When I was in university we were lucky if the professor showed up, let alone tried to be the best in his or her profession.
For several years now, it’s been fascinating to watch the contenders in TV Ontario’s Best Lecturer competition, which pits instructors from a variety of post-secondary schools against one another in a sort of Academic Idol. There are actually a few names I recognize, including Nick Bontis, who I’ve contacted in the past for his knowledge management expertise. The voting has ended and the results will announced this weekend. No matter who wins, I’ll be wondering whether any of them would be any better at articulating the kind of information an IT manager has to convey.
Glance through the finalists and you’ll see a range of impressive credentials, including specialties in psychology, English, education and architecture. What you won’t see is computer science, IT management or anything else that requires some knowledge of how a computer works. On the other hand, there are three psychology instructors, one of whom, Gerald Cupchik, I watched on a TVO over the weekend.
Cupchick spoke on the various forms of emotion, and he was as good as you could look in a video whose set consisted of a run-of-the-mill lecture hall at the University of Toronto. As talented as he obviously is, I wondered if he would be as adept at explaining, say, a service oriented architecture as he was the varieties of human feeling. “You’ve got to be able to feel it,” he said of the material in a documentary-style interview before his lecture. Can you really feel something like SOA? And what if you can’t?
Obviously there have to be some pretty good computer science professors in this country, or we wouldn’t have the kind of minds that have come out of the University of Waterloo, to name one example. It may simply be that, to the uninitiated, a lecture in that discipline doesn’t make great television (though you’d think there might be at least one lecturer on economics or physics. Can’t anyone make math sound sexy?).
The host of the TVO show encouraged viewers to evaluate Cupchick, and by extension all the Best Lecturer candidates, on three criterion. These included clarity, energy and authority. Those might not jump out as the best metrics, because they’re highly subjective, but they’re the same ones with which IT managers are graded by the users they deal with every day. If a technology professional sounds bored by the project at hand, users lose confidence in them. If they seem lethargic about taking action, users are likely to do something on their own. If they don’t seem to know what they’re doing, everyone in the enterprise gets a little worried.
TVO’s Best Lecturer competition focuses on what happens in the classroom, but technology has forced all of us to become lifelong learners. It’s only gradually becoming apparent how badly we need great teachers, too.