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Technology and the College Experience

Some say the more it changes, the more it stays the same.

By GUSTAVO A. MELLANDER From The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education

When I attended college, all my professors lectured, even the science and mathematics ones. A few innovative ones used the chalkboard, but sparingly. Few of us dared ask a question, never con- tradicted a teacher for fear of being humiliated. We survived by learn- ing early to take copious notes and regurgitate those “professor-given pearls” on our exams. The system worked—at least it did for those who followed the routine. We learned what we had to. Training was acquired; educa- tion would come later—normally at the workplace. Most faculty are thoughtful, innovative, open to new ideas— except when it comes to changing

their teaching methods. Many merely mimic their teachers for years on end. Some even use old college notes to teach their classes throughout their careers. There are exceptions but they are just that—exceptions. Single one-way oral communi- cation still dominates most class- rooms. Teachers pontificate, stu- dents regurgitate. Some changes have filtered in. Inquisitive “kids” have forced changes to the blind lockstep methods of years gone by.

For instance, students have forced many faculty to become computer literate. The role of the teacher has changed in many cases from the “sage on the stage” to the collaborator on the side. I might add, with mixed academic success. I visit a variety of colleges ev-

Gustavo A. Mellander was a college president for 20 years. More recently, he was a graduate dean at George Mason University. Condensed, with permis- sion, from The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, posted online October 3, 2011. Published at 80 Route 4 East, Ste. 203, Paramus, NJ 07652.

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ery year. I still observe a lot of faculty only lecturing, using anti- quated notes and once in a while strolling to the blackboard. That’s their level of technology. I fear the classroom revolution so often bal- lyhooed has yet to arrive on many campuses nationwide. Before I go off supporting more modern technology than chalk and blackboards, let me pay homage to those antiquated professors who,

I fear the classroom revolution so often ballyhooed has yet to arrive on many campuses nationwide.

armed with vast knowledge and a love of their subjects, kept us spellbound—and learning. They were great lecturers. In my case, most were histori ans or literature teachers, but I also recall that my biology teacher was an effective and inspirational teacher. Let’s face the future. We can be optimistic for some faculty who have adopted modern technology to reach their students. Some concerned faculty and administrators have changed their col leges by establishing a variety of new teaching methods. Technol- ogy has led, if not forced, these changes. Now more and more we have three modes of teaching:

face-to-face lectures, online, and hybrid learning. Many students don’t know much about online classes when they first arrive at college. Ste - reotypically, online students are perceived to be older and more career oriented. But teenage, so- cial swinging freshmen get swept up in online classes as well. The result is that in many uni- versities, students enroll in online

classes or blended classes every

semester. A good number take all three modes at once. At the beginning, online courses were established to serve distant learners living away from the uni- versity. Later, many institutions were surprised to discover that

the majority of their long-distance students were actually living on campus. Frequently, more students enrolled from their university dor - mitories than real distance learn- ers did miles away. An example: Central Florida began experimenting with online courses in the mid-1990s. The target population has been poten- tial students who lived far away. But the university discovered that about 75% of online students were already on campus or lived nearby. Why? The university had a severe class- room crunch. It had grown from a commuter campus with 21,000 students in 1991 to 56,000 today; it remains 40% short on classroom space. Thus its evolution to a hy- brid institution is understandable.

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Technology and the College Experience

Some students prefer watching lectures online to enduring a two- and-a-half-hour class in person. Web courses also free up time for more campus involvement. In the future, most students will have some online education. Marc Parry from The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that the Maryland University System now requires undergraduates to take 12 credits in “alternative learning modes,” including some online. The Minnesota system is plan - ning to have students earn 25% of their credits online by 2015. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has made “blended learning” a cornerstone of a new $20-million education-technology grant pro - gram. State planners hope that Web classes will expand access, reduce the time spent earning a degree, save money, manage classroom needs, and more. Those trends raise a number of issues that could change the face of higher education. For instance, why pay to go away to college if you’re going to sit in your dorm room taking online classes? Stay home, complete your education— and save a lot of money. Critics have raised issues about academic standards and contend that the lack of personal supervi- sion with online courses has led to increased cheating. The Chronicle trailed students to study how the shift is changing

the student experience—and how students feel about their growing digital freedom. It found that new uses of technology have provided good and not-so-good practices as universities move “from bricks and mortar to clicks and mortar.”

Some findings

It is now exceedingly rare for all of one’s classes to be face to face. Most students shift between classroom, online, and offline mo- dalities. Even in lecture classes, profes- sors descend from their stage and prowl the classroom. Aided by a remote control device, they can flash PowerPoint charts on the screen regardless of their location in the room. Some courses are known as “blended” or “mixed mode,” mean- ing students meet their faculty face to face only once a week; the rest of the work is offered online. Blended classes generate the highest student evaluations of any learning mode at Central Florida. Students feel they get as much from the online work as they would from more time in class. Some mixed-mode professors like the on- line component because it forces students to grapple with material before they meet for class. Others worry that students view the re- duced class schedule as time off. Learning online can provide an opportunity for distractions. Some students, while watching

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a lecture, also have Facebook open right behind it. A logical question is—how much time does one spend on each? Are students paying attention, actively taking notes, or are they surfing or chat- ting with their friends? There are a lot of potential distrac tions when pursuing courses on the Internet. Professors have complained that students are checking out their Facebook accounts, tweeting, and emailing their friends even while in the classroom during a face-to- face lecture. Students who attend superior high schools do not expect to take classes on the Web. They are accustomed to student-oriented teachers, far more supervision, and frequent classroom tests. Not much chance to coast. First experiences with an online course can be a struggle. It is easier to procrastinate, to skip a lecture, to fall behind. Since there is less personal ized assistance, educa - tors who prize human contact say it’s a poor development. Some faculty aware of that pos- sibility bird-dog their students. They email students, call them, tweet them, Facebook them, chat with them. They create a variety of safety nets. That would seem helpful and commendable. But some critics of that approach call it inappropri - ate, they call it mothering. They argue that such intense assistance prolongs adolescence. Part of what

students should learn in college, they contend, is self-discipline and self-reliance. Some students who have suc- ceeded with the new modalities have developed guidelines such as:

Establish a study schedule. Select a quiet place, probably away from your bedroom, to study. Never socialize in person or on the Web in that area. Create a serious work - place. Concentrate on that day’s assignment. Not that different from what previous generations were told to do. As much as things change, as much new technology we adapt and adopt, the human element pre- dominates. Education is a lonely journey. A person’s motivation and dedication go a long way.

THE EDUCATION DIGEST a lecture, also have Facebook open right behind it. A logical question is—how

“We’re being taught history today. Instead of using computers, we’ll be using books.”

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