Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fixing it (part 2)

Call this one Uses and Misuses of Technology in the Classroom.

I'm old enough to remember the chalk-and-talk days - when the prof came into the classroom, started lecturing (or started a discussion), and you were jolly well expected to know what was important and what to take notes on.

The main thing used were chalkboards, though overhead projectors were also used. (I remember my Biochem class- this would have been the team-taught, 8 am, MWF class, on the Medical Campus, which was a good 15 minute walk from my apartment. One of the profs was, I think, a Russian or other Eastern European transplant - he had only the faintest of "generalized Euro" accents, but his handwriting looked to me like the writing of someone who learned to write the Cyrillic alphabet first. He would walk in, fire up the over head, and start writing as he talked. And the overhead had SCROLLS of overhead film on it - so he'd write and scroll, write and scroll. And woe unto any student who couldn't keep up: it wasn't done in those days to ask the prof to back up.)

Then computers came on the scene, with PowerPoint. I remember the heady first days of PowerPoint. How it was going to solve EVERYTHING! How it was going to make teaching easy and fun, and students would be more engaged. Because it had COLOR. And it had ANIMATIONS. And you could even put SOUNDS with the WORDS.

Um, yeah.

Don't get me wrong. I admit it, I use PowerPoint for some things. It's very nice, in a classroom full of people who don't have the biology vocabulary, to have the key terms pop up on a screen, rather than having to spell them or write them all down. (My handwriting is atrocious, it always has been, and students complain about it). And it's nice in my more-advanced courses to be able to talk about some research study that was done, and then put a graph or chart of the results up on the screen, instead of doing a lot of handwaving and trying to draw it on the board. Or putting up a model of the human digestive system on the screen.

But a lot of people have horribly misused PowerPoint, and perhaps I did some, in the earlier days of it. It's not a substitute for talking with the students. It should never be a situation where students can just read the PowerPoint and learn everything.

It's actually been interesting to watch the opinion turn on PowerPoint. There are some people (I think mostly humanities people, perhaps they don't think of the uses of showing charts and graphs like in the sciences) who say it should NEVER be used in the classroom. That it's tantamount to the old joke, where a student asks to record the lectures, the prof says OK. So the student brings in a tape recorder. Eventually, all the students do. Then, some students just leave their tape recorders. Eventually, the prof is lecturing to an empty room of tape recorders, so then he goes and records his lectures, just leaves the recording of it running in the classroom, and goes for coffee.

One thing I do do, as much as I can: leave the lights in the room on. It's harder, I think, for students to 'check out' that way. And I try to get more discussion going than I would a few years ago.

There's a new trend, that sounds tempting to me. It's called "teaching naked." (Not literally, of course!) Instead of using the technological bells and whistles, you walk in, with a handful of chalk or whiteboard pens (ugh, I hate whiteboards, but we have them, so I have to use them) and just spools the material out from their own brain, maybe with the help of notes.

It requires a lot more pre-class preparation, but it's also a lot harder to hide behind prepared material. I think I actually teach better with fewer technological things because I don't have that crutch of "well, the main points are on slides" - I have to refresh the material more, and be more on top of things.

Then again, as I said: being able to show photos of structures in the body, or graphs of data, or pictures of the taxonomic group being studied, is extremely nice. I'm not sure I could ever teach totally 'naked' (though I do in my stats class: I use the board and chalk and my own knowledge of the subject, and while it's a tough class to teach, it's also one of the more rewarding ones).

But next semester I may start weaning down the PowerPoint usage. I know I will get complaints, as some students want to be able to print the stuff out from the class webpage (that's another technological issue I'm conflicted about) and have it.

And on one hand: I've seen some of my top students come to class with the printout of the slides, and take notes on the slides, and sometimes even have prepared questions about the material (they read it before hand!). But also, I have students who think they can just print the material off and not come to class.

And I don't know. I go back and forth: do I sort-of penalize the prepared students by not doing that any more, or do I enable the unprepared folks even further?

I will say one thing I like about the class website? The secure online gradebook. When students want to know how they are doing, they can just go there and keep up with their grades. Oh, I still get some folks wanting me to tell them EXACTLY what they must earn on the final to get the grade they want, but having the grades available means a lot fewer of the people coming in wanting to know "Do I have a B right now?" or whatever.

So, technology can be misused by faculty, and I think we do need to guard against getting too carried away by new technology. The unquestioning acceptance followed by the decline of satisfaction in PowerPoint is one example. (I do think in some fields, PowerPoint is still seen as wonderful and great. I refer to it as "dancing ducks and explosions" because these are the people whose pedagogical beliefs say you have to "grab" the students with flashy, Sesame-Street-like graphic things, that short attention spans just are a fact of life, so you have to play into them with short-attention-span-oriented teaching.)

But students misuse technology as well. Plagiarism is one example of this: it's so, so easy to cut and paste material from a website, and many websites essentially plagiarize each other (as I learned in my periodic websearches to check for plagiarism in student papers). And some people see it as "ok" because information online is "free" and much of it is anonymous.

But there are also in class abuses.

Cell phones. And text messagers. Dear God how I hate them. How I wish I could get away with putting a box - or better, a set of cubbies, like in preschool - up at the front of class and making everyone turn their phone in at the start of class, and retrieve it at the end. Cell phones are a distraction. Even when I tell them they need to be OFF, I still periodically hear what one of my students termed the "cow fart" noise of a phone set on "vibrate."

I once had a student's phone ring, she answered it, and said, "I can't talk. I'm in class." I was utterly gobsmacked.

And I understand emergencies. I have a sheriff's deputy in one of my classes. He has to be on-call, and once he did get called out of class to work a car wreck. That's ok; that's life. But the vast majority of students who do NOT have that in their lives, who use the cell phones for social reasons: they need to learn to back away from them.

It makes me sad to catch people texting in class. Attention is a form of respect, and like it or not, I see it as disrespectful to have someone doing frivolous texting to their friends while I am teaching - or worse, while other students are presenting their work, or discussing a topic.

Laptops are another issue. Maybe even a bigger one, as we have wireless internet access. It's too dang tempting to go on Facebook or eBay or whatever in class. I mean - I have all these office hours in my office, and I admit I waste a lot of them looking at yarn sellers online, or hanging out on social-networking sites. I'm a responsible adult who gets her work done, and I find it tempting. (It's so much so that when I have heavy grading to do, I take it home with me at the end of the day and do it there).

Also, laptops are a distraction for other people in the room. I was at meetings this summer where free wireless internet was provided for attendees. At one session, I was late getting there, and wound up sitting in the back. Even though it was a topic that interested me a lot, it was hard to follow the talks, because of the glow and blinking from the three or four laptops in the room. People were doing all kinds of stuff: checking their e-mail, visiting news sites, I think one person was typing a Blogger blog entry.

There are other technological issues: I have one student who wants to listen to his iPod in class. He keeps one earbud in through class. I figure, he's an adult, it's up to him. He's earning a D, if that. He can't pay attention. He asked me a question the other day that was something I had just finished explaining, and the startled looks from the other students ("Why is he asking that") told me it wasn't that I had been unclear.

Technology is great, but entertainment technology is a horrible temptation. Perhaps even an addiction in some cases, where the person CAN'T break away without intervention.

I don't know a solution to this but I think it would be interesting to have "low tech" classes (where the students also pledge not to use cell phones and laptops in the classroom) run alongside conventional classes and see how the level of engagement and student performance compares. My gut feeling is that the low-tech classes would lead to more student engagement and likely higher satisfaction for the profs.

I think also campuses have to be very careful about what they adopt, and not push professors who know they teach well in a more 'traditional' mode into the newer style. Embracing the new merely because it is new is never a good idea.

(I also believe this is true of pedagogical styles: and there's a lot of embracing-the-new-because-it-is-new there.)

I would love to see a ban on laptops and cell phones (and other devices) in classrooms UNLESS the student can make a strong case for it (e.g.: I had a Blind student one semester. He had a computer with Braille keys and he touchtyped the notes for the class as I spoke. He earned an A in the class because he worked hard and cared about the material. And he was smart, that surely helped, but I've had my share of smart-and-lazy who couldn't earn As.)

I don't see that happening, though: campuses become increasingly student-comfort focused, and have bought the idea of "the student is our consumer" and therefore should be permitted more or less to do as they please. Or, there are enough people with a huge sense of entitlement that they could look at a Blind student using an assistive laptop and say, "But why won't you let meeeeee bring my laptop to class?"

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