Category Archives: undergraduate education

The Digital Disconnect

You’ve got your popcorn. You’ve found a seat. The rustling of cell phones coming out of pockets begins. If you miss this opportunity, you’ll be faced with burning glares. “Turn off your cell phone or die!” It’s become part of our culture to “power down” at the movies. But even that norm is shifting. Most young people I know switch their phones to silent and continue to text each other as the movie plays. When Monday rolls around should we really be asking our students to “power down” before going to school?

Young students today are asking, “Why can’t we learn the way we live?”

The theme for this year’s e-Strategy Townhall conference at UBC is “Here and Virtually There – UBC and the Digital Generation.” I believe that incorporating technology into educational initiatives goes beyond engagement for students. This means that the students role is shifting to participating in and even producing their own educational experience. The role of educator is also shifting. Educators must become facilitators for learning – willing to learn on the fly – and coach students on how to navigate through their own educational experience using technology.

The ideas presented during a panel about the “digital disconnect” and the role of educators as coaches particularly resonated with me. The panel was a featured session at the e-Strategy Townhall entitled, “Network Learning – Seeing Through the Clouds”. This e-Stategy mini-conference is hard to describe. It’s a group of educators, IT professionals, interested tech-savy folk at the University who come together to talk about how to better incorporate technology into the educational experience. I’ve presented to this audience before about bioinformatics resources available to researchers and educators.

Today’s panel included a video conference with Julie Evans – CEO of Project Tomorrow from Irvine California responsible for the Speak-up Survey that carrys out focus groups with grade school kids. She made the point that students “power down” for going to school. School life is not at all like the technology rich like that they live at home. She also made the point that students are asking, “Why can’t we learn the way we live?”

Another virtual panelist was Peter Arthur – Director, Centre for Teaching & Learning, UBC Okanagon. He countered with the comments that, “Students are not all ready.” He worries that for students currently in undergraduate communities, information literacy is still coming. Back to Julie’s data from the grade school age kids. Her findings indicate that the most desired technology is a laptop that students can take home.

For me, it’s all about how we can making learning relevant. An interesting discussion about how to “open up” to these ideas ensued. We need to let students explore, support skill development, and provide support for students putting content online (example, wikipedia articles). Gaming, simulations, animations all can be used to develop problem solving skills. Mechanisms for celebrating and disseminating student successes and the knowledge bases they create needs to be supported.

Some of the comments that resonated with me the most were regarding the Coach-Teacher relationship. In the university environment we must begin to embrace this new role for teachers, as coaches, facilitators, and mentors. This means that as educators we need to be on top of the latest technology and feel comfortable with learning things as we go. David Wiley, Director, Centre for Open & Sustainable Learning, Utah State University made the point that students have become “free agent learners” going outside their normal learning environments to find information.

To participate in this new cooperative style learning process, we must be willing to push our own boundaries and become coaches to these free agents. I’ve always believe that coaching is a big part of the educational experience but with the pervasiveness of technology this role is becoming even more important. Accepting this challenge offers an exciting way forward for me as an educator.

Benefits of Undergraduate Research

SRI International has conducted several surveys in an attempt to evaluate undergraduate research and training programs in the US (read the executive summary).  In short, the take home message is that undergraduate research is something we should actively support.  Hands-on experience helps to keep students interested in Science careers.  You can read more about this survey in the Education Forum found in the current issue of Science Magazine.


The SPIRE postdoctoral fellowship program is “an innovative approach to advance science careers by balancing research, teaching and service.”

SPIRE’s Mission:

To provide multi-dimensional professional development for science researchers and educators to succeed in academic careers, to bring engaging teaching methods into the classroom, and to increase diversity in science professions.

It sounds like a great program. Unfortunately, I was reading the fineprint and you’ve got to be a US citizen to apply. I wonder if there’s a Canadian equivalent?