It’s All About Empowering Students


            My best thoughts about teaching come from everyday experience.  I returned from Educause99 with fresh concepts and a list of things to do.  For me this was a productive meeting.   I went to absorb new ideas, to become motivated to try new things, to learn.   Speakers at some of the less productive sessions acted as if I were attending in order to be impressed by their acumen.  They were wrong.   I was at Educause99 more to learn than to be taught.  I sought empowerment!


            So it is with my students.  They are paying tuition and time “more to learn than to be taught.”  They seek empowerment.  My objective should not be to impress them with my own knowledge but to give them self-confidence about theirs.


            Back in my office with this new thought about empowerment, I decided to inventory ways I am currently using technology to empower my students.   My course, “The Economists’ Way of Thinking,” is a freshman seminar for 15 students.  Intended to be an introduction to the liberal arts, the course centers on the theme that college exposes students to 40 different ways of thinking as they take 40 courses.  Each professor’s thinking methods are heavily influenced by the concepts of their discipline. Whether at the grocery store or the symphony, economists use theories such as “opportunity cost” and “comparative advantage” to shape their actions.   Ecologists think about interconnectedness.  Lawyers use “burden of proof” as one thinking concept.


In this particular course my empowerment objective is to give students practice in the use of common economic concepts, to build their capacity and confidence.  Technology is a great enabler.


Prior to my class on (say) comparative advantage, two students are assigned to submit to the class a ranked, annotated list of the five Internet sites that will most help their colleague students understand and apply the concept of “comparative advantage.”  Students who have read from these sites are much more likely to challenge my lecture.  The two student bibliographers gain a special feeling of empowerment.   The Internet provides student access to information, an access that is importantly independent from their professorial mentor.


In class, all student laptops are network-connected and signed in to our class chatroom.   After my 20-minute lecture, each student submits a one-sentence summary of  (say) comparative advantage.   All sentences appear on each screen.   Our discussion centers around improving 4 or 5 of the student contributions so they are worthy of “full credit on the final exam.”   Especially the student bibliographers and enhanced-authors leave class feeling empowered, with some confidence that they have absorbed the concept.


After class, students write a one-page essay.  The centerpiece of each essay is a recent newspaper article about someone using the principle of (say) “comparative advantage” to make the decision.  Each student submits a rough draft essay to 4 student colleagues and a volunteer-alum from out-of-state.   All electronically add comments, with their uniquely assigned color, to a single copy.   After a 48-hour comment period, the original author redrafts and submits the paper for grading.   All 15 graded papers, with individual grading comments, are returned to the entire class.   They become the focus of our second discussion regarding “comparative advantage.”


The magic of computer enhanced learning is that the student can become the lead actor.  We are working with student bibliographies, student definitions, and student essays.  The Internet enables students a greater feeling of independence and heightened self-confidence about their own knowledge and access to knowledge.


For me Educause99 was a successful meeting because it was personally empowering.  Students say they feel the same way about my class.