How ‘digital natives’ are killing the ‘sage on the stage’

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Digital technology, and those who have grown up with it, are forcing the venerable lecture to adapt to the times. uniinnsbruck/Flickr, CC BY-NC Enlarge

The idea that teachers should teach and students should listen presumes that teachers know more than their students.

While this was generally true back when textbooks where a rarity, and may have been partly true since the invention of the public library, it is most likely untrue for at least many students in this era of the “active learner” (AKA “digital natives”).

After all, with a smartphone in every student’s pocket and Google only a tap away, how can the humble sage expect to compete as the font of all online knowledge?

The world is a stage

The very birth of the lecture comes from medieval times, when books were difficult to make and experts were few and far between. Back in those days, the best way to record knowledge was for a monk to stand up the front of the room and recite the passages from a manuscript or book, while the novices below him hurriedly wrote down exactly what was said.

As universities emerged, this tradition continued, with the expert at the pulpit and the juniors in the audience. Hence was born the “sage on the stage”: the expert providing their knowledge to others so that they could learn from this font of all wisdom.

Since then the role has evolved, but the basic principle has remained the same. Throughout the decades leading towards the end of the 20th century, models were extended with tutorials, laboratories and workshops. But the academic remained the expert, providing their knowledge to (sometimes eager) students.

As part of this role, it’s the academic’s job to entertain, and we have all known academics who take this part of the role very seriously, getting dressed up for class, using props or even planning out a performance with costumes and mask in advance.

The lecture as a performance piece

So, what is the humble sage to do in this new paradigm? How do we deal with the fact that our stage is gone, replaced by an garden of different fonts of knowledge?

One option could be to embrace the performance art aspect of the role even more.

Talk to any creative type and they will tell you that the real impact of their work is not just the performance, but how it makes the audience change. How it makes them think deeply about the subject.

A creator has really done their job when a movie such as The Imitation Game is not only entertaining, but encourages the viewer to read more about Alan Turing or the Enigma machine. Or perhaps even to contemplate the attitudes to homosexuality in the early 20th century and now. The performance serves as a launching point for investigation of the area, and “moving the furniture” in the mind.

Perhaps the academic needs to aim for the same? Make the lecture an entertaining performance piece on the area that causes the students to look into it more deeply. Recognise that students can get information from many places and embrace this by aiming for the lecture to be a highlight reel and a teaser rather than an expert at the pulpit.

Yes, this means every lecture should be a special occasion, but is that really a bad thing? If it gets our students thinking, then hasn’t it done its job?

If academics begin to do this, then maybe we can reclaim the role of “sage on a stage” in a different way. We can move from our old fashioned pulpit to a digital stage, providing a highlight reel of our discipline and becoming a truly digital sage for the active learner.

If this happens, then maybe the measure of success will be a measure of how many students are using a mobile phone in the classroom rather than how many are putting it away!


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