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With student demographics shifting and the internet at our fingertips, UMUC faculty discuss what it means to teach and how the role of the teacher is evolving in the 21st century.

Editor’s note: This article is featured in the Spring 2018 edition of Achiever, the magazine of University of Maryland University College.

Gro Torsethaugen was perplexed.

A student in her biology lab class had submitted a data set from an experiment designed to measure the effect of pH levels on the germination of radish seeds. The assignment called for students to add vinegar to one dish, baking soda to another, water to a third—as a control—and compare the growth rate for seeds in each of the dishes.

“One student had this weird graph where the plants were germinating nicely and then suddenly on day four there was zero germination,” Torsethaugen said. When asked, the student explained that the dishes were on her windowsill and her cat had knocked them down. She had had to start the experiment over; hence, the abrupt shift on her seven-day graph.

Such are the challenges of teaching in the 21st century, as more universities embrace online education and explore new instructional strategies, seeking constantly to contain costs, improve learning outcomes and adjust to the needs of students from increasingly diverse demographic backgrounds.

Torsethaugen, who studied the effect of ozone pollution on plants on the way to earning her Ph.D. from the University of Oslo, has been teaching online for UMUC for a decade and has seen courses and delivery strategies evolve.

“I believe the role of faculty will continue to evolve away from the traditional lecturer, or deliverer of content, to that of a learning guide or mentor,” said Torsethaugen. “Students have access to so much information that teaching will be less about providing information and more about giving students the skills they need to locate, critically evaluate, and properly use information. Teachers will use more project-based learning to help students make connections between course content and the real world, and faculty and course developers will use technology to make online classrooms more interactive and engaging.”

For learning environments like biology labs, Torsethaugen sees two potential approaches—either hands-on individual exercises where students try to recreate the laboratory environment at home or virtual labs where they conduct experiments as simulations. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

For in-home labs, students have to purchase kits that include necessary supplies like gloves, safety glasses, and plastic aprons. The students take pictures as they conduct their experiments, which sometimes become family projects, with kids acting as lab assistants and showing up in the pictures.

Virtual labs cost less, are accessible from any computer, and students can repeat them as needed to correct errors and reinforce learning. But there are tradeoffs.

“As a biology major who worked in a lab, . . . I am a big fan of the hands-on,” Torsethaugen said, adding that there is much to be said for seeing something with your own eyes, touching it, experiencing failure, and learning firsthand the importance of measuring precisely, thinking about sample size, establishing a control, and so on. The key is finding balance and committing to those approaches that work best, said Torsethaugen.

“One of my favorite things about online education is the flexibility, both for students and instructors,” she said. “We can log in to the online classroom to interact with each other and get the coursework done at any time of the day or night and from anywhere in the world. Students can get a lot of individual help if they take advantage of the access they have to their professors.”

For Stephanie Carter, who teaches cybersecurity, maintaining relevance is critical to success in the modern classroom, and that means being comfortable with constant change, as actors develop new methods of attack and cybersecurity professionals respond with new defensive strategies. Trying to master every aspect of the field would actually be counterproductive.

“You won’t ever sleep. You won’t be able to do anything else but research,” said Carter. “Trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, you will be so burned out, you won’t be able to teach anybody anything.”

Instead, she focuses on risk management and looks at all of the other facets of cybersecurity through that lens. After 20 years in the U.S. Army, Carter still consults for the federal government and the military, and she said that being a scholar and practitioner also helps her keep up with the fast-moving changes in the field and offers her access to information that others who focus exclusively on scholarship might not enjoy. And students themselves represent a source of valuable information.

“I wasn’t in the generation that grew up with technology,” Carter said, “but the students I am teaching grew up in it.” And while a faculty member might be tempted to stand up and pontificate, Carter added, in a field like cybersecurity, it isn’t unusual to find a student who is smarter or better informed than the instructor.

“If you were a fly on the wall in my class, you would see that I am always soaking it in,” said Carter. “I let my students talk and express their ideas freely because technology excites them. If you don’t capitalize on that strength, you fail as a professor. They are able to give you their perspective, and if received, it will help add value to all future classes you teach.”

As more students choose to study while working full time, the challenge to the professor is to make sure the courses are relevant to their lives, said Jeremy Plotnick, who has become well-known in the university for taking potentially dry material—such as the theory and practice of public relations—and turning it into a course that captures students’ imaginations. Professionally, Plotnick has more than 20 years of experience in public relations, most recently as the founder of Cricom, LLC, which provides issues and crisis communication consulting services. That gives him practical experience to bring to the classroom. But many of his students also have practical experience, which can present its own set of challenges.

“I teach theory courses, and you have to make the theory relevant to people who have actual experience,” said Plotnick. “They will identify the fallacies of any theory. They will say, ‘That doesn’t work in the real world.’ No, it doesn’t. But that’s not the point of a theory. A theory is still a foundation on which you test what you see in the real world.”

To make a course work for students today, he said, you have to use up-to-the-minute examples. Relying on historic cases—such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the Union Carbide explosion that killed thousands in India—is no longer effective. Not only did these things happen before some of the students were born, but the communications systems that were used in responding to these crises may no longer exist.

Better examples come straight from current events, Plotnick said. As he began a recent course, he noted a small item in the Washington Post about a decision by the Bureau of Prisons to remove pork from the menu. It cited a survey saying that pork was the least favorite food among prisoners.

“That just didn’t sound right to me,” said Plotnick. “And sure enough, in following articles Sen. [Charles] Grassley [of Iowa] was demanding to see the research. The Pork Producers Association chimed in with, ‘Are you telling me in any population group in the United States, people don’t like bacon?’ and a spokesman for the American Muslim community said, ‘Hey, it’s not us. We didn’t ask for this.’”

It was a perfect example, Plotnick said, of stakeholders attacking the misuse of bogus research, and the class was able to watch every step of the conflict play out in the Post—and learn how public relations works and doesn’t work along the way. In the end, the Bureau of Prisons revoked its decision, and the bureau’s public affairs representative got pummeled.

“Going forward, educators will increasingly take on the role of mentors who help guide students in analyzing and interpreting information,” said Plotnick, who sees this as the basis for critical thinking and creative problem solving—the most important skills for students to develop.

“Access to the internet makes it unnecessary to ‘teach’ students facts, as they now have all the facts they could ever need at their fingertips. For better or worse, teachers will need to focus more of their time on helping students acquire the skills to determine what information is valid and what is ‘fake news.’ The amount of bogus information online is exploding, and it is sometimes very hard to separate fact from fiction.”

Plotnick added that he sees it as “vitally important that educators help students find their own moral compass so that when they enter the workforce they are cognizant of the ethical issues behind many business decisions.”

For Kevin Adams, another long-time member of the UMUC faculty, scheduling becomes key in our increasingly wired world and demands both flexibility and creativity. Adams, a graduate of MIT, has taught for UMUC since 1999 and is known for pushing his students in the Master of Science in Information Technology program. He wrote the inaugural course for the systems engineering IT specialization and designed and taught four of the eight systems courses.

But he may be most proud of how he has harnessed technology in his classes, using Skype and Google Hangouts to conduct video teleconferences with teams of students as they hustle to complete projects in his capstone class. This allows him to combine some of the advantages of a face-to-face classroom with the conveniences of online instruction.

“I use video teleconferencing at least once a week with the design teams—usually, between three and five people per team, and I have up to three teams,” said Adams.

With students in Asia, Maryland, and Europe, arranging mutually convenient times usually requires clustering teams by location. Adams also closely monitors the weekly online discussions, posting questions and reviewing responses. He ensures that students present facts, not opinion, supported by research citations. The combination of electronic communication methods with more traditional teaching methods is a breakthrough, he said, especially in teaching engineering.

“I tell some of my engineering friends that I am teaching engineering and IT online, and they are always puzzled,” he said. “How can you do that? It’s not face-to-face and it’s not synchronous? This requires a totally new approach.”

Adams praised the support that UMUC can offer to faculty members who are developing new courses and encourages others to use it to their advantage.

“Some of the technology now is incredible, . . .” he said. “We can provide students with many of the Microsoft programs at no cost. I have them build their projects in Microsoft Project, which is an industry standard scheduling application for project management. That costs them nothing. They get to use it in the class and they can carry their new skills right out into industry.”

With information increasing in both volume and accessibility, it becomes especially important for teachers to help students learn to find and identify reliable sources, and Adams advocates for UMUC’s library, a resource that he believes is still underutilized. He requires students to conduct research there, and as the university moves away from using publisher textbooks, he has arranged for three textbooks he has written to be available to students, a chapter at a time, at no cost.

Kevin Adams may be most proud of how he has harnessed technology in his classes, using Skype and Google Hangouts to conduct video teleconferences with teams of students as they hustle to complete projects in his capstone class.

“If I didn’t have the library, I couldn’t teach; I couldn’t stay current,” he said.

Another member of the UMUC faculty, Edwin Johnson, teaches history while also serving as a member of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture. A graduate of Morgan State University and a longtime higher education administrator, Johnson said that modern teaching must include helping students who may have been out of the classroom for years cope with the challenges of higher education.

Johnson said his work in admissions at Morgan State and his Ph.D. studies in African American history have fostered a greater understanding of the correlation between socioeconomics, the quality of public school systems, performance on the SAT—and how all of those factors influence access to higher education, especially for minority populations.

“One of the good things about higher education is that it is becoming less exclusionary,” said Johnson. “In the past, higher education was for the wealthy, so they would learn how to conduct themselves in polite society . . . If you didn’t have money or a station, you didn’t get an opportunity to get an education.”

Fortunately, the expansion of adult education now means that students who missed the transition from high school to college have another chance. The challenge for faculty is how best to prepare them to reenter the classroom when so much has changed from when they were in high school.

“I think that, just as higher education itself is becoming more accessible, professors are required to do more and more to make sure that their students are ‘getting it,’ and that they get some of the services and skill sets and remediation that they need,” said Johnson.

“Back 20 or 30 years ago, a professor could say, ‘You should know this. You should have learned this in high school. I’m not going through this.’ In this day and age, you can’t take that posture. You have to meet students where they are and take them where they need to be. It is incumbent upon you to make sure that your students get everything they need.”

And with urban systems everywhere challenged to do more with less, students come to class with as much or more baggage than they have in the past—and with more distractions, Johnson said. The teacher of tomorrow will sometimes have to be a guidance counselor and social worker, as well. With that in mind, Johnson uses the required first-week introductions in UMUC’s online environment to dig deeper and address his students’ often unspoken fears and insecurities.

“My first academic background is in human communication,” said Johnson. “When you get into perceptions and self, I understand that all adult learners have a lot of fears about coming back to school, whether they waited too long, [and whether] they can still finish . . . . I ask them, ‘What are your fears? What do you want to do with this degree?’ I try to create an environment where everyone feels comfortable saying, ‘I’m afraid. I’m 40 years old. I haven’t done anything in education in 20 years.’ I think when there is a large consensus in the class, and they all realize they have some of the same fears and concerns, it becomes less of a deterrent.”

One tremendous advantage, Johnson said, is the resources that UMUC makes available to students, such as the Effective Writing Center and Library Services.

“I say to my students all the time, ‘If you flunk out or drop out, it is because you threw your hands in the air and said, ‘I can’t do it.’ If you are looking for help, it is there and readily accessible.”

Sometimes that assistance comes from another student—benefitting both the student who is helping and the one who is being helped.

“If someone posts a question, [faculty] are required to respond within 24 hours,” said Johnson. “Sometimes another student sees the question and says, ‘Let me assist you.’ I will check the next day and see that the student answered the question, and it becomes a group effort. We’re all getting through this together. We have the same fears, but we are all striving for the same goal, and we are going to support one another to get there.”