Published Online: July 16, 2009

Classrooms Go High-Tech to Engage Students

Unlike many teachers, Beth Simon hasn't banned her college students from using their cell phones or the Internet during class.

Instead, the computer science professor encourages them to text message responses to her questions and research information on the Web while she is lecturing.

"They're going to use it no matter what," said Simon, of the University of California, San Diego. "How do you use this ubiquitous technology that's out there to change the dynamic of the classroom, to engage the students?"

The measure of a technology-enhanced campus used to be the number of computer labs and whether there was wireless access, but fast-paced advancements have destroyed the boundaries of classrooms, said Glenn Platt, professor of interactive media studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Some professors make their lectures available as podcasts, provide live streaming video of classes and maintain discussion boards so students can post questions. They encourage tweeting, blogging and chatting online with other students.

That's what it takes to engage this generation, said Gary Rudman, who has a consulting firm that studies teens and young adults. His GTR Consulting recently released a report on teens and technology.

"Technology is such an inherent part of their lives," he said. "They have come to expect it every step of the way. When they come to college, they are expecting this technology to be incorporated into their learning."

Schools are catching on. Scott McLeod, an associate professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State in Ames, has a backchannel, an online secondary conversation, where students can share information, ask questions, such as 'What did he just say?' and chat about a concept while he is teaching it. Think whispering to the friend next to you in a lecture. (Many people use Twitter as a backchannel).

Some may see this as a distraction, but students are used to multitasking, he said.

Classes are changing as a result of technology. Professors are not so much people who stand and spout facts with students taking notes, said Platt. The Internet has all of the information. And students aren't going to come to class for a lecture if it's on a podcast.

So that means many instructors are trying to make the classroom more interactive.

For example, Platt spends class time focusing on critical thinking, problem solving and team-based learning. He puts together mini-podcasts to explain confusing concepts and encourages students to ask questions on their Twitter page to get instant answers from their peers.

Certain technologies that make instruction and learning easier are growing in popularity. In the first five months of 2009, from January to May, SMART Technologies sold nearly 65,000 SMART Board interactive whiteboards to U.S. customers, a 28 percent increase over sales in the same period last year. The board connects to a computer and digital projector allowing teachers to access computer applications or Internet resources by touching the board's surface. Teachers use their finger as a mouse and can even write on the board with digital ink.

Professors are also using student response systems to gauge how well students grasp a lesson. The systems allow students to answer questions using a clicker, which looks like a television remote, and the results are immediately recorded on the teacher's computer screen.

While few students take notes on PDAs — too difficult — they are using gadgets like Livescribe Inc.'s Pulse smartpen, a computer in a pen that captures handwritten notes while recording and linking audio, from a professor's lecture, for example, to the notes. By tapping on the notes with the smartpen, students can hear the conversation from that exact moment in time. The pens cost $149.95 and $199.95, depending on the size.

Students are also getting textbooks for free thanks to companies like Flat World Knowledge in Nyack, N.Y. Professors can customize the expert-authored, online books to fit their lectures, deleting chapters or sections, for example. Students can read them for free or choose to buy from a range of alternatives that include a soft-cover black-and-white version for $29.

Flat World Knowledge, which was founded in 2007, will be releasing versions of textbooks that can be downloaded to the iPhone or Sony Reader Digital Book for fall classes.

And with leading textbook publishers Cengage Learning, Pearson, and Wiley, beginning to offer textbooks through the Kindle Store this summer, you may see more students with the wireless reading device.

So far, students seem to be embracing the interactive learning environment, so long as they can maintain one-on-one communication with their professors.

Karen Tamayo, 22, said using the clicker in Simon's class "gave her the opportunity to think for herself first." She also posted questions on the discussion board when she was too busy to stop by Simon's office, and the response time was a few hours.

As with any class, students may scoff at assignments, even if they involve social networking.

Chelsea Nuffer, 21, a performance and communications major at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., said blogging for four classes was overwhelming and she ran out of things to write about. "It works for students who might not speak up in class," she said. "For me, I'm pretty vocal."

Internet access in class can also be distracting. Tamayo admits that she instant messages off-topic in class sometimes. For that reason, some schools have an Internet kill switch in the classrooms and some professors ban laptops altogether.

But technology is really how you look at it, McLeod said. Students who are not engaged will go on Facebook; you can't fault them for that, he said. Some teachers, though, will successfully engage students through the use of social networking to complement and reinforce what's going on in class.

Technology is not going to go away, McLeod said. "Everything is going mobile, so this idea that we can control students' access to technology is disappearing," he said. "You can see it as a distraction or a valuable tool."

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