Anyone who went to college more than a few years ago probably remembers a school pace that was dictated by class schedule: Get an assignment in one class, turn it in by the next class and get it back--perhaps marked in red pen--a class or two after that.
But for college students today, that kind of pace seems glacial.
"These are kids who've grown up not only with e-mail, but with instant messaging," says Kevin Apple, PhD, a psychology professor at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. "That's how they're used to communicating."
Now, colleges are catching up. Web sites where students can take quizzes and turn in assignments, in-class student response systems that let students answer professors' questions with the click of a remote-control button, and other technological tools are becoming more common.
The key to using these new tools effectively, Apple says, is to figure out how to use them to enhance students' learning rather than just using technology for the sake of technology.
In his own classes, Apple uses a Web-based method called just-in-time teaching that was developed by Indiana University physics professor Gregor Novak, PhD. In a just-in-time teaching class, students complete and hand in a short review assignment via the class Web site before each class. Then the teacher can review the assignments and adjust the upcoming lesson accordingly--reviewing material students might not have understood.
"The nice thing is that the assignments aren't long, so the students don't find [the assignments] arduous, and they're on the computer anyway, so they like the flexibility," Apple says. "Students generally give it very positive reviews."
Apple says he's used the method in classes as large as 300 students and as small as 30 students. When he first started five years ago, he built his class Web sites using Microsoft Frontpage. Now he uses Blackboard, an educational software program many colleges use to manage class Web sites. In fact, since 1998 the number of colleges using Blackboard, or other systems like it, has grown from about 50 to more than 3,600, according to Blackboard Public Relations Manager Melissa Chotnier.
That growth has made life easier for teachers, Apple says. When he first began asking students to turn in assignments via the Web, he remembers, there were a few kinks to work out-such as lost assignments that disappeared into the Internet ether. Now that more professors are using the Web in their classes and his school's information technology department is more experienced with Blackboard, such problems are rare.
"The main advice I'd give people who want to use a new technology in their class is to make sure that you have good support at your institution," Apple suggests. "And with technology, it's always good to have a plan B."
Apple also suggests that graduate students beginning to use the Web in their teaching ease into it slowly.
"The easiest thing to do is just posting assignments," he says. "Using the grade book is a little more complicated, and the online testing is a little more complicated than that. None of that is that hard, but you don't have to use all the bells and whistles at once. Start slowly and make sure you're comfortable with it."
Finally, he adds, graduate student teaching assistants who want to use the Web should talk to the professors they're teaching with to figure out the best way to bring technology into the class. "It would probably be awkward if you were using it and the professor was not," he points out.
CLICK ONCE FOR YES
One new technology that's becoming more common is the electronic student response system, or "clicker." In a clicker-equipped classroom, each student holds a remote-control-like device. When the teacher asks the class a multiple-choice question, the students can use the clicker to instantly answer A, B or C--sometimes anonymously, sometimes not, depending on how the teacher sets up the system. The systems are typically connected directly to PowerPoint, so that the class can see their answers on screen immediately.
Patrick Munhall, PhD, a psychology professor at Ohio University, Lancaster, uses clickers in his Psychology 101 courses. He incorporates question slides directly into his PowerPoint lectures.
"It's great because it gives immediate feedback to you about whether students understand a concept and whether you can move on," he says.
The clickers also keep students more actively involved in class--especially those who would normally be shy or unlikely to raise their hands to answer a question, says James Madison University psychology professor Charles Harris, PhD, who also uses clickers. In fact, he thinks that this is the device's biggest advantage: "People come into the classroom thinking of themselves as information recorders, and we want them to think of themselves as information processors. These systems can facilitate that," he says.
Munhall even uses the clickers to run classroom mini-experiments. For example, when the class was learning about the better-than-average effect--the way in which everyone usually thinks that he or she is above average in most domains--Munhall asked students to rate, on a scale of one to 10, their level of honesty.
"Of course, about 95 percent of the class rated themselves as more honest than average," Munhall says. "That was more interesting for the students to see than just being told about the effect."
The one drawback to clickers is that generally each student must buy his or her own, at a cost of about $30, depending on the model. So right now, Munhall is running a study to test whether the systems really do improve students' learning. He is teaching one section of introductory psychology using the clickers and one section without them. He plans to compare the students' achievement in each section.
"These are fairly expensive, and we want to make sure they're worth it," he says.
Indeed, Apple agrees, it's important that instructors make sure that they're using new technologies effectively, and not just because they seem like a neat new toy. In fact, he says, he's found himself moving away from PowerPoint presentations recently in favor of the most old-fashioned of teaching technologies--a chalkboard. "Sometimes, the blackboard actually gives you the most flexibility and freedom," he says.
For more information about student response systems, check out the nonprofit group Educause's resource page at www.educause.edu/Browse/645?PARENT_ID=697.
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