Century divide: Teaching with technology

A man walks into a classroom and takes off his coat. His slacks are tailored and his shirt tucked. His shoes are quiet against the cold floor as he takes his seat, prepared to learn. The room fills with others wearing the same sort of clothing. There are idle murmurs of civil rights and chatter about the Vietnam War, along silent sorrow in remembrance for an assassinated president. The professor, dressed as professionally as the students, enters and immediately begins to lecture in his low and muddled tone. Scrambled scratches of pen against paper are heard in the empty hall outside as the students struggle to keep up with the professor’s voice.

But nowadays the ones scrambling to keep up are the professors, the ones that worked to build their careers in the 20th Century, when the World Wide Web was just a thought and the only clicks heard were those from Remington typewriters.

Within only a few decades, students began to dress more casually and clicks replaced pen scratches. Dr. George Lauderbaugh, professor of history at Jacksonville State University, still values those pen scratches he heard in 1963 as a freshman at Davis and Elkins College in West Virginia. “People teach the way they were taught,” he shrugs at his office desk. A floor-to-ceiling bookshelf covers his main wall and a desktop computer wheezes in another corner. A Samsung flip phone sits idly on his paper-covered desk.

Lauderbaugh is going through a slower adjustment period compared to other professors when it comes to using technology as an aid in the classroom. He used an overhead projector until spring 2013, while many were already implementing Apple TV in their classrooms. It was at that semester he began using his own PowerPoint presentations on a screen projector.

“I got rid of the overhead projector and now all my lectures are on PowerPoint, but I don’t see much difference between it except it’s easier to use than a slide projector,” he says. “It allows for brighter colors too.”

This reluctance is not present only the 21st Century, however. When Lauderbaugh attended college as an undergraduate it seems his professors enjoyed a strict lecture method. “We had overheads since the late 50s, but very few of my professors used them in college,” he says.

The biggest technology he had as an undergrad was something they call Corrasable Bond Paper. This is a type of typewriter paper that, if someone makes a mistake, can be erased by using a pencil eraser. “You didn’t have to use whiteout,” says Lauderbaugh.

The emergence of email 90s brought in a new world of technology to classrooms. “I had a professor that pushed us to use email, and he introduced us to the World Wide Web, but most of it was done the old-fashioned way,” says Lauderbaugh, who attended graduate school from 1993-1997, after retiring from the United States Air Force.

While some professors are slowly adapting to a new age of intense technology, a new program at JSU requires certain instructors use that same technology – and be evaluated on how effective it is.

The Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) is a 5-year plan designed to enhance student learning by using more technology in the classroom. The plan depends on faculty mentors to teach students of the 21st century. Spearheaded by Director of Faculty Commons Gena Christopher, JSU’s Office of Faculty Commons houses the plan, and is required to train certain instructors of specific 100-200 level courses across the campus to teach these students with the tools they already know how to use best.

These instructors, as well as students in their “QEP class,” get in-demand products. The instructors receive a Macbook and an iPad, while students in the classes receive an iPad, says Christopher. Student use these iPads “to develop active learning strategies in that class and they have to emphasize critical thinking because that is what our QEP is about,” Christopher says as she sits on her leather office chair, her iPhone ringing in the background. Her office has a glass erasable board and her large, wooden desk holds one of the latest models of iMac desktop computers. Attached to her office is a conference room with tables and red chairs. The smell of coffee drifts into the hallways of the second floor of Self Hall.

Faculty commons is also a place where faculty members can get together and collaborate about techniques that work in the classroom. Some, like Lauderbaugh, are apprehensive about the office and the program. “I don’t have a problem with technology in and of itself,” Lauderbaugh clarifies, “I make students turn off their phones, which I think some people in our technology department don’t think we should do.”

Lauderbaugh lets students that ask to take notes on their devices to use them in class, but he points out that very few students ask permission. “Part of what I’m trying to do is to teach communicative skills, and the skill that JSU students are weakest in is listening.”

Another professor at JSU, Dr. Jeremiah Russell, an assistant professor in the department of political science and public administration, holds a similar view as Lauderbaugh. “I am fully aware that the current trend in education, not just higher education, is to increase the use of technology. I think technology should be kept to a minimum in the classroom,” he says in an email interview. Russell was an undergraduate from 1996-2001 and completed his second masters degree by 2006 and his doctorate in 2010.

“A typical day in an undergraduate course for me was sitting in my desk taking notes on paper while the professor lectured, writing important points on a chalkboard,” Russell says, and not much changed between the way he was taught and his own teaching methods. All he did was trade chalk dust for marker fumes. “In most of my courses, I use just three things—a book, a white board, and a dry-erase marker.”

Russell is like Lauderbaugh in that the use of technology in his classroom is only on an as-needed basis. Any other time, phones are not permitted. Unlike Lauderbaugh, Russell owns a smartphone – a Nokia Windows phone. Outside the classroom, he uses technology often. He has a Twitter account, and iPad and Roku. “I wouldn’t say technology has changed me personally. It has, however, helped me in my profession.”

While some are excited about what opportunities the QEP will bring, others are a little more skeptical. Russell commends JSU’s administration for trying to focus on critical thinking, but “I simply think that faculty should pause to consider the negatives related to the use of technology in the classroom, which have been demonstrated in several recent studies, not only its benefits,” he says.

When asked about the QEP, Lauderbaugh chuckled and shook his head, “In some respects, it didn’t get off to a good start in some areas.”

His grin faded and his eyebrows raised over his glasses, “There is a perception, and it may not be accurate, but a big mistake made was to infer, probably unintentionally, that I am not a ‘real professor.’ One of their invitations was for me to go listen to a ‘real professor,’ which infers I’m not a real professor.” Lauderbaugh suggests that the invitation should have used the word “virtual” instead of “real.”

“So I think that has clouded some enthusiasm for technology,” says Lauderbaugh.

These scenarios could feed an us-against-them ideology among some of JSU’s faculty. In one corner, there are the pro-pen scratch professors that don’t have adequate training in technology, or just don’t care to use it. In another corner, there is the QEP, a plan whose goal is to promote critical thinking through technology.

Lauderbaugh is not opposed to using more technology, but he wants training. “Our people in technology try hard to train us, but I think they don’t have enough people. They’re spread pretty thin, too,” he says. “I would want state-of-the-art equipment, and I wouldn’t allow it to replace the lecture completely.”

Russell believes that technology makes the human race less connected. “I think technology can have a negative impact on our democratic society. It can make us more individualistic, more isolated, more self-interested, less able to interact with others and less willing to show compassion to our neighbors,” he says.

Christopher says, “Technology isn’t always the answer for every teacher. Some teachers are good lecturers. The problem is when teaching isn’t happening. I heard someone say ‘teaching without learning is just talking,’ and I think that is a powerful quote.”

These QEP classes that faculty mentors teach is beginning to touch Russell’s and Lauderbaugh’s departments. Freshmen are the focus of the QEP, since these classes will be survey or entry-level courses. “It will eventually be weird to them if there isn’t technology in the class. We do need to teach them to use technology for learning in appropriate ways. They might not know how to do sound research online, and that’s such an important skill for students to have.”

Some voice concern over the in-class learning techniques if technology is involved. “No one is naïve enough to believe that students with laptops, iPads or smartphones do not check social media or visit websites during class,” says Russell.

Lauderbaugh agrees with this premise. “It’s hard to keep students from distractions for and hour. If there’s technology being used in the classroom, it want it to be my technology.”

Student distraction is a concern for professors, and for faculty commons, an even bigger concern is teaching students how to use technology for class-appropriate reasons. “We’re learning, as the faculty mentors go out and teach their classes, that we think we know that students know how to use technology, when they really know how to socialize,” says Christopher. “Students are gonna make choices and I think that high school kids are going to expect to have more and more active engaged classes.”

According to the faculty commons website, after the 5-year training and teaching cycle is up, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) will receive an information report and give the university feedback on techniques it used to employ technology in the classroom. “The QEP will start again in 5 years after its 5-year cycle. The faculty commons will continue to operate and remain a place for faculty,” says Christopher. After SACS sends gives JSU feedback, the QEP will start over.

So like it or not, the QEP won’t be going anywhere, nor will the administrations push to use technology as an aid for instructors.  “We aren’t forcing technology on anyone and technology can be a tool or a toy, and we fought electronic devices for a long time,” says Christopher, leaning back in her chair. “We began to realize they can be valuable.”

“I want them to learn and if that takes me being willing to get out of my comfort zone, I think that’s okay because we ask university students every day of their lives to step out of their comfort zones in our classes,” Christopher says.

So for now, instructors have complete freedom in their classrooms to use whatever teaching methods they wish, whether it be slide projectors, PowerPoints or – for some who prefer scratches over clicks – nothing but a mouth and words.

Marie McBurnett

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