December 13, 2008
Technology in the classrooms
From grade school to college, use of interactive digital tools increases
A biology professor tells students to go into the field and photograph plants with their cell phones, then send the images to him so he can say if the students are correctly identifying them.
A high school teacher projects a Web site onto an interative white screen, instead of the transparency he would have made in an earlier time, set into an overhead projector.
A SUNY Cortland class looks at a room full of students in Australia, as they discuss life in both countries via the Web.
This is the era of “smart” classrooms, wired for Internet access to speed up teaching and, it is hoped, engage students accustomed to an interactive world. Students are the “digital natives,” a term used by academics for people who have grown up using e-mail and cell phones and digital technology. Their teachers mostly are digital immigrants, who did not.
Schools and colleges have been trying to stay on top of emerging technologies in recent years, particularly in teaching itself.
School districts in the region have plans for increasing accessibility to computers and using them in teaching. Homer, McGraw and Marathon all have plans published on their Web sites.
Colleges have been renovating their classrooms and lecture halls to be “smart,” meaning they can project Web sites in front of a class, use online discussions, allow students to do research online and present work using digital tools.
Teachers and professors must figure out when and how to adopt these new tools. Some are more eager than others.
“We have some that are content with chalk and a blackboard,” said Provost John Conners at Tompkins Cortland Community College. “We give them what they think they need. If that’s chalk, so be it. But more professors are comfortable with technology. They see it can be effective.”
Paula Warnken, SUNY Cortland’s associate provost for information resources, said college professors adopt at varying rates, skeptical that they might be replacing proven teaching methods with gadgets that merely entertain.
SUNY Cortland has been building more smart classrooms. Moffett Center’s swimming pool and gymnasium are being replaced by wired classrooms. Sperry Center, renovated over a two-year period, has wired lecture halls that can project two screens at once.
Even as it adds “smart” classrooms and lecture halls, SUNY Cortland is taking a different approach toward using computer technology in teaching. Instead of a computer science major, the college has focused its efforts on interdisciplinary use of computers, Warnken said.
Some departments have created their own specific labs, such as economics, sport management and geography, which has the geography information systems (GIS) lab in Old Main. Students can use three-dimensional images, examine them from different angles and combine them to form a landscape that the students can then tour.
Built in 2000 and updated every few years, the lab led the geography department to create a major and minor in GIS. Three geography students using the lab this week to study images of downtown Cortland said employers want them to know GIS.
The campus has 15 computer labs for student use, including Memorial Library’s learning commons.
Warnken said most computer-related courses are taught by librarians, which helps students understand effective ways to use computers in research and presentations.
E-mail has become a common communication method for students and teachers. Students can ask about assignments or extensions. In the public schools, parents can confer with teachers.
One recent technology to come along since 2000 is Blackboard, which can furnish a site for courses where teachers can place syllabi, lesson notes, links to resources and blogs or discussion threads where students reply to each other’s thoughts about a certain topic. Teachers have to decide which of the features fits their needs.
Marty Christofferson, TC3’s dean of technology, said a professor’s challenge is to choose a technology and then master it, because students are so accustomed to anything electronic that they are not impressed by faculty who struggle with digital tools.
He said that while blogs and other online networking tools are useful, they can create too much work for professors, which is why some shy away. In using e-mail, teachers must set limits for when they will respond to messages from students and parents.
The divide between professors who embrace technology and those who do not is somewhat generational. Older faculty can be set in their ways, said Christofferson, although he said faculty in any discipline that connects heavily to computers needed to adapt, whether they liked it or not.
Scott Anderson, SUNY Cortland’s geography chair, agreed.
“It’s mostly a question of learning the technology,” said Anderson, director of the college’s Center for the Advancement of Technology in Education. “The learning curve for word processing was agonizing in the early days, when we used DOS. But the reward was substantial for anyone writing a lot.”
Conners said he would love to try new technologies, remembering that video was considered cutting edge when he last taught in the 1990s.
“The best teachers always did engage students,” Christofferson said. “It’s the teacher, not just the tools. Technology is a tool.”
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