We cannot be a sage on the stage

Illustration of learning new ideasA common refrain in academia is “research should inform your teaching”. Research in this context is not educational research.

There is no argument that academics need to assimilate and investigate best practice in teaching and learning by keeping abreast and being involved in targeted educational research. Rather, generically, research into the latest and greatest trends in IT ought to find traction within the confines of the undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and learning experience.

There is no intractable challenge infusing research into postgraduate subjects; this is their nature. It is challenging, however, specifically in the IT arena, to sprinkle the seeds of research-level scholarship into a classic undergraduate IT curriculum.

There are, and continue to be, a variety of approaches. Two of the most common ones include:

  1. early identification of a specialised stream of elite students who are nurtured from first year and challenged throughout, and
  2. use of a special, often non-examinable lecture, that peers over the horizon across great unknown challenges.

Consider the primary motive behind the first approach. Plainly and unashamedly, it is to nurture and grow the next generation of inquiring minds who will use their God-given gifts to palliate society through its IT-centred conundra.

On a more mundane level, it results in the “creation” of the next honours student who progresses to a PhD and becomes a valued member of the engine room of a staff member’s research agenda, impact and outcomes.

The second approach, while it can engender varying levels of success depending on the charisma of the interlocutor, mostly tends to vaporise in the hustle bustle of the digital invasion pervading every waking moment of our lives.

IT is different. Lecturers who teach IT cannot rely on unchanging fundamental material from year to year. IT is at once a curious synthesis of science, engineering, design and more. The body of fundamental knowledge advances rapidly.

While many of us pine for our mobile contract to expire so that we are able to acquire that new iPhone, the technology behind such developments filters down into the undergraduate curriculum.

The lecturer who doesn’t “keep up” and rewrite or recast their material every two years, knows that they are not doing their students a service, and are in danger of self-fossilising in quick time (sic).

In such an environment, unlike more static areas, the lecturer barely has the time to plough through what has already happened and transmit this in a professional manner, let alone be in a position to deal with so-called unsolved problems. In some sense, the material is already virginal in identity anyway!

Not withstanding the above, I do think there is an important way that IT academics can transmit a research “culture”, for want of a better term, and that is through heart and soul.

The key to research is modesty. Irrespective of some academics’ perception of themselves as possessing a superior intellect, when one transmits material it must be as a learner and not as a teacher.

The lecturer who projects a genuine aura of inquiry and discovery and a love for learning and unearthing is the lecturer who brings the same modesty to their lectures as they do to their own research.

In the face of a seemingly intractable problem, the ego must be submissive; the proverbial “fight is on”. Every approach and nuance is engaged to wrestle with the research problem. Importantly, the battle is often not won. Students need to see this side of a lecturer, become part of their mode and manner of delivery, inquiry and interaction.

We cannot be a sage on the stage. We must transmogrify into being a guide on the side. The guide must also learn to step out of their own skin and project the crucible that fuels their research-oriented spirit of inquiry.

Ultimately, most students will be employed in industry. I’d venture to say that the employee who also brings this attitude to often different challenges will become a valued, more productive and successful asset.


Dr Isaac Balbin is an Associate Professor in the School of Computer Science and Information Technology at RMIT University. He has previously worked in the optimisation of recursive queries to database systems and maintains an ongoing interest in advances in approaches to computing education. Isaac is currently researching agglomeration of para legal texts to produce quasi linked summary texts through automatic deduction and retrieval.

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