Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Smash Your Computer

It's been awhile since I posted, and it'll likely be awhile longer, as I'm pretty intellectually and emotionally spent right now, but I did want to call readers' attention to this article from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Here's the main thrust:
A study published in the April issue of British Educational Research Journal found that 59 percent of students in a new survey reported that at least half of their lectures were boring, and that PowerPoint was one of the dullest methods they saw. The survey consisted of 211 students at a university in England and was conducted by researchers at the University of Central Lancashire.

Students in the survey gave low marks not just to PowerPoint, but also to all kinds of computer-assisted classroom activities, even interactive exercises in computer labs. "The least boring teaching methods were found to be seminars, practical sessions, and group discussions," said the report. In other words, tech-free classrooms were the most engaging.

I realized that pretty quickly. My first semester of teaching, I used a lot of technology aids, which ended up mostly being crutches for me, and the students didn't respond very well. I had a much harder time getting them to speak up about something on the screen than about the things they read, and my evaluations reflected that problem.

Last year, I used technology only twice--once in Comp I when I showed them a variety of clips from Disney films and shorts to demonstrate racial stereotypes (it's hard, after all, to do visual analysis without technology!), and once in Comp II when I gave an introductory lecture on poetry and needed to be able to flash poems up quickly and efficiently. The rest of my classes were composed of group discussions, with very little lecturing on my part. This, it seems to me, is as it should be. It demands something from the students, and while they're resistant for the most part at the beginning, 75 to 80 percent of them will eventually get into the rhythm of the class and will offer their opinions. Unsurprisingly, they know the material much better this way than through lecturing--perhaps surprisingly, they engage more with the material this way than the times I tried to use technology.

Two caveats: (a) I'm not a particularly technologically advanced person even in my private life, and so the possibility exists that if I were creative in that arena, I'd be able to come up with an interesting and effective way to utilize technology in the classroom; and (b) the Chronicle, as usual, manifests a humanities prejudice. It's all very well and good to conduct English or philosophy classes via group discussion, but I can't imagine that science and math classes don't benefit from technology. Then again, it's been half a decade since I've taken classes of that sort, so I'm out of touch. Anyone have any thoughts?


Michial said...

One other note: Last year I also made the switch from making the course readings available online to forcing the students to buy an $8 packet of the poems and short stories we're using. The print works way better--the students are much more likely to bring the materials to class, and despite the much-vaunted ability of their generation to operate electronically, I still refuse to believe anyone can read as effectively on a screen as on paper.

shinigami-sidhe said...

I'm a computer science student, and we don't need that much technology in our lectures. Actually, there are quite a few cs professors who hate computers, programming, and the internet and try to use them as little as possible. Generally I think computers are best used for labwork and sometimes demos, and the rest of the time a white board lecture is just dandy. And with all due arrogance, no one has a need to use technology more often than the computer scientists.

Michial said...

I doubt anyone would argue with you on your last point. I'm not exactly sure as to what goes on in a Computer Science class, myself, but it's interesting to hear the professors don't like to use computers to teach the material.

Joel said...

Great post, Michial.
For my classes at IUSB (still primarily commuter campus, but steps above a community college; IMO, a notch or more above UNO in many areas):
We're strongly encouraged to go green as much as possible, which means that while students do buy books of essays and the Hacker handbook, we're supposed to supply most other things online. Our department does have a handy style and "writing basics" packet available online. I've found what you have -- that students would be better off with a hard copy to always keep with them. I think this semester I'll require them to print it out. Honestly, I don't use many other technology in class other than showing them our packet pieces and the occasional other website (the OWL, for example) for supplemental information. We do use labs when we can. That's helpful from the standpoint that I have them work on revising their work so I can help them with questions (writing or technological) and look over whatever they want looked over. When I've tried to use more technology with the university students (mostly 18-25 year olds, occasional older adults), at least other than as something more than to substitute for handouts, they tend to use it as a "break" and see it as entertainment more than a learning aid -- which is probably why many find it boring.

In a more community college type setting, technology isn't quite as available or useable. I'm not trying to be a jerk, but I've sometimes found myself making the mistake of trying to use technology as a "see how clever your instructor is" time, which generally only confuses them. Taking notes is often more difficult for that audience, too, so it's better to just bite the bullet and give them handouts to highlight, margin-scribble, etc., rather than trust that they're taking good notes.

The flipside of the technology issue, of course, is its use for work and communication outside the classroom. I'm much more likely to use it outside than inside a classroom. Most of my university students understand that it's an expectation of university life, so they adapt to it well -- and in many cases, push me to use it more and in better ways. Some of my community college students lap it up, while others are (literally) barely literate and either have minimal technology skills and/or very little internet access. I've had more than one student complain about having to type their work.