Hurrah for Technology

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Various technological innovations are coming to college classrooms. “New programs, functionality, [and] gadgets change [the] higher ed experience,” reports the Chicago Tribune. But will it make colleges better? Probably not.

According to the Tribune article:

“Teaching is really, really difficult,” [DePaul anthropology professor Robert Rotenberg] says. ” When I find something that helps the student engage in the material, then I’m going to use it. It is never technology for technology’s sake.”

Cool gadgets like i-clickers, invented by physics professors at Illinois, have become the norm in large classrooms. Professors can take attendance or gauge what students know. For instance, an Illinois food sciences professor used the i-clicker as an ice breaker by asking what she thought was a no-brainer question. Students pushed a button on the device in response to the multiple choice question and their results were displayed in graph form on a screen. “Most of the students got it wrong,” says Al Weiss, an E-learning specialist. “She was able to change her teaching right then and there.”

Well all of this sounds logical, except that technology has a way of solving problems that actually have much better solutions.

The Illinois food sciences professor really shouldn’t need an i-clicker to tell her what students need to know. If she can’t tell if her pupils recognize the information she’s presenting in class, her class is too damn big.

A recent Social Science Research Council report from indicates that many college students don’t actually learn much at all in college. This is because they don’t take courses that require them to have meaningful interaction with the material they’re supposed to learn.

Technological innovations can really help teachers to present subjects in interesting and informative ways. But it seems like these tools are mostly pushed by advocates as a way to to help professors to teach really large courses. According to the article:

Imagine a classroom outfitted with a super computer that pulls together all of that technology and can let a professor know that the right side of the room seems distracted. Better yet, he says it could be so detailed that the computer can notice a specific person isn’t paying attention to a lecture that contains material that was flunked the previous week on an exam. An earbud could allow the computer to remind the student to focus on the material.

But it looks the problem with American higher education has a lot to do with the fact that college courses don’t require enough reading and writing. That’s the problem. Fix the problem. The earbuds waking up the distracted student won’t solve a serious problem; it will solve a minor problem.

The answer to this is not more sophisticated technology to manage more and bigger classes. The answer is smaller classes that require students to do more substantive work.

Sure, though private grants and public programs colleges might be encouraged to add more tools and gadgets. They should go ahead and do so. There’s nothing wrong with technology. Just don’t expect it to fix any of the problems that higher education has now. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer