Feb 082009
Authors: Anne Marie Merline

Are you high-tech or low-tech?

Because you have been in school for a time that approximates four years or less, you probably have not asked yourself this question as it pertains to the classroom.

I was in college from 1981 to 1985, in the days that you could indeed get a four-year degree in four years. The technology ranged from a chalkboard to a whiteboard and all the way up to an overhead projector. There were no laptops, no smartboards and no smart classrooms.

One of my most boring professors would come into class, spend a great deal of time writing an outline of the day’s material on the chalkboard and spend the class period berating all of the details that the outline contained to us while we leaned on the high geology lab desks, complete with hard-as-sin lab chairs. These were especially a challenge, for me. I literally had to climb onto those chairs.

He lectured, he told boring stories that we smiled at because we felt compelled to but that only he found funny.

As I entered the teaching profession in the latter years of the last millennium, things had not changed much.

But today, teaching seems to be all about the bling.

How well can we instructors keep the attention of the “audience?” It seems that it takes more than one electrical cord, several USB connections and THX sound to keep the attention of the students in our classes.

We teach to what “the industry” (we used to call it higher education) calls the MTV generation.

The students, it seems, have become more accustomed to the short sound bites of the media, in place of the traditional 50-minute lectures.

It is true those who take being a human at the white board seriously have come to appreciate different learning styles. Some of us even endeavor to use different teaching techniques so that students get to experience different learning styles, and for a class or two each semester latch on to the one that they thrive under.

I’m not a Luddite on this account. I’ll admit it: I love to show movie clips in the classroom that can be used for a basis of discussion.

Documentaries can be great to start a discussion about a new way of looking at any issue. Films that have become a part of popular culture can exemplify changing social culture. YouTube clips are more often becoming a pre-cursor to student speeches.

I do have a few PowerPoint presentations on my laptop that I use every once and a while. From what I understand, the new clicker technology used in the classrooms in large universities engage students’ thoughts in a class of hundreds of students — a way for individuals to contribute which is almost impossible in any other way.

On the other hand, the low-tech side of education is the lecture.

Indeed, I wish the lecture in mega classrooms were dead. Research shows that this is the most widely used tool of educational delivery; it also shows that it is the least affective for real learning.

As a test of “real learning” I wish that bubble tests were deemed educationally illegal. This mode of assessment tests nothing more than the ability to take a test well.

Is it the institution’s misguided understanding that sitting in a lecture hall with hundreds of other students and taking a bubble test twice in a semester allows you to actually learn the subject in a meaningful way?

My question is: What has happened to effective teaching and learning?

For me learning is best in the tried and true Socratic method: sitting down, talking, having a conversation that includes questions and answers and coming up with more questions from the answers with everyone participating. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle of the high tech/low tech conundrum.

It is our jobs as instructors and students to find that middle ground and to make sure that real learning takes place. I hope that your semester is off to a good start on this account.

Anne Marie Merline is an instructor for the University Honors Program. Her column appears biweekly Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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