the same thing at the same time for the grading to be "fair." What an absurd myth?
As I examine the array of students in the courses I teach, they range in age from eighteen to seventy-five; many are parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. Some are retired professionals; others are preparing themselves for second or third careers. Nearly all work at some type of full time job, the part-timers often juggling several positions, and the retirees often doing extensive volunteer work. Many work at night or all night; those with sick children must tend them; everyone has accidents and family emergencies from time to time, and with the many variations in culture and religion, plus expectations from traditional tribal or clan requirements, as well as such matters as holy days for non-Christian religions, there is no possibility for equity and equality of situation among all students. We know that and yet the contradiction in our daily lives is that we profess to value diversity and then clearly disprove the avowal by acting as if nothing exists but conformity.
Students taking my courses live in many different communities across the state of Arizona. Some of them move to Flagstaff during the school year and attend classes in that community. This group ordinarily will represent somewhere between one-fourth and one-third of the entire number. The rest live in or near the other fourteen community classrooms that are inter-connected by Interactive Instructional Television on NAUNet --- next year we will have twenty-seven sites. The one-fourth to one-third of the students in Flagstaff see me "live" in the classroom (though they can also watch the class at home or in the dorm via Cable Channel). They can come to my office to talk with me, they see me in the supermarket, at the gas station and at the cleaners. They stop and talk, often about some class matter. I am available.
What about the other two-thirds to three-quarters of the students? Is there equity of access to the professor, to his time, to being able to gain a personal sense of who he is and where he is coming from? Of course not. The only way they can get at me is before or after class over television, or by phone, or by leaving a message on my office answering machine. It is certainly not the same either in quality or in quantity, and the costs are higher in time and money, because the phone-call is long distance.
Now in one sense this may not matter, because extensive distance learning research suggests that students in distance learning sites learn just as well as those on campus. I have personally found this to be true, but even so, I travel to each distant site at least once during the semester, and students tell me they enjoy the human contact, and become more involved in classroom discussion after the visit. We used to think that the difference was because those more mature, "non-traditional" students were more highly motivated than the younger ones, but now that community students graduate from high school, go through the community college and then take university courses at the electronic classrooms on the college campus, the "older, more-mature" ratios have changed.
It is clear that most of the students in my course are unable to deal with me in the same way as those who are in Flagstaff. If this results in any kind of disadvantage to them, it is a wrong that must be made right in some way. Since I cannot clone myself and be everywhere simultaneously, the obvious solution is to alter my system so that my lack of direct presence in their learning will not be harmful to them. In other words, I must reorganize how I put together the system for their learning and how I structure what they do in acquiring the information, practicing interrelating the ideas and facts with the learning models, move up the stairway with their assignments, and in general, learn how to learn on their own.
The same is true about course materials. If there is only one book in the library on campus, the student who gets there first is the one who will check it out and profit from the opportunity. If fifteen distant sites are scattered around the state, each with twenty-five students, how can they get access to the materials with any equality? Unless the library can afford to make one copy of the book available at each site, what happens to equity there? Apart from fairness, if a single litigation-minded student ever fails a course based on not being given study materials necessary to complete an assignment or test, there will be trouble?
Assuming that the truest justice lies in establishing the equities in advance, and assuming the teacher is responsible for helping learning to take place in a safe and conducive environment, it becomes apparent that we need to think and act on this most significant matter. The technology revolution has placed us in a continual flux of revolving imbalances in the matter of students acquiring equal access to library, computers, professor, help-sessions and many other perquisites that tuition and fees are supposed to cover. I have noticed, for instance, that I can no longer go through an entire semester without something having changed in the technology and the system. We used to believe and support the idea that one does not change the rules of the learning game during the semester, because what one starts should hold until the term is over.
We are not in that same place any more; it is no longer true to say that Northern Arizona University is in Flagstaff, and only in Flagstaff. It is clear to me that we will never have stasis again. The technology will always be ahead of the logistics and the thinking and we cannot wait until everyone is on an equal footing, because it will never happen. The bottom line is that the professor must consider how to help the learning of those who have paid for help NOW, THIS SEMESTER? That is also an issue of equity. Complaining about this or that will not solve the problem and postponing action merely indicates the depth of our paradigm paralysis.
As professor, I am the point-man. I must be willing to travel additional miles; I can stretch and bend my rules, make exceptions, spend extra hours, be accessible at home in the evenings and on weekends, find other ways to help students with their learning, loan my personal materials, and so on. The LEARNING of the students at all the classroom communities must be the intent and the goal?
Actions of this type which alleviate immediacy for this semester do not, of course, alter the underlying responsibility of the institution for moving ahead in providing and reorganizing facilities, deliveries and accessibilities. This means that a student should not be penalized for missing a due date when situations in that distant site, for whatever reason, interfere with what is happening on the main campus. Likewise, if a fire alarm occurs at a distant site, one must recognize that the students are required to evacuate their building, even if class may continue at all other sites. We must clearly shift our paradigms in these matters in the same way as we do regarding the transformation from teaching to learning.
The purpose is to help students learn to learn, not just bureaucratically and arbitrarily maintain an immaculate and orderly logbook. And in rebalancing the fairness and justice in these matters, the institution and the professor both share the burden --- the professor may have to take the immediate lead, but the university also needs to be swift and scrupulous in providing the reinforcements. The best symbioses will result from professors being willing to do more and go farther because they know they have the support and the forthcoming compensation from their institution.
The fact that I now meet with more students and different students in widely separated locations also intensifies and magnifies the longstanding condition of disparity of experiences, cultures, learning styles, accesses to materials and preparation that are to be found in the same classroom. We used to resolve these by formulating highly restrictive prerequisites on the grounds that if all of the students in the class were approximately the same level, it would be easier and more efficient for us to teach them. That may work for a small graduate course of five, but for the most part, I think those days are long gone and far away and do not represent the large numbers we must and will attend to in the future. We must learn more about the diversity of our students and find ways to turn those riches into useful resources for learning.
It is also just as important to honor the students' special cultural, community and religious needs. If a devout Moslem comes to class on Friday, it is to everyone's best interest to allow that student to sit quietly in passive participation. If the presence of an American Indian student is required at a village or clan ceremony, the attendance requirement can be alternatively met by having that person watch the course videotape for that day. A teacher's flexibility, coupled with consideration for the needs of each student as a human being with his or her own needs and responsibilities is a valuable asset, since it demonstrates the humanity of the situation as applied in the learning process.
And since it not likely that we can or will ever go back to the world we are leaving behind, it may be that we need to rethink how we can use the very system we are teaching in to help us with the paradigm shift over equity. As described in the chapter, more than a Tool, such possibilities have opened up in great measure because of the way the NAU Network has linked together the fifteen classrooms in widely diverse communities across the state. Instead of being a larger bunch of students upon whom the professor may now deliver his or her lecture, a great opportunity arises to find ways to put the substance of those joined classrooms and communities to work as a way of enriching learning, of putting students into direct contact with their learning resources, of changing the role of the student from that of recipient to that of investigator-contributor, to illustrating the reality of unequal distribution of conditions and to make it a basis for learning.
As I conduct a course on Arizona Arts and Culture to these many sites, I can reformulate my role as professor and also that of the students. I am not an expert on the arts and culture of each of the fifteen communities. I know one very well, three others reasonably well and five more rather scantily, even though I can generalize 'till-the-cows-come-home about the geography, the historical evolution and the sequence of trends and styles that came about over the centuries. In the older model of teacher-centered and content-centered teaching then, I might not even be regarded as being competent to teach the course.
However, when I look at it through the current paradigm shift to learning or learner-centered teaching, a different world emerges both for me and for the students. I have developed over the years a rather good comprehension of the overall subject from both the historical and the arts-culture points of view. I know how to go into new communities and regions and learn about their heritages, arts and culture, and I have traveled about the state enough and have sufficient contacts in my field that I do not have to start from scratch in any new location. I also know how to teach in a learner-centered manner.
Therefore, I can put together workable learning programs for students in each of the areas by formulating questions and procedures whereby each group can perform tasks related to their communities, that contribute productively when we meet at class time. A basic foundation is the relationship of local geographic realities to the arts and culture in each place and the specific influence of resources available to the earliest peoples in establishing the various arts themselves, and also of the underlying concepts and ideas about shapes, colors, and textures that become their historical heritages.
The job of students at each site then, is first to read the general overview in the textbook and discuss it in class, and then investigate the relationship of geography and early arts, structures, and ways of life in their respective communities. What they learn will need to be organized and brought to class for presentation and discussion, and students from all fifteen can participate in the learning through all of the techniques of comparing, contrasting, examining implications and so on. Everyone will learn from each other and the professor will no longer be the sole source of information.
In this situation, we will be dealing with simultaneous examination of features such as geography, arts and culture, where students can perceive interaction among students from different sites collecting information from each presentation. Guiding the multiple comparisons of each site is the professor --- questioner, moderator, outside voice, fellow learner, fellow explorer, fellow discoverer, and most important, the keeper of encouragement and support.
In the new picture, that has shifted focus from the center to the periphery, we can see the struggle in our search for suitable terminology to match the new concepts for learning; should we call this thing "distance learning," "distributed learning" or "decentralized learning"? Each name carries implications about teaching and learning. Where is the teacher, what is the job of the teacher, where is the learner, where does learning take place, what is the relationship of where the teacher is to where the learner is and to where the learning resources are? Instead of the "poor student who lives so far away from the resources of our magnificent library," we will sing a different tune. Might it be that it is the professor and student on the main campus who can now be viewed as the ones who are culturally deprived, located so far from all the other studies, and needing to learn about them on television instead of in our own back yard. Perhaps professorial paradigms perpetually perambulate?
We are in process. We do not know where we are going and most of our thinking relates to where we have been. What has happened in my view is that I have been provided with an extraordinary resource for a new kind of learning, made possible by the combination of technologies brought together into the creation of a larger system. In its composite assembly it creates a learning laboratory that may be used in a variety of ways for acquisition of information, exchange of ideas, experimentation, analysis, and comparing-contrasting of respective data from different places. Its potential is to bring about the establishment of new hypotheses that can be inspected, probed and tested.
We do not at this point see the whole thing, nor can we fully imagine all the new technologies and combinations about to appear. A huge system will be joined for information deliveries and exchanges via computers (all of which are possible right now) awaiting only the completion of our network infrastructure so that all of the pre-class, during-class and post-class interactions become possible over television network. Beyond that, I envision a system of learning that is fully self-contained, self-paced, self-assessing, self-directing, and self-generating. I think it is just around the corner, and since I plan to be still functional at 80, I hope to be a part of that world, helping to create the components that students can use in their search for enlightenment.
I am sure that megalithic forces of control will try to dominate the new technologies just as has happened in the past, but I also see us, ever more of us, going beyond where we have been before. We are, I believe, on the edge of a new kind of equity, a new paradigm of fairness and a new model for access ---because it is not access to the professor that counts, but rather equality of access to the opportunity for learning at one's own pace, style, need and ability.
About the Author:
Dr. Guy Bensusan is Senior Faculty Associate for Interactive Instructional Television and Professor of Humanities and Religious Studies at Northern Arizona University. Dr. Bensusan may be reached may be reached via email at: email@example.com.