Transforming the Role of Students and
Teachers in the Information Age
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1999, 7(2), 2-3. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

In our lead article for this issue, Bill Spady argues that we should design school curricula based on our responses to four key questions:

  • What challenges do our students face in the information age?
  • What competencies do our students need to handle these challenges?
  • What kinds of learning experiences do our students need to develop these competencies?
  • What structures must we create to ensure that students have these learning experiences?

Making these future-grounded questions the basis for designing educational experiences for our students is a substantial shift in our thinking about curricular design. Spady elaborates the implications of this shift for schooling, emphasizing that current program structures should not be the starting point for constructing curriculum; rather, the future should be the starting point.

I have attempted to implement this approach in my own teaching. My experience serves to amplify what is involved in introducing the approach Spady advocates, and what some of the implications are for students and for teachers.

For example, three years ago I was assigned to teach a required course for master's degree and doctoral students in our educational leadership program called "The Social Context of Educational Leadership." Although this course was originally designed with a specific content and taught as a lecture-discussion course, I redesigned it to be congruent with the course objectives as expressed in the university bulletin but focused on challenges these students were likely to face in their careers in the information age and the competencies they would need in order to face these challenges successfully. In a world where the professional knowledge base is changing rapidly, it was clear that these prospective administrators needed to be able to access, analyze, and communicate information and that they needed to be competent to use information technology tools. The question then became: What kind of learning experience do they need to develop these skills?

I used an active-learning simulation approach, whereby students were to act as a task force to inform the U.S. Department of Education of the major issues challenging public education. The task force consisted of several teams assigned to prepare and present issue-analysis papers. To complete this assignment, students first had to identify the issues through an environmental-scanning exercise and then develop issue-analysis white papers. To access and communicate this information, they had to learn to use such tools as Internet search engines, a Web page editor, file transfer protocol (FTP), and presentation software.

I constructed a detailed syllabus ( to structure this enterprise, and then I helped them learn how to use information technology tools and improve their papers and presentations. In essence, student scanning and issues analysis plus the resulting papers and presentations constituted the content of the course. My roles were mentor, facilitator, and guide. The only content I provided consisted of several papers on anticipatory management, which were available on the Web via the syllabus.

In terms of outcomes, the course was successful. Students developed their own Web page, containing their resumes (which included an environmental-scanning abstract, an issue-analysis paper, and their PowerPoint presentation slides). These products reflected abilities that few of the students had prior to the course. Moreover, their abstracts and papers were quite good; they had each been revised several times. Their papers have been of value to the broader educational community because they are available on the Web via the Horizon search engine. Although I have a statement at the bottom of each page on the Horizon site that our material is copyright-free (except for OTH On-Line), I request that people send me a note when they use the material. I have received several such notes from authors who have cited material from student papers.

But this does not mean that the students were happy campers. In fact, they tended to be dissatisfied with their experience. When I asked students on their comprehensive examination to explain the anomaly of successful learning outcomes and relatively low course ratings, I received a number of explanations:

  • Unlike other professors (I was told), I provided little content in the course.
  • My critiques of their writing and their presentations were too severe, and their extra efforts in writing did not necessarily lead to higher grades; indeed, my critical attention to their work was perceived to be a threat to their grade point average.
  • My emphasis on communication skills was out of balance with the title of the course (a sample comment: "This course should be retitled "Technology and Journalism'").
  • Learning to use technology tools was not worth the time and effort expended, I was told, especially given their heavy schedules (sixteen semester hours) and their lack of perceived relevance of how the presentation, Internet, and environmental-scanning and issue-analysis skills would be useful in their future role as assistant principals.

        In addition, several students pointed out that the course required skills and behaviors quite different from what students were accustomed to. To cite examples, one student said that whereas students typically work alone, in this course they were required to work as part of a team. Whereas they are accustomed to learning and recalling concepts presented by their professors, in this course almost all of their time was spent applying knowledge and skills. Whereas they usually turn in their work for evaluation at the end of the semester, in this course they received multiple feedback on their work throughout the semester, which required continuous revision. Whereas in other classes they do their work using word processing and the library, in this class they had to work with multimedia materials, the Internet, e-mail, and the Web as well as the library. In other words, this course demanded a shift in their approach to learning and performing—a shift that made them uncomfortable.

Implementing the approach advocated by Spady is not easy for teachers or for students. The requisite change in teacher role behavior from actor to director and the corresponding transition in student role behavior are contrary to prevailing norms. Too, requiring that students learn to apply information technology tools to complete course requirements was an additional burden; it would have been much easier to adjust to the changed roles had students been adept with these tools prior to enrolling in the course. The combination of a different way of doing business and having to learn to use the technology was virgin territory for both the students and for me. But setting the destination of preparing students to be independent learners with information technology skills, so that they can continue their professional development throughout their careers, is well worth traversing a bumpy road.

This semester I have another shot at implementing the course with a new cohort of doctoral students. I have made some adjustments in the syllabus, including a few lectures, less critique, and more time for analysis presentations ( I’ll let you know what happens.

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