Instructional Technology and Digital Natives

Last week, I attended the Presidential Instructional Technology Fellow’s Showcase here at Harvard. The PITFs, graduate students who work as teaching fellows for classes here, spent the summer working with faculty to develop pedagogical applications of technology. The results were impressive and demonstrate how some professors are using technology to better connect with and teach to DNs.

I really enjoyed learning about Professor Stephen Greenblatt’s course website for Humanities 27: An Imaginary Journey in the Early 17th Century. The teaching fellows and he collaborated with over 40 other individuals—librarians, scholars at Harvard and other institutions, curators at museums, and others—to develop an immersive, engaging website.

The course is designed around the journey of three imaginary ships that sail about the world to intersect with a variety of cultures, literary canons, and historical events. Multimedia informs this exploration in a variety of ways. Videos of interviews with professors that were unable to commit to a guest lecture are sprinkled about the different sections of the site, as are images of original documents and maps. A 3d tour of one of the ships supports the mission of understanding the environment in which explorers and travelers of the 17th century lived. Greenblatt begins each lecture by navigating the globe with Google Earth, showing the path of the ships and the routes they take. Finally, a class blog facilitates discussion and a feedback loop with which students share their individual research and comment on others.

I think that professors will use technology to make learning more engaging then ever as DNs arrive on college campuses across America. For now, most of the discussion as been about Facebook and MySpace, and how students are using them to network before they even arrive on campus (see a New Yorker article on the subject: http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2007/09/17/070917ta_talk_schulman), but this is only the surface. As Prensky points out in his essay, DNs enjoy learning in a different way. They like interactivity and the ability to output and produce information, not just receive it. I think it is wonderful to see instructors, especially of such classic topics as History or Literature, embrace new tools and techniques that better align with the styles of learning that DNs enjoy.

And Professors like it, too. Grennblatt was almost evangelical about teaching the course this way, and called the experience “transformative.” He noted that it has “changed the way [he] teaches the material.” That is, the same material he taught for years. This is not to say that the tools and helpful folks of yore are needless: librarians played a crucial role in developing the course website and presenting an array of resources with brief descriptions so that students can graze and “deep dive” while exploring research options. “Adapting the material for the new wave of students,” in my opinion, just means making the material more immersive, interactive, participatory, and engaging. Kudos to the professors, PITFs, and librarians that are driving this forward.

– Tony Pino, Cambridge, MA

Course Website Interactive Ship Tour Google Earth Narrative