Emerging technologies help professors prepare for a new age of academic engagement
For Dan Ardia and his students in introductory biology, it was time for some old-fashioned Socratic discussion.
Throughout his teaching career, the associate professor of biology at Franklin & Marshall noticed he was spending much of his time in class and during office hours repeating answers to similar questions, while opportunities for more meaningful discussion faded. “It seemed like an inefficient use of everyone’s time,” he says. “So I began to ask, ‘What if I recorded this?’”
Ardia began preparing screencasts—narrated topical presentations students can access on their computers or mobile devices—to convey the prolific amounts of material. The videos worked so well that he could eliminate the 1,300-page, six-pound textbook used in most sections of Biology 110 at F&M.
“It’s been very liberating. It’s opened up opportunities to discuss case studies and data in class,” Ardia says. “We now have deeper discussion because more students are engaged. I love the fact that they can access some of the answers to their questions anytime, anywhere. They’re ready to be stimulated in different ways.”
A 2012 survey by the Pearson Foundation backs up Ardia’s thinking, as 90 percent of students who owned tablet computers said tablets are valuable for educational purposes, while two-thirds said they helped them study more efficiently.
Melissa Schlags ’17, a student in Ardia’s intro biology course during the spring semester, says it was helpful to have the recorded audio and visual reinforcement of core concepts. But she says Ardia’s organization of the material was the key, not just the fact that it was available on video.
“I re-watched all the videos before exams,” says Schlags, a self-proclaimed science fair kid. “In class, Professor Ardia would talk about how things apply to the real world, or discuss a relevant New York Times article, because we came in with knowledge we learned in the screencasts.”
The use of screencasts is an example of blended learning, an emerging pedagogy that combines in-person instruction with digital learning. Ardia is among a handful of professors who have adopted screencasts as advances in technology make new approaches to teaching possible. Against the backdrop of those rapid advances, the College recently launched a task force on instructional technology to support teaching in all disciplines with sustainable models of technology. It’s all happening as a new generation of students—a generation of “digital natives” familiar with the latest mobile and digital technology—enters college.
“There is unlikely to be one model for every professor and every classroom,” says Alan Caniglia, F&M’s vice president for planning and vice provost, who chairs the task force. “This is a multi-pronged initiative to find the best way to support faculty in their development of new teaching methods. The point is not just to innovate—it’s to promote student learning.”
Access to Learning
It’s been three decades since the introduction of personal computers took the F&M campus by storm. In the mid-1980s, F&M became a Mac campus, and the administration encouraged first-year students to purchase personal computers. Around the same time, then-F&M President James Powell said all faculty members should have computers, and there was a sense, Caniglia remembers, “that we had gone off to the races.”
Computer labs opened on campus, a network was established, and soon email became a new way to communicate. The College also invested in a language lab, which opened in the basement of Stager Hall as a resource for professors and students in the foreign languages. For Professor of Spanish Kim Armstrong, it was the beginning of a fascination with technology and its potential to help students learn.
“It was state-of-the-art for the time,” Armstrong says. “The lab had interconnected cassette recorders where students could record their voices. We asked ourselves, ‘should we add computers to this space?’ And so they did. The computers enabled us to experiment with the Internet and software applications for the foreign languages. That’s when I realized technology could enhance what we’re doing with students. It gave us a fresh opportunity to innovate.”
A member of the technology task force, Armstrong remains as passionate about new technology as she was in the early 1990s. She served on a technology working group last summer with Ardia and Professor of Sociology Carol Auster, surveying the technology landscape in higher education and raising questions about the future of technology at F&M. Like Ardia and Auster, Armstrong incorporates screencasts into her courses but says the core of F&M’s liberal arts education hasn’t changed.
“We are still mostly teaching students the way we did decades ago,” Armstrong says in her office in Keiper Liberal Arts Building. “What’s changing is access to learning. Blended learning gives students immediate feedback and a chance to review difficult concepts 24/7 when an instructor is not available. But face-to-face time, class discussions, interaction with peers and instructors, and office hours remain vital to learning.”
Last fall, Auster used blended learning in her introductory sociology course for the first time. She narrated eight videos that students could view on Google Drive, part of F&M’s Google Apps for Education program. “The beauty is that it creates more time for discussion,” she says, explaining that previously she would have taken time to lecture about those concepts. “When I surveyed the students after I had posted a couple of screencasts, 53 of 54 students in the two sections said they wanted to continue the screencasts. Part of it might be that they’re digital natives. They grew up with this. I think my screencasts got better with time.”
Google Drive is home to much more than Auster’s screencasts. On one day in mid-April, the F&M community was storing more than 358,000 documents on Google Drive—the majority of them images and written documents. It added up to 1.3 Terabytes of data—the capacity of more than 330 typical MacBook Pro laptops.
“Last semester, the students and I needed to work on a common document, and I was going to put it in Blackboard [an education software program]. One student suggested we use Google Docs,” Armstrong says. “It was a brilliant solution because they could not only share and edit with me, but also with their peers.”
Armstrong compares the state of technology in higher education to a scene in “Harry Potter,” where Harry touches a wall that opens to reveal a different world. “Technology is helping us to transform education for a whole new generation of learners,” she says. “We’re making magic happen, brick-by-brick.
Helping students and professors tap into new technologies is Teb Locke, F&M’s director of instructional and emerging technologies. Locke is cautious when talking about the impact of new tools in F&M classrooms.
“I don’t think technology changes how students learn,” he says. “But it’s providing new and different means for faculty to have students engage with the content, analyze problems, and visualize things. Technology can get in the way sometimes. It works best when it’s well integrated.”
Locke has many different conversations with professors about approaches to teaching. In the end, there’s no “one-size-fits-all approach,” he says. “At a liberal arts college, you have traditions and different comfort with technology. It’s a melting pot of teaching methods. Sometimes even I feel like I’m not up with the times. Talking with our student worker the other day, I thought to myself, ‘Gosh, I'm kind of a dinosaur already.’”
Technology is evolving at lightning speed, Armstrong says. But she believes professors shouldn’t feel pressured to use emerging technology if it doesn’t fit their style of teaching. “I knew a fellow grad student who used a guitar in her teaching. I never could have pulled that off. So many professors are wonderful teachers. I can’t lecture for 50 minutes, but for others, that’s their strength. Other people are great at leading discussions. And the iPad works for some people, too.”
Two years ago, a small group of professors, Armstrong included, were part of a pilot program in which all students received an iPad for a course. Armstrong loaded each with PowerPoint presentations, and students took notes on the device. “It made me feel a little bit more nimble as a teacher,” she says.
Auster has been nimble, too, especially in her spring semester “iSoc” course, which examined the impact of technology on individuals, relationships and society. The syllabus evolved as the semester went on because so many new articles were being published about technology. “The syllabus is never done,” she says. “But even though this is a course about technology, the students have their electronics off in my class. It’s probably one of the few moments they’re not connected during the day.”
Just then, the phone rings in Auster’s office. Before she can answer it, it stops.
“My phone never rings,” she says. “It’s only email now. That was strange.”