Teaching With Tech
Podcasts, back channels, and bookless libraries come to campus
Notebooks open and water bottles at their side, the students in general biology at Johns Hopkins University wait for Prof. Richard Shingles to kick off his 11 a.m. lecture. "Please join the class with your CPS units," he announces, and suddenly there's a rumble of backpacks as more than 200 undergrads pull out thin blue devices that look like TV remote controls. The students punch in the course code on these gadgets and then place them on their desks. Meanwhile, Shingles grabs his tablet PC and begins to talk about ecological succession.
About 15 minutes into the lecture, he writes a question on the PC so that it is projected on the screen behind him. "How do you reduce the size of populations of undesirable species?" There are three answers: A) shoot/kill them, B) restrict resources available, C) do nothing as populations oscillate. "I bet a lot of people pick A to be funny," sophomore Sage Farrar tells Kristin Capone. Both of the students pick up their CPS brand of remotes and point them at the front of the class, where a grid of white boxes with numbers for each student appears on the screen. As the students vote, the boxes turn blue, and a few seconds later the results pop up. Answer A received 26 votes, B got 167, and C had 29. Shingles explains why B is correct and carries on, pausing the class two more times during the lecture for similar impromptu quizzes. "It's kind of cool," says Farrar, fiddling with her long brown hair. "It's like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire ."
Actually, it might be the future of higher education. Colleges and universities around the country are scrambling to keep pace with innovations in technology, both to flaunt their abilities as cutting-edge research institutions and to engage a generation of students armed with camera phones, Wi-Fi laptops, and Google. Some classroom technologies, like course websites, are already widespread while others--such as podcast lectures--are still experimental. But each new technique aims to revolutionize the learning process. Many faculty and students worry, though, that these advances are just distractions from the material and from time-tested methods of teaching. No one yet knows how effective these new teaching tools are. For now, students and instructors are engaged in what amounts to a national beta test to determine which of these technologies will go to the head of the class.
In theory, each new tool brought into a classroom offers new opportunities to improve a certain part of the education process. For example, consider those mammoth lectures for introductory courses. In the traditional style, professors often have no idea how well the class is grasping the material. As long as heads keep nodding and no one raises a hand, it's easy enough for the speaker to think that everyone is following along. Those blue remotes at Hopkins (and similar systems at schools such as New York University) help the professor determine if he should spend more time on a certain subject. They also keep students engaged ("they're not just sitting down and going to sleep," Shingles says). And slackers be warned: They keep attendance, too--although some students sneak in absent friends' remotes.