Teaching Centaurs

We are about to see a new kind of student on campus. They are the first wave of a post-millennial generation. They were born into a world of Google, Wikipedia, and cell phones, and entered adolescence the same year that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Netflix Streaming, iPhones, GMail, and Google Docs all came into being. On the threshold of adulthood, they could access information anywhere, anytime, and they could share everything they were thinking and doing with anyone, anywhere. Now, as they enter college, these students rely on their devices. They use them to satisfy their curiosity, navigate their lives, and even manage personal relationships. Like cyborgs of 1990’s science fiction, these students have augmented themselves with technology—not with cranial implants, but by carrying their devices everywhere and checking them constantly. If you ban devices in your classroom, you are effectively limiting the cognitive capabilities of these students.

Why call them “Centaurs”?

When Gary Kasparov was beaten by Deep Blue in 1997, he responded by developing a new style of chess in which humans and computers teamed up. In “Advanced Chess,” these human/computer teams are often referred to as “centaurs.” These teams play chess at a whole different level; within its first decade, teams of “centaurs” playing in Advanced Chess tournaments were beating grand masters, supercomputers, and even grand masters using computers.

The computer would bring the lightning-fast—if uncreative—ability to analyze zillions of moves, while the human would bring intuition and insight, the ability to read opponents and psych them out. –  Clive Thompson, Smarter Than You Think

This next wave of students are centaurs. They have teamed up with their devices (mostly smartphones) so that they do not need to memorize phone numbers, carry maps, or argue over who starred in what TV show—they simply access this information as needed. In the same way that Kasparov discovered that computer partners let him focus on the uniquely human aspects of chess, these centaurs will discover that they can get further academically and intellectually when they can focus their attention on the creative, collaborative, human aspects of learning. To do this, they will need opportunities to practice. Consider the aspects of your field that could be (or already are) handled by computers, and what aspects can be accomplished only by humans. By modeling this in the classroom, you will help your students bring centaur skills into their academic and professional lives.

We need augmentation examples involving how doctors, lawyers, and accountants can work closely with computer systems. How can they produce better diagnoses, trial strategies, and audit opinions working with computers than either computers or humans working alone could produce? – Tom Davenport

Help centaurs build their academic skills

Centaurs have used their devices mostly for entertainment and to manage their social lives. Many have yet to explore how powerful their technological partners can be in an academic setting. They go online in response to any curiosity, but may need assistance determining the truth in what they find there. They engage in online conversations and debates (mostly in writing). Much of this discourse may be about Game of Thrones, but the habit of deep engagement with a topic through technology is well established.

You can help students learn to use these centaur habits to engage more deeply with academic topics. Centaurs need information literacy skills. They need guidance to go beyond the first page of Google results. They need to know how to tell the difference between scholars, professional journalists, bloggers, meme-makers, and comment trolls. Centaurs are already constantly writing at each other, they just need advice on how to best shape arguments and back up their pronouncements. In Teaching Naked, José Bowen suggests a classroom exercise in which the instructor presents a slide with “missing” information and asks the students to provide it. The “missing” information is chosen specifically because a Google search will bring up conflicting resources. The ensuing discussion in which students debate which is the “correct” source to use is the point of this exercise.

Engage the centaurs’ attachment to their online communities

Centaurs are constantly reporting on what is going on around them through social media, including in the classroom. If you present mind-blowing ideas, centaurs are likely sharing them with their online audience. Although this constant access to an online community is a tempting distraction, it is also a growing aspect of adult professional life. This ability to instantly connect with a group, especially one with expertise in a specific topic, will be important as this generation struggles with increasingly complex challenges. Encouraging students to access peers and professional networks in class will help them start building these networks now. Tell students who in your field is worth following on Twitter, or give them activities that require them to involve people outside the classroom. This will help them see how online social habits can become powerful problem solving tools.

Help centaurs practice putting away devices

A professor recently commented to me how quiet her classrooms have become: the students arrive, sit down, and ignore each other while staring at their screens. Although they may be connecting with vast online communities, it can be distressing to watch them ignore the potential community in the room around them. According to the professor, this habit is becoming a problem in her field. Her nursing students become so focused on their devices, that they often neglect to look patients in the eye. Centaurs will benefit from classroom activities that require eye contact, speaking clearly, and real-time verbal communication. If you ask them to put away their devices, make sure they use this time to connect with each other and take full advantage of the humanity of those present.

Centaurs who are used to jumping on devices at the first quiet moment may also need help to see the cognitive advantages of being bored. When a mind is left without immediate distraction, it can focus on creative or challenging ideas (which is why so many ideas come to us in the shower or in traffic). Building in device-free time for reflection into a course can help students experience the value of this effect. Be sure to address this issue head on: be very specific about the skills you want students to work on when you ask that the devices be put away.

We need this generation to be fully functional centaurs

A blanket ban on devices in class will leave a semester-long gap in your students’ development of effective intellectual partnerships with their devices. Centaurs need to learn to balance interpersonal face-to-face skills with their online social activities in order to engage the best of both. Using their devices effectively when chasing down scholarly information and solving tough problems will help them develop cognitive capabilities far beyond our own. Like Kasparov, they will be able to tap more of their creative humanity by letting their devices do what computers do best. Considering the global challenges facing this upcoming generation, it is our responsibility to actively help them be the best centaurs that they can be.

Fred Zinn is Associate Director of the Innovate@ Team,
University of Massachusetts Amherst, IT