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Syllabus: Technology in the Classroom

Blogging, clicking, downloading - and other adventures in educational technology

It was not long ago that dry-erase markers and whiteboards began to replace chalk and erasers, or PowerPoint was a new and different format for presenting lectures. Art history classes once featured the calming hum of double-slide projectors to accompany students into the world of the visual. Now digital devices have made slide projectors nearly obsolete, and art history majors do more combing through Google than slide catalogues. Group projects can be organized and executed online, and students can blog into the wee hours only to receive instructor feedback moments later. How has technology changed, if not improved, ways of teaching and learning at Barnard? A recent faculty workshop on the subject offered some answers.

“Faculty Reflections on Teaching with Technology” brought together various Barnard and Columbia faculty and staff, along with professionals from other institutions, to discuss their experiences. Robert Kahn, associate director for educational technology, shared how the event came about. His department, part of the Barnard Library and Academic Information Services (BLAIS), originally offered “Tech Talks” for the Barnard community, but he noticed faculty rarely attended these presentations. “We realized the topics just didn’t address their core concerns,” Kahn remarks. “For example: With the proliferation of new tools for teaching, how does a particular faculty member decide whether it’s something they want to use?” A small faculty group tends to experiment with and master new technology before the majority understands and feels comfortable with it.

Clickers: A means to greater participation?

A clicker is a handheld transmitter that beams a signal to a receiver set up in the classroom—much like a remote control device. (There are several vendors; Barnard uses the iClicker.) An instructional approach developed by Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, clicking takes the form of interactive peer instruction. Faculty from the biology and psychology departments talked about how they have embraced clicker technology. Some instructors require students to purchase clickers (responses can then be identified by individual student) while others distribute them during each class. Professors utilize clickers in several ways, the most common being to pose multiple-choice questions, which an instructor hopes will be thought provoking and lead to challenging discussions. Students then click their responses, the results of which may be shown in a graph appearing on screen. Although the multiple-choice format poses some limitations, such questions can open up lively class discussions.

Clicking facilitates communication between students in class, one of its main goals; the method also allows faculty to assess anonymously students’ comprehension of the material. If everyone understands certain information, the instructor can quickly move on to other concepts. Clickers work particularly well with large lecture courses but small groups can benefit as well. Breaking up the lecture with clicker questions keeps the class moving and increases students’ focus. Professors have found that clickers energize and excite students about new topics, leading to stimulating discussions that do not usually take place in very large classes. Instructors may also take attendance or administer quizzes with clickers.

Are there drawbacks? John Glendinning, professor and chair of the biology department, recommends that those who adopt clicker technology must use it consistently throughout each class for the entire semester to maximize student engagement. If students purchase clickers individually, the professor is pressured to use them constantly, which can lead instructors to spend a lot of time composing questions and reworking their lectures. Overall, faculty who have instituted clicker technology have seen increased course attendance and interest; students enjoy using them

E-Textbooks: Saving Money and Paper

College textbooks are no exception from the shift from paper to digital content. E-books are environmentally friendly and cost less to purchase. The electronic book can take different forms: a scanned or photocopied version of a text made into a PDF, or that which comes directly from the publisher (the electronic book can replicate the text from the paper copy or be a true e-book with features for annotation and references). The cost for using (or “renting” as one professor described it; publishers give access for a certain length of time) an e-book is substantially cheaper than purchasing a textbook. E-textbooks work well in the context of courses where the majority of the content is found online. It places more responsibility on the student to access and download all material for class—professors can merely hand out a paper syllabus.

Blogs and Wikis: Convenient Communication

Both blogs and Wikis take the learning out of the classroom and place it in the hands of students. The online world abounds with bloggers posting their thoughts on myriad subjects. Professors are harnessing the blog (short for Web log) form and bringing it to the center of students’ coursework. The Internet provides Web-based, often free, platforms for creating blogs. In Professor Robert McCaughey’s “Early American Maritime History” class, students use WordPress to blog about a body of water of their choice. Rebecca Stanton, assistant professor of Russian, noticed how students thoughtfully expressed ideas in their own words, bypassing academic jargon and putting forth immediate and fresh perspectives. Blogging is also a means for increased communication with professors outside the classroom. In the past, feedback meant comments on students’ papers. Professors participate in blogging by engaging in dialogue with their students and offering quick responses to postings. Diane Dittrick, senior associate in environmental science and codirector of the environmental science laboratory, is interested in how her students relate to ethical concerns in her course on environmental leadership development. Students engage in citizen journalism through blogs hosted by the Natural Resource Defense Council’s digital magazine, On Earth. Dittrick thinks blogging helps shape students’ writing styles and understanding of their own points of view. Students also have the option to extend the blog after the course is over. Faculty who assign blogs are mindful of student privacy and that blogging tools are password protected. In cases where content is public, professors inform the students before they start their blogs.

A Wiki is a Web site that allows multiple users to change and post content, and creates an interactive online space where students can easily communicate and collaborate. Irene Motyl-Mudretzky’s German class used Wikis for a group project in which they created television episodes based on the German version of Ugly Betty. Students wrote and posted scripts that the professor was able to view and quickly edit. Each group’s Wiki served as a platform where students could generate ideas. Motyl-Mudretzky saw the Wiki as increasing students’ autonomy, control of content, inclination to self-assessment and self-correction.

These are just a few of the innovations that Barnard faculty incorporates into their classes. Technology is constantly changing; each semester brings opportunities for fresh approaches to teaching and learning in and beyond the classroom. Workshops such as this one raise awareness. Kahn observes, “An ancillary benefit is that the publicity surrounding the event raises interest, even among those who don’t get to attend. We fully expect some of them will reach out later to the faculty presenters at this event, or to Educational Technology, to ask questions and to explore options for their own courses.”

- Stephanie Shestakow ’98