Teaching Senior Professors

By Dr. Pelham Mead III

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 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 abbreiations 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.

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