Someone recently asked me a very interesting question: what two techniques would you use to enable academic staff to make the most of new technology for teaching?

A number of thoughts ran through my mind at this point:

  • Ooh, interesting question…
  • Hmm, that depends…
  • That sounds like a blog post in the making…
  • What! Only two?!

But I like the idea of narrowing it down to just the two most important; a bit like some weird and geeky version of Desert Island Discs. Plus, to keep my analytical side happy, there’s plenty of scope for categorising loads of specific ideas under two broad techniques.

So, on with the game. After some thought, I think that my two favourite techniques are:

  1. Talking to people; and
  2. Leading by example.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Talking to people

Well, when I say talking to people, I don’t really mean talking all the time so much as listening. I may not know everything there is to know about technology, but I know more than a little about how it can support teaching; I know plenty about how it’s useful for teaching for me.

But I’m not you. I’m not him over there. And I’m certainly not a busy academic with half a dozen research grants on the go trying to teach my students as best I can alongside the myriad other commitments of life in HE.

And when I say listening, it’s not just about listening. It’s about caring. If I knew the right techniques, I could probably convince you that I was listening, but if I didn’t actually care what you were saying, you’d probably guess pretty quickly.

I don’t know much about neurolinguistic programming or anything like that, but what I do know is that when I take a genuine interest in what someone’s saying then I really get a lot out of it. That’s not something you can fake, but I’ve found that you can actively take an interest in pretty much anything or anyone if you make a bit of effort.

Why is this important? The only way I can help you (or him over there) to make the best of technology is to get a clear picture of what your needs are. I need to understand you. It’s no use me patronising you with information you already know; neither is it helpful to force-feed you information that you just have no use for.

Only if I understand your unique situation can I provide the advice that will help you improve your teaching, or leave well alone if that’s the best option.

Teaching by example

This is something I try to do all the time, in everything I do. I won’t claim that I succeed all of the time, but I’m getting better at it the more I do.

A little while back I read Postman & Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity (and I recommend you do to if you’re interested in improving the quality of education). One of the big messages I took away from it was that we learn what we do.

In other words, how we teach (and thus how students learn) is just as important, if not more so, than what we teach.

So, if I want to help you understand how technology can improve your teaching and make life easier for both you and your students (“Why should we make life easy on our students?” I hear them cry) it won’t help if I stand up in front you and your colleagues and give a 45 minute death-by-Powerpoint presentation on how to use Facebook.

Instead (and having listened to you I’ll have an idea of what fits the way you work) I’ll use a whole range of techniques. By giving you a 2-minute online video of tips on how to facilitate online discussions, I can show you how effective YouTube is for teaching. By encouraging you to take part in an online discussion about teaching with video, I can help you see what does and doesn’t help people learn from forums. I might even give you a 45-minute presentation on the theoretical pedagogies of Facebook, if that’s what works for you.

This technique does at least two useful things. First, it gives you an opportunity to get first-hand experience of what tools are out there and what they’re like to use. Secondly, it demonstrates that when it comes to e-learning I have a good enough idea of what’s going on to give you advice that you can trust.

In the end…

…it mostly comes down to trust. If you trust that I both care about you (and your students) and know what I’m talking about, how much more likely are you to consider listening to me?