Teaching Senior Professors in 2020

By Dr. Pelham Mead III, Instructional Technologist

For twelve years I worked as an Instructional Technologist in several New York Universities and Colleges such as New York University 1998; The College of Mount Saint Vincent 2001-2005; St. John’s University 2006-2008 and the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine.  An Instructional Technologist is like a Staff Developer with advanced Software teaching skills, and in some cases IT skills also.

This is a collection of my experiences working with Senior age Faculty over age 65 at Universities and Colleges that had little or no knowledge of how to use a computer, let alone how to use MS Word or MS Powerpoint. Some Senior professors could turn a computer and send and receive e-mail and that was all. The reason for this gap in knowledge is that older professors have been passed by in terms of technology training. Colleges and Universities that I worked at would win Federal grants and then buy lots of computers and software and drop them in the professor’s laps with no training.

Computers to the younger generations is as natural as eating a peanut butter sandwich. For those in the baby boomer generation and age 65 plus computers are an unnecessary waste of time. College professors assume all college students are always playing games on their laptop computers and not doing anything educational. Likewise, from the student viewpoint, Professors that cannot use Powerpoint are dinosaurs in the world of technology.

When I began tutoring Professors on Federal Grants awarded to Colleges and Universities, I realized the FEAR was the major factor for preventing Older Professors from learning computers and understanding their teaching potential. My job was to build their confidence and work at their pace, not mine.

My first Senior Professor story is about a Professor who taught non-major Biology to Freshman at a Catholic University on Long Island. This professor was an adjunct professor that only taught part-time. He could speak five different languages and was highly respected in the University. The problem was he was 83 years old and completely unaware of computers or software. He taught 100 students in a large lecture hall with chalk on a blackboard. It was difficult to see his notes on the blackboard at the back of the class. He also spoke in a thick Eastern European accent. He was recommended to me for tutoring in how to use a laptop computer and Powerpoint by the Biology Department Chairperson. The senior professor had the highest failure rate of all the major and non-major mandatory Biology classes. The reason for the failures was a failure to communicate with the students on their level. Students of the 21st century were born into a visual world of stimulus. They play hand held electronic games from age one and are addicted to TV electronic games where the object is to shoot as many of the enemy as possible. Students are very familiar with the internet and searching for topics, but not as good with basic grammar and vocabulary because in their constant texting they have invented their own language with abbreviations for everything i.e. BFF best friend forever; Lol laughing out loud; word, word up and other bad English expressions.

Back to the 83-year-old professor of Biology. At his first class I had to show him how to open the lap top, plug it in, turn it on. That took 30 minutes instead of five minutes. He could not understand how this computer and showing visual Powerpoint slides shows could improve this teaching. I showed him several lecture samples I had using Powerpoint with everything including animation, sound clips, special effects and internet links. I spent two hours the first class with him instead of one to make sure he felt comfortable learning new material. I scheduled him for a tutoring session for the following week at the same time and gave him his brand-new IBM laptop.

The next week he was late, very late in fact. After 30 minutes I decided he wasn’t coming so I went to the men’s bathroom for a break. When I entered the bathroom by opening the door, there was the Senior Professor hiding behind the door. “Professor Smith what are you doing here in the bathroom?” I asked. Stuttering he answered “I am afraid to go to your office. Computers are too hard for an old man like me.” “Well if you are too old for computers the department chairman might decide you are too old to teach,” I replied.  “Don’t take away my teaching. It is all I live for. I love teaching but now the students are different than the old days,” he said. “Come let’s go to my office and let me help you modernize yourself and feel comfortable about computers and software,” I replied.

The following week the Senior Professor brought his wife who was 80 years of age and a retired RN at a local hospital. “Doctor Mead this is my wife Adelle and she is a retired RN and she has come along to help me through this lesson,” he said. “Nice to meet you Adelle,” I said. “Your husband is a well-respected Senior faculty member, but he is out of touch with the students and technology. All I want to do is to get him to learn how to create some Powerpoint slide shows for his lectures to become more informative to the students and increase their motivation to learn, rather than fail. “I understand,” Adelle replied.  I used computers for many years at the hospital where I worked. I tried to get Henry to learn how to use computers, but he always had an excuse.

Now in 2020 we are in the midst of a pandemic and the virus has caught private and public schools by surprise as well as Colleges and Universities. Teachers and Professors were caught unprepared to teach online which incorporates a whole different set of teaching tools. In fact, initially teachers will have to do more lesson preparation for teaching online than in person. The reason is the online environment is more controlled and restrictive. Zoom, facetime, canvas and blackboard are important visual tools to allow teachers to see their students. Secondly, teachers need to be more prepared to use instant quizzes or treasure hunts in research than normally. Online teachers need to get responses from everyone in the class and be positive about the responses. YouTube movies and other videos can be used or assigned to an online class.  Coming up with reward systems is a good motivator. Making the lesson personal and adapted to each student’s needs and learning curve is most important. The surprise element is always important in providing team projects and class discussion.

Reading from a book is not appropriate for online instruction. Powerpoint presentations can be useful if provided to the students afterward. Animation and sound effects can bring a Powerpoint presentation alive. Linking to the New York Times podcasts and other podcasts on a slide can make the presentation even more interesting. Testing, testing in different forms is important to make sure the students are all performing on task. Creating student pair teams adds a new dimension to learning. Students learn to cooperate and present their findings when they are done.

Placing emphasis on outlawing cut or copy and paste from the internet. Plagiarism should not be tolerated. Colleges have software programs that can detect plagiarism on student reports.

Original and creative work with good grammar should be encouraged.  Abbreviations and collegial expressions such as bff and other text short phrases should be discouraged. Teachers will find that when students think they are anonymous they can be impolite to the teacher. Stop this right from the start. Shut a student down who curses or uses inappropriate language. Be on the guard for the class clown who tried to be funny online.

Keep students informed of their average class grade at all times rather than making them have to ask how they are doing. Be open and transparent about grades. If a student is getting low grades, offer to help them and give additional assignments to bring up the average grade.

In a normal in person classroom a teacher learns student name by taking attendance every day. Online you need to make a special attempt to learn student’s first names. Read their student fil if one is available to find out what kind of student they are. Be aware of their life and career goals and try to tie in the assignments to that interest.

Teaching online requires more paperwork than normal teaching. After or during each online session make sure to mark down who is participating and who is not. Keep track of who is handing their assignments in on time and who is not. Do not let students fall behind in their assignments to the point you have to report them to their parents or your supervisor.

Prepare crossword puzzles, scrabble puzzles and other skill sheets to help student remember names and events or vocabulary . Most of all stay ahead of the students, especially the first time you teach the course online. The second years will be much easier with a whole semester to use from the previous year.

Finally, be cheerful, positive and most of all sup portative. Let students feel you are all on the same team.

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