Paradox of Liberal Education: Interfacing Technology with Student-Centered and Student-Led Learning

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 22–23, 2013

University of Miami
Miami, Florida


With the age of technology having arrived in the academy, educators understand that the challenge for liberal education is getting post-millennial students to learn in unconventional ways. However, such learning, critical for the acquisition of the core competences of liberal education and the demonstration of effective creative thinking decision making and global awareness, creates a paradox for combining learning projects with technological skills that encourage creative and flexible thinking and equip students to excel.

Student-centered instruction [SCI] is an instructional approach through which students influence the content, activities, materials, and pace of learning. This learning model places the student (learner) in the center of the learning process. The instructor provides students with opportunities to learn independently and from one another and coaches them in the skills they need to do so effectively.

The SCI approach includes such techniques as substituting active learning experiences for lectures, assigning open-ended problems and problems requiring critical or creative thinking that cannot be solved by following text examples, involving students in simulations and role plays, and using self-paced and/or cooperative (team-based) learning. Properly implemented SCI can lead to increased motivation to learn, greater retention of knowledge, deeper understanding, and more positive attitudes towards the subject being taught (Collins & O’Brien, 2003).

Included here are a few student-centered projects and assignments from the college classroom that utilize web-based tools such as Facebook, Google Maps, information retrieval and managements systems, and statistical software for developing global awareness, pre-professional skills, academic literacy for information technology, internet interactivity for capstone projects, and quantitative literacy and investigative research for expanding understandings of themes such as environmental justice.

Global Media Presentations: a Practical Learning Experience Using Social Media

In preparation for successful entry into a rapidly changing world, students are called upon to develop flexible thinking and broaden their understanding of the globally connected world. As part of an introductory media course, students developed class presentations to explore global media by interviewing “everyday” foreign citizens about their use of a specific mass media (newspapers, magazines, television, radio, movies, and/or recordings). As part of their investigation, students used a social media tool (usually Facebook) to make contact with and interview the foreign citizens. The presentation mode required the use of audio/visual aids such as PowerPoint, video and/or audio clips, pictures, etc. Presentations were graded on a rubric that included the following categories: Effective Delivery; Knowledge of Topic/Content; Organization/Clarity; Informational Value; and Effective Use of Visual Aids.

This assignment developed by Dr. Stephens encouraged students to look at familiar things in a new way, especially the use of social media, take some risks, make connections and build on the ideas of others. The use of social media in this assignment created the opportunity for multiple learning styles in the classroom, increased curriculum relevancy and student engagement, and helped prepare students for the real world by deepening their understanding of global media. Curriculum relevancy was enhanced by the personal experience embedded in the assignment through the FaceBook interviews. The Global Media presentations encouraged students to articulate similarities and differences about how mass media are experienced around the world. The realization that ‘others are more like me than not’ was a significant lesson learned as a result of this student-centered experience.

Internet Interactivity for Capstone Projects

Knowledge-centered learning approaches grow out of the scholarly literature on novices and experts, which has revealed that experts have organized their knowledge very differently than novices. So knowledge-centered learning stresses learners developing their own knowledge to facilitate transfer of their learning to new contexts and applications to meet open-ended challenges such as problem-solving, critical thinking, and design.

In a learner-centered learning environment, McCombs and Whistler (1997) state that learners are treated as co-creators in the learning process, as individuals with ideas and issues that deserve attention and consideration. Learner-centered learning environments recognize that the prior knowledge of learners powerfully influences future learning and thus attempt to build on prior knowledge.

In studying student-centered instruction, one of our scholars, Professor Lundy developed blended courses that facilitated and inspired learning communities that supported student-centered learning (SCL). These learning communities created a classroom atmosphere wherein joint responsibility for learning was showcased. Students demonstrated their individual expertise and learned ownership of knowledge. Meaning was negotiated and participation structures were understood and ritualized. Technology and other resource explorations facilitated idea generation and knowledge building within problem-based learning and thematic instruction was incorporated wherever the modeling of and support for the new was possible.

In Lundy’s capstone course, Symbaloo (a personal start page that allows one to easily navigate the web and compile favorite sites all in one visual interface) was utilized as a communal electronic desktop where students could locate assignments, guides, syllabi and other resourceful information that assisted them in completing coursework and research. An academic Facebook page grouped by courses taught was utilized to inspire and support learning communities among all of the instructor’s students – past as well as current.

The instructor incorporated social media platforms, technology rich learning environments and the internet within all of her courses as a teaching and learning method that designed assignments to reflect real world complexities allowing students to solve real-world problems as they developed more clear interests and deeper knowledge and skills.

Using Google Maps for Class Presentations

Our students are technologically astute because they were raised on information technologies. They are comfortable using social network sites, texting, mapping and other forms of technology techniques. As a professor seeking to reach students within their technological milieu, one of our faculty team learned how to use Google Maps (GMs) in her Social Change course where the emphasis was technological change. She invited a colleague to teach students in that course the technological strategy that could enhance their learning. As a result of those presentations, students were given an assignment to conduct research on their hometown and comment on how it changed over the past 20 years. They were to report their findings, placing it on Google Maps. Using this technology provided an interactive format that engaged students and allowed them to be creative. Their presentation not only mapped their home town changes but also included a mapping of international places they wanted to visit along with historical information on that place. This assignment took the professor outside her comfort zone but reinforced the value of learning new innovative strategies to keep students involved

Since the initial use of Google Maps in her Social Change course, Dr. Martin has used it in her Introduction to Sociology course when she mapped the countries her students’ interviewees were from. Students had to interview two persons who were not from the United States. Placing interviewees on GMs allowed students to see the tremendous diversity in the United States. This led to deeper discussions on diversity.

Google Maps was also used in her Victimology course to create interest in global conflicts and the victims of those conflicts. The class examined five major global conflicts–Syria, Kenya, Israel/Palestine, Egypt and Afghanistan. Specifically, they read articles, looked at YouTube videos, and discussed in class the nature of the conflicts and the long and short term impact of those conflicts both locally and globally. They uploaded information from these various sources to GMs and presented their research to the class.

The strength of Google Maps is that many disciplines and a variety of topics in those disciplines can utilize and benefit from it. The most important component of using GMs is learning how to set it up. Once that is mastered, it is only limited by the professors’ and students’ creativity.


By engaging technology in project based classroom practices, student interest and learning are enhanced, and when students become actively engaged in the learning process, liberal education is at a premium. In reinventing liberal education, we need to continue to highlight the paradox of its relationship with technology while encouraging creative and flexible thinking as a pathway to the achievement of academic excellence.


Collins, J. W., 3rd, & O’Brien, N. P. (Eds.). (2003). Greenwood Dictionary of Education. Westport, CT: Greenwood.

DiYanni, R. (2011). New Thinking: Critical and Creative Thinking about Technology, Information, Innovation Engineering and Design. ePub.

McCombs, B., & Whistler, J. S. (1997). The Learner-Centered Classroom and School: Strategies for Increasing Student Motivation and Achievement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

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Spring 2014: Reinventing Liberal Education