Monday, December 11, 2017

A connected campus: How technology is changing the classrooms of Camosun

November 16, 2016 by Adam Marsh, student editor

We’re in the midst of a technological revolution that is changing the way we communicate, think, and, perhaps of most relevance to Camosun students, learn. People are glued to their electronic devices more than ever; in some ways it’s replacing face-to-face communication.

Life in the classroom has changed, too, with more and more students ignoring unwritten rules around using their personal technology for personal purposes—texting, for example—in class.

Just a few short years ago, texting in class was considered equivalent to passing a note between friends while the teacher was talking. Now, students are more or less free to text unless specifically told otherwise by the instructor, and instant messaging is being used as a tool by more and more instructors to communicate with students.

The effects of technology are widespread right here at Camosun, with some blessing it, and others cursing it.

The pros and cons of technology

Camosun Sociology instructor Peter Ove says he doesn’t get on his students’ cases for texting or using social media in his class, but he points out that the ones who do will often see their marks suffer. But he’s no technophobe: Ove uses D2L, Camosun’s online learning communication platform, to interact outside of class with his students; through D2L, they can hand in assignments, join discussion boards, and access class lists. He also prides himself on setting up paper-free courses.

Ove says that it is often easier for people to blame technology as a culprit for the declining social niceties we see as a result of people being absorbed in their phones when, in fact, the underlying problem can be something different entirely.

“They’ve got a term for it—technological determinism,” says Ove. “As if we assume it’s technology that’s changing our culture, and you know what? It’s super easy because it’s apolitical. You don’t have to think of any economic, or political, or cultural questions. We can just think, ‘Oh, it’s a new technology, it’s neutral.’ It’s never neutral. Technology is never neutral; it always has some effect. It’s there for the purpose of creating money.”

Ove references the introduction of robots into automotive factories, where the robots have now largely replaced humans on the worksite.

“It’s just a technology, but it’s taking away people’s jobs,” he says, “and the reason the companies wanted to do it was because it saves money.”

Camosun Political Science instructor and Social Sciences chair Daniel Reeves recently returned from a conference that centred on how technology can better learning for students. Reeves says that the idea of students finding ways to distract themselves during class is not one that is specific to cellphones or the massive technological revolution that has engulfed society for the past decade. And, like Ove, he embraces some classroom technology: Reeves uses a program called Poll Everywhere that allows students to text answers to his questions. The answers immediately appear on the screen at the front of the class. To Reeves, it’s about catching up with the times before they catch up with him.

“Part of it is instructors meeting students where they’re at,” he says, “getting students to use their phones as a tool to take learning forward.”

Perhaps phones in the classroom are not always a barrier. Reeves says a combined approach to teaching—one that does not cater to one side of the pro- or anti-technology argument—is in order.

“Students are at a different place than they were 15 years ago,” he says, “because their environment—for most, but not all students—is more technologically encased.”

There’s admin benefits, too: Reeves says technology can reduce redundancies in the classroom and also lessen the risk of losing students’ work.

“What’s interesting and fuelling it, to me,” he says, “is using technology in specific and unique ways to take us to places that we couldn’t get to without it.”

The program used for students to text their answers to teachers rather than raising their hands is ideal for some learning styles.

“What this allows,” says Reeves, “is I can ask questions like ‘What don’t you understand?’ Typically, if you ask that to a group of people and expect them to raise their hand, they’re not going to do so. No one wants to raise their hand and say, ‘I’m the idiot.’”

The anonymity of Poll Everywhere allows the self-conscious student, the shy student, or perhaps the student who is having a bad day to communicate in a less confrontational way. It also helps students to feel less alone in their ignorance.

“People can feel a little bit better about saying, ‘I don’t understand this’,” says Reeves. “It’s instant. It goes up on the screen instantly, and that allows students to go, ‘Oh, there are other people who don’t understand this.’”

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This story originally appeared in our November 16, 2016 issue.

Social media and texting distractions

Ove says he does not stop his classes when he sees someone with their eyes down and their thumbs tapping like Morse code along a lit-up screen.

“It’s a controversial issue among instructors because some people are pro-new-media-technology in the classroom,” says Ove, mentioning Facebook and Twitter in particular.

Ove says he does not use Facebook or Twitter for class-related matters, and he imagines it would be hard to do so in a professional way.

“I think it’s important that students have a venue where they can connect outside the classroom,” he says. “I try and strive for paperless courses, so, obviously, I think there’s a role for electronic technology.”

Ove acknowledges that using Facebook or Twitter to engage students can open up a whole new can of worms, and says that he doesn’t use them.

“You have to do so responsibly,” he says. “I don’t use it, not out of any ideological reason, but just because I don’t have the time.”

Ove says that the micro-blogging format of Twitter can unnecessarily condense social, economic, and political issues, so much so that people can often become blind to the real issues at hand. He says the problem is not technology, but a cultural change.

“Facebook is never going to be enough to really deal with an issue,” he says. “I think it’s enough to make a good joke.”

But Ove is also quick to point out that no one has the right to say what gives another person value in their day-to-day life.

“If people enjoy providing updates,” he says, “or enjoy reading the updates of their friends, do I think that’s ruining society? Not necessarily.”

Ove used to teach high school, which he says is much different than teaching college. He says that one of the biggest differences between high school and post-secondary is the independence of each student—the fact that they are now sitting in class of their own accord.

“The student brings themselves,” he says. “I think we have a duty to make interesting and relevant content. You want to show up to class and not participate? As long as it’s not disturbing to other students, I don’t see the problem.”

While Ove gives his students the freedom that adulthood merits, and has plenty of other things to worry about besides students texting in his class, he says he struggles to understand why some students would pay for a course and then not attend it at all.

“To be honest, the students who are in class texting are at least there,” he says. “The reality is lots of students just don’t show up, and I don’t understand why. I mean, if they’re daydreaming but not on their phone, is that any worse than being on their phone?”

Sink or swim

Reeves enjoys white-water canoeing in his spare time and says he often uses it as a metaphor to explain technology to his students. If you just float with the river, he says, then you will end up crashing or hurting yourself. You can back-paddle to go slower than the river, or you can paddle forward to go faster than the river, “but you can’t just be in the river,” Reeves says, “because the river will then take you into the rocks.”

“So that’s how I feel about technology,” he continues. “There are times to paddle backwards and resist its flow, and there are times to paddle forward.”

Reeves says it comes down to treating his students like the adults they are and trusting that they will use technology in the classroom to advance themselves—or, as he puts it, paddle forward.

“Do I find students not on focus? Yeah,” he says. “But that’s not some new phenomenon that just happened this generation. Students have always found ways to zoom out.”

When he sees students use their phones as tools to help educate themselves in new ways, it helps Reeves feel confident that people can harness the tools around them for good. When he sees a student “zoom out” because of technology, he says it is their loss but adds that, considering that computers and phones are here to stay, we might as well utilize them.

“Unless I want to really change how I teach, I can’t [say], ‘We’re going to take this computer on your desk and we’re going to throw it away; we’re just going to pretend it’s not there.’ To me, that doesn’t seem like a wise option. Are there dangers with it? Of course there are. Are students going to get distracted? Of course they will. But I bet on the fact that most of my students are going to be adults and realize that if they’re not paying attention, that’s their loss.”

Second-year Camosun Criminal Justice student Shona Mockford says that one of her teachers—Statistics prof Susan Chen—provides every student with a clicker at the beginning of class that allows her to answer multiple-choice questions without raising her hand or speaking.

“I think it’s a good way for me to learn because I don’t feel worried about if I’m right or wrong,” she says. “It’s just more about learning.”

However, Mockford says that although she likes being able to use a clicker, she learns far better in classes where teachers attempt to put strict rules on personal cellphone use.

“Then it’s not even an option for me to be able to look at my phone,” she says. “I don’t think you should be able to [use your cellphone] in any class. I think in some ways technology is a good tool, but when it comes to your personal cellphone, it’s probably bad for learning.”

When tech hits the library

Camosun director of learning services Sybil Harrison says that she, like many others, is one with her iPad and phone. But while technology has widened the scope of the library’s database by a long shot, Harrison says there is still a place for good old-fashioned book reading.

“I’m a huge fiction reader. It’s my great escape; it’s what sort of fills my life with joy,” says Harrison. “All that reading, I do in print.”

Harrison doesn’t find picking up an e-reader to read for pleasure as satisfying as feeling the pages of a book between her fingers, or the smell of the ink floating up from the page. Tangible books are her go-to when she wants to transport herself into a different reality from the one of day-to-day life.

“I think we often think about the digital revolution as only what’s happening on the computer or on our iPhone,” she says, “but digital technology has fundamentally changed the production of books itself. In fiction, there’s a lot more use of images and photographs. Books are different than they were.”

Harrison is a fan of technology use in the classroom and in the library, saying that online databases give students access to millions of resources, as opposed to a more limited amount among the stacks of hardcovers and paperbacks on the shelves. Still, she is quick to rhapsodize over the importance of “being discriminating” when it comes to finding accurate and accountable sources online in an era of information overload.

“Libraries are still the same,” she says. “Different tools, but we’re still doing the same thing we’ve done for hundreds of years. We provide access to a whole range of materials, and we always say it doesn’t matter what the container is; if it’s a print book or it’s electronic, it’s the same thing. Libraries are about exposing and bringing access to a whole range of information and also creating a space where people can come together and interact with that information.”

The different experiences offered by technology—such as being able to access the daily newspaper every morning via Facebook—are extremely invigorating for Harrison, but she still needs her time with books. And she says she’s not alone.

“I know many people who are like me,” says Harrison.

Camosun students are still checking out books from the campus libraries, with 52,223 books checked out of the Lansdowne and Interurban libraries last year.

“We’re holding steady,” says Harrison. “Our circulation of print materials isn’t growing, but it’s steady, and it has been steady for a number of years. It’s lower than it was, say, in the early 2000s, and we dropped down a little bit around 2010. But we’ve been steady ever since.” (Harrison says the Camosun libraries check out 187,324 e-books a year, adding that some publishers stayed with the e-book format and some went back to print.)

As for what awaits students after this current age of technology and information, Harrison references a quote from Charles Eames, a 1950s-era designer.

“He was a really brilliant early thinker, a lot about information. Some of his early thinking anticipated hypertext in the web,” says Harrison. “One of his lines was that after the age of information, there is the age of choice.”

With people living in a frenzy of technology, it’s up to each person to decide which parts of modern technology are imperative, which are a choice, and which ones they want to distance themselves from. But one thing is for sure: technology in the classroom, and the effects of it, are here to stay. You can love it or hate it, but the world as we know it is changing before our eyes—and so is the classroom.

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