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From Blackboards to iPads: Technology in the Classroom

MOOC, Tegrity, Sakai. 

When professors talk about technology in the classroom, these are some of the terms they employ. It’s a hot-button issue in higher education today, posing larger implications for colleges and universities as well as questions about the day-to-day value of gadgets and software in the classroom. At W&L, where we pride ourselves on top-notch teaching and personal attention, how does it affect those qualities?

To explore the topic, we gathered several professors one September afternoon and turned them loose. The setting for this cutting-edge discussion could not have been more traditional: Payne Hall 212, a seminar room containing a wall of books, a view of Lee Chapel and a blackboard.

Our participants were: Robert M. Ballenger ’76, Associate Professor, Department Head, Business Administration: Alexandra R. Brown, Jessie Ball duPont Professor of Religion; Shawn Paul Evans, Associate Professor of Theater; Hongchu Fu, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature,Department Head, East Asian Languages and Literature; Suzanne P. Keen, Thomas H. Broadus Professor of English, Interim Dean of the College; Toni R. Locy, Reynolds Professor of Legal Reporting; Tyler S. Lorig, Ruth Parmly Professor of Psychology, Chair,Neuroscience Program; Maryanne C. Simurda,Professor of Biology

They started out by discussing MOOCs-massive open online courses, which are free and offer no credit-and went from there.

LOCY: Universities should take a lesson from newspapers-if you start offering free courses, if you start giving certificates, people aren’t going to want to pay for them when you want them to pay for them.

KEEN: We might think this is completely irrelevant to the kind of education we offer. But Bob runs a class that is totally online, and it’s not dissimilar.

BALLENGER: It’s Information Technology Literacy. It’s required of everyone in the Williams School. A lot of people in the College take it. It’s an online course for a wide variety of reasons. It was the most efficient, economical way to deliver this content, because people come to W&L with what I call “lumpy knowledge” when it comes to information technology such as Word, Excel, PowerPoint, basic networking tools. We needed some vehicle where students could self-assess. When we first put the course up, students waited until the last week to study, with high failure rates. So we put milestones in to force them to learn on a more even schedule. The students come to a classroom at an assigned time, they download a project and instructions, they do it and upload it. It acts as a one-credit pass-fail course. This course shows them how to use this technology. From that perspective it is beneficial, but we’re not opening it up to the whole world.

LORIG: The idea of MOOCs is wonderful. We should fear it just as much as we fear books or public TV. You’ve got this other source of information that allows people to learn things that only enrich the stuff that we do and brings more content to the kinds of discussions that we have. But I also think that we’re going to find ourselves in trouble if we ever give certificates. We might go down that slippery path of giving away something that we hold as very valuable. We undervalue in a lot of ways what it is that we do and what students really get out of it. Certainly, it’s an expensive kind of education. It’s something that actually has real merit. We’ve just had difficulty measuring what it is, and measuring the real economic impact that an education has on somebody. A recent study about economic impact said, “The only thing more expensive than a higher education is not having one.” It’s just a matter of quantifying that.

BALLENGER: That ties in to how employers perceive all this too. That’s unknown. Employers put a premium on recruiting at the best schools because they get quality education and very bright students.  The employer piece is a very important piece of this whole. And W&L is a very high-touch environment where the students expect interaction with professors. That’s part of what they’re paying for, and the value-added that employers are paying for as well.

SIMURDA: Why aren’t universities making use of those companies like Great Courses? They’re very good courses. I listen to them. That would be a very good way for universities to make use of their professors. What are these professors being paid for the MOOCs? If they’re doing these for Great Courses, they’re getting royalties, they’re getting CDs, the university is probably getting some money out of it. I initially thought it was strictly an advertising tool or maybe a recruitment tool for Harvard.

BALLENGER: There is a pretty good argument for really bright high school students gravitating to these courses. They’re bored, they want something to do. Harvard and MIT are going to have access to who those students are. I belong to a group on campus that talks about MOOCs. We said there are a lot of lectures out there from very prominent lecturers, and there’s no reason why we can’t flip the classroom and have the students watch them for homework. That’s where we as an institution can leverage that type of material.

KEEN: We have such a small class size. We’re really set up to maximize knowing the students as individuals. Flipping the classroom-this is how the humanities have been doing it for years. Right now W&L doesn’t give any credit for transfers from online courses, even though in many cases we’re sort of hybrid. Hongchu has a hybrid course.

FU: That’s an Associated Colleges of the South pilot program, in which three professors from three institutions, W&L, Rollins College and Southwestern University, taught together. I gave a lecture on Chinese drama. The professor at Rollins gave a lecture on Chinese music. The one at Southwestern gave a lecture on Chinese calligraphy. We complemented each other. It’s a good way of doing collaborative teaching. The main technological provider is Rollins College. We used live video conferencing and wireless microphones to make that work. It went very well. The students liked it.

EVANS: When I taught a live online course, I was video-projected to another school. There were challenges. My body language didn’t transfer, so other techniques to convey information became really, really important. There certainly was a lot of flipping the classroom, where the students would look at material when we weren’t together. The in-person time was a lot of discussion about that material. The payoff of me being with them physically was most important.

BALLENGER: That’s a synchronous environment. Most online courses are asynchronous; students work on them when they want. That environment was totally ungratifying as a professor. I do not really understand how the students could get it, because it’s almost all self-taught. Some might argue that what we do is self-taught too.

KEEN: I have a couple of relatives who teach graduate-level education courses for Walden University. These courses are really valuable, because they enable people who are teaching full-time to pursue graduate degrees and improve their salaries and their teaching jobs. They have a certain amount of Skyping built into them for the face-to-face stuff, but mainly it’s a set unit. The syllabus, the activities, the quizzes are designed from start to finish. The professor does not have the authority to alter a single bit. I love that at W&L, we know our students well enough to know two or three weeks into the class that either they’re more capable of much more than you had anticipated, which is often the case, or maybe there’s a crowd that needs a little bit of a different style or intention in order to catch up.  You can easily make those adjustments, because you know them as people. You can use technology like Sakai, which I love. You can throw up an adjustment to the syllabus easily, e-mail everybody instantaneously, or even break the class into subgroups where one group is using a particular sub-technology available through Sakai.

EVANS: When I was doing online courses, I did that more often. I do that as I teach now. I had to force myself to do that more frequently when I was online. When you’re not in the physical space with someone, knowing whether they got it or not is judged by other means.

KEEN: We can find out before they turn in their graded work. We know from the expressions on their faces.

LORIG: Correct. You change the lecture instantaneously. If somebody has interest in something that you’re talking about, you immediately get the class involved. That’s where the learning comes from in class. I have a very rough syllabus, and it really does change depending upon what’s happening in the class at that moment. Talking about new technology-I’ve started using an iPad in my classes. I have this entire palette of my teaching materials sitting here in front of me, literally a touch away. So when a student asks a question, if there’s a YouTube video that I’ve already got on the iPad, I can immediately play it. Interactivity, getting that feedback on the course as it’s happening, is one of the real things that you’re getting. As well, you get better and better at reading the faces of the students. And we’ve all walked back to the office after it hasn’t gone well. But sometimes, you walk away from that class with a wonderful feeling that you did good work that day. The future is going to have very different models. We’re going to see students who get online credit. We’re going to have totally online universities that will give a bachelor’s degree. It’ll be interesting how the accrediting goes.

KEEN: Just because something’s delivered online doesn’t mean that it’s low quality. For instance, long before networked computers, there were correspondence courses for writers, where you got it through the mail and learned how to write. Remember the ads you used to see in comic books?

LORIG: Or how to draw the pirate.

KEEN: That’s a perfectly legitimate way of learning. It’s self-paced. There are a lot of things about it that are admirable. MOOCs kind of recapture that sense. I love the idea of students finding an additional course to supplement what they’re learning. I don’t know how often that’s really happening. I think a lot of high school students are doing these.

EVANS: Have you seen Khan Academy?  He’s delivering very personable material, almost one-on-one, engaging a particular topic in a very short amount of time, 10 or 15 minutes. Sitting in front of a computer for three hours is not productive. So doing these shorter segments, you can move to the next and take a break in between. It really does allow more learning to occur.

SIMURDA: What do you think is the difference? When we’re talking about MOOC courses, we’re talking about full-length lectures. In Khan Academy, you’re talking more about a tutorial.

EVANS: And now they’re transitioning to where the homework is. “Go watch these four Khan Academy segments, come into class with the homework done, and I’ll answer any other questions you have.” The lecture has been eliminated. That’s where the teacher then re-engages. Khan has tracking software, so they know how long the student spent on each video, which questions they got right or wrong. The teacher gets all of that in a spreadsheet and can say, “Now I know where to focus my teaching, because this is the one question that didn’t make it through the Khan Academy.”

SIMURDA: There are two aspects here. One is the initial learning that takes place in what we would call a traditional lecture. And then what happens after that in these tutorials? I’ve created some PowerPoints with my voiceover as reviews for students who don’t remember something they should have learned two courses ago. But they’re short, 15 to 20 minutes. They’re not taking the place of my class, they’re supplementing with background information.

EVANS: Right. I’m doing the same thing, though I’m doing it with stuff that there’s no time in class to cover.

KEEN: Let’s think about whether there’s an economy to technology in the classroom. Or whether technology in the classroom extends teaching hours out beyond the regular hours or costs you time as a teacher.

SIMURDA: That question has come up about film courses. Do you spend your time in class viewing a film, or do you tell the students, “You have to look at this two- to three-hour movie outside of class”? Is it connected to a reading assignment, or is this part of what you should be doing in the class?

BALLENGER: When you implement technology the first time, there’s a big time suck. But you reap the benefits several semesters down the road. One of the things that saves me an enormous amount of time is Tegrity.

KEEN: This is the lecture-capture system. Some of the classrooms have these creepy cameras that follow your movements.

BALLENGER: I rarely use the creepy cameras, even though I teach in one of those classrooms, because I teach highly technical classes, and we’re using software. The students have homework. I ask them how they did it, and they show people how they did it. I almost always show them how I would do it, and that’s not always the same, but that’s all captured by Tegrity. So when it comes time to do a project, I don’t have them knocking on my office door, “Professor Ballenger, I’m stuck on how you create Cascades.” I can say, “That’s on Tegrity, watch it, and if you’re still confused, come back.” Most of the time, they get it when they watch it a second or third time. So now I spend my time in the office more on design questions, more on real problem-solving-type questions.

SIMURDA: You can use it so when the student comes to your office, they’re not asking, “Would you please repeat your lecture for me?”

BROWN: Is there any danger of training students not to pay attention the first time? Or training them not to remember? We no longer have really oral culture because everything’s recorded, everything’s written down. Nobody remembers a poem anymore. We don’t remember anything in this culture.

BALLENGER: We have some anecdotal evidence in the Williams School. Last year one of our professors got ill, and he recorded an entire semester’s worth of lectures on Tegrity for the class to play back. There was not a very good reaction from the students. They would much rather have the in-face, in-classroom interactions than watch a talking head. The students will tell you Tegrity’s not a substitute for being in class, it’s a backup. It’s a way for them to try to get it before they ask for help.

KEEN: A lot depends on motivation. When MIT first started putting up courses on iTunes U, I listened to 45 intro-to-neuroscience lectures. It was clumsy because you couldn’t really hear the questions the students were asking, though you could hear the professor’s answers. But it was just fantastic because I had one professor, Tyler Lorig, who was teaching it one way, and I was listening to another professor, at MIT, with a completely different angle of approach. It really helped me learn it a lot better to have a second professor. The idea of having no professor except for the talking head on the screen is a bad idea, but if you can have a supplementary professor, a second voice or even a third voice, different perspectives really consolidate your learning.

BROWN: There’s a New Testament series at Yale, and I’ve thought of using those lectures and asking the students to listen to Dale Martin’s lecture on this topic, and then we’d talk about how different points of view on the same subject come together. That’s using the online lecture as the substitute reading.

KEEN: This student generation is slower at dealing with printed text, which is the single most efficient way of delivering information: a single-spaced, typed page of instructions. The students can’t read the same old page of instructions and process it. The same exact words broken into 17 PowerPoint slides and then delivered over a period of 20 minutes-wasting class time-results in complete comprehension of the assignment?

BROWN: They complain if you’re just putting text up on PowerPoint.

BALLENGER: PowerPoint is not used correctly 95 percent of the time. When Amanda Bower does a presentation on PowerPoint, everyone asks her, “What software did you use?” It doesn’t look like PowerPoint because there are just one or two words on a slide. She knows what’s there; she knows the material. That’s what presentation should be.

SIMURDA: We ran into that same problem when overhead projectors first came out, and people were using transparencies. They made a copy of the whole page of the textbook and put it up there.

LORIG: There’s a wonderful opportunity to use these online materials to do exactly this kind of supplementing. I like the 15-minute TED talks. It’s worth it in class sometimes to have 15 minutes of somebody who disagrees with you. It lets students know that not everything in science has an absolute definition.

KEEN: There’s some kind of extraordinary egalitarianism about education in some of these MOOCs. But there’s also the dark side-a lot of cheating and plagiarism. It’s a free course and it’s not really graded. Or if it’s graded, it’s not for real credit. It’s a hilarious conundrum-why would you be cheating if you’re not doing it for any credit?

BROWN: I think that’s an experiment for the Psych Department.

EVANS: The people using the technology without having someone to set that standard for them don’t realize that it really is cheating.

LOCY: I actually had a student take his laptop to an interview and take notes on it. You’re trying to break down barriers, and here you are creating one. I tell my kids you cannot conduct interviews via e-mail or text. You just can’t. You take notes the old-fashioned way because you’re trying to establish a connection, a rapport. I’ve told the students, “Close your laptops and look at me.”

BROWN: I finally asked a seminar last year to please not bring the computer for the same reason-it sets up a barrier. The whole idea of the seminar is that we’re around the table so we can see each other and talk to each other.

BALLENGER: This device right here , in the classroom environment, might help break down that barrier because it’s not as big.

BROWN: But it still directs your eyes.

LOCY: People don’t make eye contact any more. They’re looking at their devices. On campus I look to see how many kids speak, and most are, but some of them have their noses right in their hands.

BALLENGER: That’s when I always talk to them.

FU: That’s why sometimes I send e-mail in Chinese as a practice. I teach language. Repetition is very important, and in that aspect, the technology really helps. Tegrity I use a lot. I tape every session of my language class. Those who lag behind use the sessions the most. Also I use some other technologies to expand the classroom. We have only one hour each day. It’s simply not enough for students to learn a hard language like Chinese, so I try to get them, at home, to listen to what I have taped and translate it. Also I provide questions based on the text. I have that timed, so they have to provide the answer after the first day of the class. They have to review the lesson so that they can answer the question during the first day.

BROWN: Are you using Sakai to sequence those assignments?

FU: I use Sakai. Michigan State University has a very nice program called Conversation Online, I use that. We were also fortunate that the dean’s office gave us a Smart Board that we make use of very nicely. The Chinese-Japanese language is so graphic, so by interacting with the Smart Board, I can dissect it and ask students to put it back together in the right order. Students love it.

BROWN: Foreign language class was the first place any of us had technology in class-we had those big earphones.

FU: There could be a drawback. First of all, it takes a lot of time for the instructor to really incorporate technology. Secondly, you like the fun of it, but you forget the purpose is to teach. Does it really serve the purpose? You have to constantly ask yourself whether the presentation you have spent so much time in doing will be as effective as you want to be. So it could be a pitfall.

EVANS: I always have to ask myself, is this tool allowing me to do it better, easier, faster?

LOCY: The challenge is not to let the technology use you. In the Intro to Digital Journalism course, I still want to teach them how to use a tape recorder. It’s a storytelling tool, but it’s not the end-all.

KEEN: It’s technology when you take out a pen and paper, and I pose a question and you write for a couple of minutes. You turn to one another and discuss what you’ve written. The act of writing is a form of thinking that’s different from the kind of thinking you do when you talk. You don’t need fancy materials in order to employ that technology.

EVANS: That’s a great piece of technology right there-the blackboard.

KEEN: We love these chalkboards. Another thing I love about teaching in this room is that old set of the Oxford English Dictionary, because it’s different to look up a word at the OED online than it is to look it up in the real OED, where you can see the entire entry on the page with all the historical etymology. You can get that online, but it doesn’t show it all to you right away.

BROWN: The same with going into the stacks to find a book. Suddenly you see what’s all around it.

KEEN: And with 12 weeks of a term, 55 minutes of class three times a week, it’s just so short. Are we really going to give away 5 or 10 minutes out of every single one of those classes while the classroom technology boots? I always have a plan that involves things we do with live humans that doesn’t involve any technology.

EVANS: The students say, “The computer crashed.” That’s like saying your pencil broke. You can’t say the computer crashed and that’s why you’re not turning in the homework. You have to learn how to deal with the tools. Backing up, saving more frequently, doing all of these things becomes your pencil sharpener. That’s part of what we have to teach them. It’s a tool. They can’t see it as a crutch or an excuse. “The Internet was down so I couldn’t find all my research.” Well, there’s this huge building over here where you don’t need the Internet to search.

KEEN: I take every group of first-years I teach into the library, and we play a research quest game in the stacks. They know how to ask the librarian a question but not how to actually use the physical library.

BROWN: It’s amazing how many of our students don’t know how to do that.

EVANS: When I give assignments for research, they have to bring in the physical book from the library.

KEEN: The electronic library catalog auto-sets at keyword searching. So I say, “OK, kids, I want you to read Milton’s ‘Areopagitica.’ ” They say, “The library doesn’t have ‘Areopagitica.’ ” And it does!

LORIG: We have the problem of databases that go to 1966 and not beyond. So the students think, “This is when science began.”

SIMURDA: One of the important things about teaching generally is the value of a face-to-face professor teaching you how a professional thinks about that topic. I’ve always thought, sure, I could give the students microbiology problems and tell them to figure them out, and they would get the idea. But there are other concepts that I need to explain. They need to read it in the textbook, they need to see my picture of it, and they need to hear me talk about it. Because I’m explaining to them how to think about it.

LORIG: You hit the central difference between even the best online class and an in-person class. In person it’s about learning professional behavior, learning how to have an argument. That’s going to be lost in these online classes if they concentrate solely on content. Interacting with people around the table, as we’re doing, or interacting with people in a class and maintaining civility, the decorum that you want to have in class as well as getting the right thing across-that is one of the most important things people are going to learn in college.

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