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In the current push to use new technologies in the area of teaching and learning, perhaps it is time to take a step back and reflect on the pedagogical pros and cons of such efforts. In this issue of CDTL Brief, we present several viewpoints on the topic of Fundamental Teaching Skills in an IT Age.

March 1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Fundamental Teaching Skills in an IT Age
Asst Prof Alice Christudason
School of Building & Real Estate
Faculty of Architecture, Building & Real Estate

Under the traditional model, a teacher tasked with undergraduate/postgraduate instruction plays a gamut of roles. This ranges from the designing of a course, delivering of lectures from information gleaned from readings, research and experience and acting as discussion moderator, to acting as an evaluator who prepares and evaluates tests and decides the extent of students’ mastery of his subject. How has the advent of the Information Technology age simplified or modified his role?

In this context, ‘Information Technology’ refers to the use of computers, video and telecommunications technologies. In the area of teaching and learning, the use of IT generally falls into three categories: tools and resources for learning by doing, time-delayed exchange, and real-time conversation. The advent of the IT Age raises several difficult questions for teachers. To what extent should the fulfillment of the above roles and the traditional paradigm of verbal dialogue and contact between teacher and student be replaced? Should newer and more ‘hi-tech’ methods of instruction (which are frequently more impersonal) which focus on learning rather than teaching become the norm? Will the teacher recede from being ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘guide on the side’ and eventually just about disappear from students’ view in the face of web sites, on-line lectures, video-on-demand, video-conferencing, CD-ROMs, email, bulletin boards, news groups etc.? While it cannot be gainsaid that new technologies could take over many of a teacher’s traditional instructional duties so that his time can be better utilised, is there still a case for developing non-IT related teaching skills?

I firmly believe that there is an indisputable case for the development of non-IT based teaching skills and that some of these teaching skills will remain the core qualities of effective teachers. One of the most important attributes of exemplary teachers is effective communication skills. The importance of the ability to express ideas clearly and in an interesting and stimulating manner (particularly of a difficult topic) in a lecture cannot be understated. This skill still has to be honed. In addition, establishing and maintaining eye contact with students during a lecture often serves as an important (but informal) ‘feedback’ mechanism to the teacher to assess how his lecture is progressing. Such a lecture may of course, be accessible to students as ‘on-line’ lectures, or be viewed by a student on video. However, pre-packaged materials, even those with catchy graphics and visuals, lack the spontaneity of live lectures. Further, there are advantages in frequent contact between student and teacher both in and out of class, as these will certainly aid in student motivation, involvement and development.

With regard to tutorials and lab-based teaching, the presence of the teacher to guide, direct and stimulate discussion and learning within a group of students yields benefits which are difficult to attain outside such a ‘real’ (as opposed to a virtual) setting. For example, collaborative learning increases involvement in the learning process and the sharing of ideas and responses improves thinking and deepens understanding. The tutor will play a pivotal role in the direction a discussion takes by assisting to analyse and synthesise information. It is this very involvement and directive skill of a tutor that must be acquired and developed to yield optimal results in the learning process.

Thus, a consideration of just one non-IT based teaching skill, that is, the importance of effective communication, reveals the reasons why there is still a case for the development of non-IT based teaching skills in the face of IT. However it is incontrovertible that one’s teaching skills may be enhanced by IT, the extent of the enhancement often depending on the nature of the subject being taught. One of the subjects I teach is the Law of Real Property. Students often email their queries to me and I usually email brief responses to their specific questions arising from case studies posed in tutorial questions. I know that what students really want from me are ‘model answers’ but providing this (if there is such an answer) is undesirable, particularly for a subject like Law. Formulating one answer to a case study posed in a tutorial question could never replace the cut and thrust of a ‘real’discussion among students in a class, where I would also be able to spontaneously ‘twist’ or add to facts posed in the case study to test students’ levels of understanding. This would also develop students’ creative skills, as they would be required to think on their feet and respond immediately. This exercise also serves to enhance students’ communication skills.

Thus my premise is that doing away with, or even minimising, human contact in teaching (which would be the inevitable effect of inappropriate or excessive reliance on IT) is undesirable – after all, CD-ROMs and web sites could never be as effective as students’ contact with academia. Surely, effective teaching cannot be equated (or downgraded) to inserting a disk and downloading information! However, there is no doubt that the full power of new technologies may be effectively harnessed if they are employed in ways which complement non-IT based teaching skills. While integrating IT into teaching, it must be borne in mind that teaching and learning should drive the use of technology, and not vice versa.

The following observation by Robert C. Heterick Jr., in “A Platonic Paradox”, Educom Review, (1996) Vol. 31 No. 3, articulates this idea well:

“At the heart of the academy lies learning. And, lifelong learning lies increasingly at the heart of our society. We need to begin to redirect our energies from condemning the new and exalting the old to finding how to take the best features of the old, marry them with potential of the new and create new paradigms for a learning society. In doing so, we will take the academy to new heights of service to society…”
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Inside this issue
Helping Students Learn in the IT Age
Why IT Can Never Replace The Lecturer
Computer Technology at NUS: Some Reflections
IT Showcase
Fundamental Teaching Skills in an IT Age
Is IT It?