Teaching With Tech
Podcasts, back channels, and bookless libraries come to campus
Catering too much to students' short attention spans bothers Prof. Maurice Bessman, also at Hopkins, who has been teaching for 47 years and insists on sticking with just chalk. "It's much easier to use visual aids, but it's counterproductive when teaching because the students look at the pictures instead of listening," he says. "It becomes a production instead of a lecture." Dartmouth junior Mark Henle agrees about the use of tech during lectures. "It interferes," he says. "I like my classes taught with a professor in front of a blackboard."
There is some evidence that suggests he could be right. In 2001 and 2002, the Human Computer Interaction Laboratory at Cornell University gave students in a communications class laptops and encouraged them to supplement the lecture by finding material relevant to the course online. Even though participants knew their behavior was being monitored, most still E-mailed friends and browsed the Web for other pursuits, too. "Definitely, boundaries have to be set," says study coauthor Helene Hembrooke.
Colleges continue to experiment, nevertheless, because when technology is well harnessed to serve the goals of traditional academics, the mixture can be compelling. Last fall, University of Southern California interactive media grad student Justin Hall noticed his fellow students were text chatting or E-mailing in class, exactly the sort of distractions the Cornell study found. He suggested that instead they chat with one another in a "back channel," in essence passing virtual notes on questions about the seminar, like book titles and Web addresses.
The back-channel system was a hit and was added to the department's weekly speaker series. During each lecture there are 14 screens projected for the audience to view. The speaker fills some screens with information from the lecture, the attendees fill more screens with chats about the lecture, and another person--dubbed the "Google jockey" --fills the rest with websites in response to the speaker and the chat. "It becomes a collaborative presentation," Hall says.
Free iPods. Technology is also being deployed to improve study habits. Already the gadget of choice for subway rides and gym workouts, iPods also are infiltrating college quads. "Podcasting," essentially an upgrade of the old practice of recording class lectures for future study, is catching on. The improvement over tape-recording is that podcasts can be distributed quickly and easily via course websites.
Eddy Leal, a junior at Duke University, has been recording lectures on his iPod for two years, so he can focus during class and then write out notes later. "I couldn't survive without it," he says.
Indeed, Duke dove headfirst into podcasting last year, giving every incoming freshman an iPod for educational purposes. But according to student surveys, they used the devices more for listening to audiobooks and their favorite hit songs. Lynne O'Brien of Duke's Center for Instrumental Technology insists the test was a success. But this year, the giveaway is confined to students enrolled in courses using the hip product--like Sally Schauman's environment and community class, which uses the iPods to record field notes. Meanwhile, the university is sampling other technologies, including digital video and GPS.