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Student Learning Outcomes In a Cyberspace Age

Student Learning Outcomes In a Cyberspace Age

By Ruby Evans

Institutions accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools have heard much recently about student-learning outcomes. Simply put, the question we must ask ourselves is “What do we want our students to know and be able to do once they have matriculated on our college campus?”

Southern University at Shreveport (La.), a two-year institution within the Southern University System, the only historically Black land grant university system in the United States, answered that question by developing these educational goals: computer/technical literacy; critical thinking skills; effective communication skills; ethics and integrity; group interaction and teambuilding skills; information literacy skills; leadership skills; and multicultural and global awareness.

Information technology has changed life and learning, and it continues to significantly influence the infrastructure and delivery of formal education. While basic education still revolves around the three R’s, the environment in which individuals are expected to demonstrate competency has changed considerably. Beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic, researchers and scholars say that today’s worker needs complex information fluency skills like critical thinking, information literacy and technology literacy.

Recently, The Sloan Consortium, which promotes online education, reported that nearly 3.2 million students were taking at least one online course during fall 2005, a substantial increase over the 2.3 million the previous year. The consortium report added, “There has been no leveling of the growth rate of online enrollments; institutions of higher education report record online enrollment growth on both a numeric and a percentage basis.” Online education, combined with effective pedagogy and reflective teaching, has transformed higher education, offering an increasingly popular alternative to traditional classroom teaching and learning.

In 1996, Chris Dede, a noted guru in the national discourse on integrating teaching, learning and technology, provided this prophetic prologue to the 21st century:

“The core skill of today’s work place is not foraging for data, but filtering a plethora of incoming information.

The emerging literacy we all must master requires diving into a sea of information, [and] immersing ourselves in data to harvest patterns of knowledge. … As educators, understanding how to structure learning experiences to make such immersion and filtering possible is the core of the new rhetoric. Expanding traditional definitions of literacy and rhetoric into immersion-centered experiences of interacting with information is crucial to preparing students for full participation in [21st] century society.”

As a member of the HBCU community, I feel that we must heed Dede’s prophecy.  To that end, we must engage our students, with deliberate speed and due diligence, in processes that require and support their information fluency.

We must provide frequent and repeated opportunities for our students to deploy critical thinking skills; to find, review and evaluate information; and to master technological proficiency.

Many of us have already responded to this call by challenging our students to use their higher-order thinking skills; by deliberately incorporating into the curricula activities that support information fluency; and by willingly moving outside our comfort zone of the traditional classroom into the vast unknown of cyberspace. Others — and by no means is the reluctance confined to HBCUs — still need gentle reminders that a core student-learning outcome in this cyber age is information fluency. However, specific to the HBCU arena, we must ensure that our students have all the tools needed to be successful in today’s competitive, diverse and increasingly global society. Integrating teaching, learning and technology is a mandate, not an option, and doing any less would border on professional irresponsibility. We must connect with the students we serve, and we must get them more quickly acclimated and connected to the ubiquitous cyberspace engine.

Chief academic officers must effectively model practices and clearly articulate the expectations of the professoriate as both relate to information fluency. Moreover, faculty must have support to integrate technology into instruction, and they must undergo effective professional development and training programs that emphasize their roles as learners. Lastly, students must have supportive faculty who involve them in the learning process as much as possible.

Again, to do less ensures that our students will be ill prepared to participate in the 21st century and beyond, an unacceptable student-learning outcome.

— Dr. Ruby Evans is the vice chancellor for academic affairs and a professor of mathematics at Southern University at Shreveport.

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