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.
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.
It's in courses like Schauman's that hand-held technologies might do the most to enhance the learning experience outside the classroom. Eric Klopfer, who directs the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's teacher education program, is testing a gaming concept called "Environmental Detectives," in which students receive PDA s with global positioning system capabilities and use the devices to go around campus collecting data and conducting interviews to solve a mystery, such as the source of unusual health problems. The next version in development now gives each student a specific role--a doctor, an environmental scientist, etc.--and based on who they are, they can get only certain information with their PDA s. As a result, classmates will have to learn to work together to figure out the answer. "They need to be able to problem-solve and think creatively as active learners," says Kurt Squire, a University of Wisconsin assistant professor who worked on the MIT project. It's a teaching model that can be applied to many subjects, he adds, wryly suggesting "Grand Theft Shakespeare."
Even the most venerable symbol of higher education--the campus library--is not safe from this extreme technological makeover. The University of Texas-Austin, for instance, took a radical step this summer by removing all 90,000 books from the undergraduate library to open more room for a Wi-Fi-powered learning space. The building, open 24 hours and packed with computers, has retained five digital librarians, who help students navigate the vast world of electronic media. The library website has a virtual reference desk with a chat function, and librarians are augmenting course Web pages with recommended E-books, journals, and databases.
On demand. The book is not dead, says Fred Heath, vice provost and director of the University of Texas libraries. In fact, those 90,000 volumes were reshelved in the campus's other libraries. "A book that's been on a shelf for 500 years, you can open it and read it. I can't say the same thing about electronic media." Many of the documents of the 21st century will be electronic, however, and libraries need to prepare, he says. And many are--Emory and the University of Michigan are among the schools with similar digital libraries.
Colleges are also improving their information networks to give students access to these digital resources outside of libraries. This fall, Dartmouth's computer network gained TV service with some video-on-demand capabilities, so lectures and other educational materials can be available to students anywhere and at any time. English Prof. Tom Luxon says this will make it possible for his students to see a film for his Shakespeare class without having to crowd into a lecture hall. As these applications become more common, he hopes students use multimedia to present arguments in unconventional ways. "You could have block quotes of video and audio--although that means you certainly can't have a printout," he muses. In the evolving world of high-tech campuses, "maybe we won't call them papers anymore."
This story appears in the October 17, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.