Queen's University — Since 1873
31st July 2012

Technological divide in the classroom

Two professors with opposing styles debate the merits and drawbacks of teaching unplugged

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Jonathan Rose

Dunning Auditorium may not be the Lyceum, but lectures haven’t changed much since the days of Aristotle.

Some people believe the professor talks and therefore teaches. Students listen and therefore learn — why mess with a proven formula?

The answer is that the amount of knowledge and the tools of knowledge dissemination have changed drastically.

The kinds of students who come to university and the ways they learn have also changed.

Having said that, there’s a few things that Professor Cox and I agree on about teaching.

First, in a perfect world, small classes where student and professor know each other are the ideal.

Second, there’s no substitute for inspiring lectures and a professor who cares about the material, students and their learning.

Where we might see things differently is the role that technology can play in both student learning and good pedagogic practice.

I use technology in the classroom because it facilitates learning. Most of us post our PowerPoint slides or use overheads to communicate complex ideas more simply.

In an environment where our undergraduate population is becoming more diverse in terms of learning styles, technology offers a way to respect that.

In my courses, links to videos, photos of political events or leaders respond to visual learners.

E-books and digital articles are quickly supplanting photocopied versions because they fit the needs of students and the way they use technology. They’re cheaper and easier to use and are much more portable than their non-digital alternatives.

I video capture my first-year course because it allows students to listen to what they’re hearing and fill in details later. It also allows them to focus more on understanding — rather than furiously copying everything they hear.

It’s not just my hunch, but end-of-term surveys I’ve done confirm this.

Colleagues warned me that lecture capture would provide an incentive for students to skip my lectures. It hasn’t because the lecture is now an opportunity to engage in the material in ways that might not have been possible.

However, technology is not a panacea and if used improperly can be a liability.

All of us have sat through mind-numbing slides packed with words too small to read or lectures where the presenter merely read the slides. This isn’t a flaw of the technology, but a criticism of teaching.

I have taken to using one-word slides or simple metaphorical images that encapsulates the idea I’m trying to communicate.

If I do it well (which is not all the time), the image is different enough to encourage reflection and focus attention by providing a visual cue to the content.

In this sense, technology is merely an instrument, and like many instruments, needs to be in tune and learned how to be played well.

In the social sciences and humanities, we want students to learn how to write, read and think critically. Many courses expect students to demonstrate this through one lengthy term paper.

Ideally, students would write more frequently. Unfortunately, large classes make frequent essays difficult because of the labour cost of grading hundreds of papers is prohibitive. But there’s a technological solution.

Two years ago, Professor Brendan Gurd from Kinesiology and I conducted an experiment in our respective classes.

We used a web-based product that allowed for peer-evaluation. We had students write, submit and evaluate short weekly papers. Both the grader and the paper were anonymous — a process that’s used in peer evaluation for academics all the time.

A graduate student grader was hired also to grade the papers and found no discernible difference in grade between the grad student and peer evaluation.

Online peer evaluation, which I am using this year, allows for students to write more frequently, graduate students to spend more time helping students write rather than grading and perhaps most important of all — allows students to read others’ work.

If used carefully, it is a great example of how technology can enhance learning.

The basic model of university teaching hasn’t changed much since the days of Aristotle.

Some might say that this is proof the traditional lecture has stood the test of time.

I say that it might be time for a technological tune-up.

Jonathan Rose is a professor in the department of political studies.

Wayne Cox

I was an early convert to computers and technical gadgets. I once worked in IT and at the Royal Military College I was one of the first professors to use PowerPoint and electronic devices in the classroom. In the past 11 years at Queen’s however, I’ve only used a computer in the classroom twice and have banned all electronic devices in my classes (except for those who need them for legitimate reasons).

Heck, I don’t even use a microphone anymore. We in the business call this teaching naked.

So what happened? The answer is simple: these technologies were slowly teaching me how to un-teach, and they were teaching my students how to un-learn.

Aside from their distractive potential in the classroom, my students had become passive and expectant of pre-formulaic lectures.

Devices had become a barrier between teacher and student — rather than the revolutionary learning tools that everyone was claiming them to be.

Perhaps what irked me the most is that I’m now convinced that many university administrators have promoted the use of teaching technologies not because it enhances the quality of university education, but because of its potential to service vast numbers of paying students with fewer and fewer expensive faculty members.

Those very tools that could make your learning experience better, have become tools used to water down your education to nothing more than a virtually-enhanced, impersonal, assembly line education system.

Technology allows universities to ‘do less with less’. To be fair, technology can enhance education and some subject matters make it a necessity, but the study of politics is mostly the study of ideas and arguments so I have no guilt whatsoever in going the naked route.

Professor Rose is correct to point out that often the problem is not the technology, but how it is used.

That said, I feel no guilt. When presented with a visual display during lectures, students become passive. Most simply sit and wait for the next slide, taking their cues as to what is important from the slides and images presented. When I first banned laptops, panic set in. Students claimed that I spoke too fast and that they couldn’t write fast enough. When asked what they were writing down, to my horror the response was ‘everything’.

It was clear that many students had become completely disengaged and had never learned how to take notes properly. Engagement is about using your analytical skills to listen carefully and critically, and to make key decisions as to what is important and what is not.

It’s not just listening to a presentation, but interacting with it.

Lectures aren’t just the passing of information, but are exercises in inspiring thoughts of your own.

Not only has a dependence upon technical devices caused students to disengage, professors are equally at fault for losing their skills to inspire, engage and mentor.

Often, their lectures conform to pre-formulated presentations that are nothing short of a series of bullets.

Many once skilled lecturers have slowly lost their ability to speak with personality, passion and throw ideas around in impromptu ways that leave heads buzzing with ideas for hours afterwards.

This is tragic, and my sense is that the technologies many professors use force a type of conformity that diminishes their ability to think on their feet.

Nothing unexpected can happen, no new idea can develop, no interaction can begin if it is not on the next slide or image.

As the industry standard is now to use technology, we have a new generation of scholars entering the system who are products of techno-presentations not lectures.

Unless they can develop an analytical sense and lecturing style on their own, they are destined to be mere presenters of information.

What is worse, those students who sit in their classes awaiting the next slide will be hard-pressed to develop the sorts of critical and analytical skills that universities are supposed to be teaching them.

I’m not normally known as a conservative, but when it comes to technology in the classroom the traditional method of interpersonal engagement has yet to be surpassed.

Going with the flow of technological progress might not be that ‘progressive’ after all.

In the end however, the goal is quality education no matter what individual route we take to get there.

Wayne Cox is a professor in the department of political studies.

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