Much of the current literature on contemporary pedagogy advises that to best prepare twenty-first-century learners for the increasingly complex and interconnected global society in which they live and work, institutions should implement, across all disciplines, pedagogical practices that involve interactive, inquiry- or problem-based, technology-enriched teaching and learning. Nearly fifteen years ago, the Wingspread Group on Higher Education sounded the alarm that students were not being prepared to function effectively in twenty-first-century society and that significant changes in teaching practices would need to occur. The report recommended a focus on learning and on how learning actually takes place, adding that what was discovered about students’ learning processes could help in (re)envisioning and revising approaches to teaching and learning.
Since then, research in the science of learning has indicated that active learning is one of the most important and essential components of the learning process. In How People Learn, John Bransford and his colleagues convincingly argue that active, rather than passive, learners are better able to understand complex material and can more effectively transfer information and concepts learned in one setting to the process of solving problems encountered in another context.8 In other words, when students are actively engaged in their learning process and when they are required to apply what they have learned, they retain that knowledge. Conversely, short-term, passive learning (such as memorizing information for exams)—what students routinely refer to as “stuff and dump”—does not result in students’ retaining the knowledge. Pedagogical approaches should help develop what Marcia Baxter Magolda calls “independent and contextual knowers” who are confident in their higher-order problem-solving abilities.9 Pedagogical practices should also drive faculty decisions about the technology tools best suited for specific learning objectives in a specific learning environment. Donna Harp Ziegenfuss notes: “Pouring a solid foundation of good pedagogical design before adding on the layer of technology can become a critical factor in the success rate of technology integration.”10
A variety of discipline-specific pedagogical strategies that require students’ active engagement and that develop their problem-solving and problem-posing skills in the context of technology-enabled learning environments should be standard practice in academe at this point; yet in large measure, such is not the case. Although most departments likely have an innovative teacher or two, widespread pedagogical and curricular innovation is not the norm. Few institutions position learning spaces as public sites or “research labs” where faculty are asked to discover, implement, and assess effective technology-enriched teaching and learning practices. Some institutions do delegate such activities to seed-funded, grassroots initiatives; however, these tend to be viewed as isolated interventions.
Even without widespread support mechanisms and goal-oriented incentive programs in place to sustain pilot efforts, shifts in pedagogy are beginning to occur as faculty members’ perceptions of students’ interests, needs, and abilities change. Many teachers recognize that for today’s students to acquire complex problem-solving, critically reflexive analytical thinking, and succinct communication skills in appropriately technology-assisted contexts, the faculty will have to approach teaching differently in order to bring their own expertise to bear in meeting students’ learning needs.
Some teachers have changed teaching strategies simply to recapture the attention of students who are net-surfing, IM-ing, and text-messaging during scheduled meetings. But reexamining pedagogical practices to curb students’ inattentiveness ought not be the principal aim of change. Rather, creating learning environments that challenge students to become actively engaged, independent, lifelong learners inside and outside of formal learning spaces should be the critical aim of change in teaching strategies. Some basic questions frame what faculty might do: (1) What do achievements in critical thinking, problem-solving, and communication (and in other higher-level capabilities desired across areas of study) look like in technology-enriched environments? (2) What teaching strategies might be used to help students attain the achievements identified?