Students + Technology = Learning?

The question already seems as old as the hills. Way back in 1998 while i was using technology to wrangle assessments out of high-functioning students with Spectrum Disorders, it was a question as well as it was later on, in Juneau, working for SERRC.

and today, the question remains:

Does Technology help teachers teach? does it help learners learn?

well, yeah. sorta.

That may not be the most surprising finding from a report released last week by the Educause Center for Applied Research, the analytical arm of the nonprofit group that promotes effective technology use in higher education. But it certainly provides a jumping-off point for an investigation into how students use information technology in college and how it can be harnessed to improve the learning experience.

In at least one central respect, proponents of technology in the classroom are on to something: Most students (60.9 percent) believe it improves their learning.

The changes in technological habits aren’t revolutionary per se, as the authors point out; rather, students are making “evolutionary” gains in access to the Internet for everyday uses, inside the classroom and out. Perhaps the most visible of these changes is the continuing increase in the proportion of students with laptops, which has grown to 73.7 percent of respondents (while an almost-total 98.4 percent own a computer of some kind). More surprisingly, over half of laptop owners don’t bring them to class at all, with about a quarter carrying them to lectures at least once a week.

The amount of time spent on the Internet also shows no sign of abating, with an average of about 18 hours a week, for any purpose — and, on the extreme end, some 6.6 percent of respondents (mostly male) saying they spend more than a full-time job’s worth of 40 hours online a week. Most students use broadband, more are on wireless connections, and “smart phones” — all-in-one communications and personal data assistants — are also on the rise, with 12 percent owning one.

What they’re doing when they’re online is also changing somewhat, with the rise of Facebook and other social networking sites as the clearest trend this year (to 80.3 percent from 72.3 percent in 2006), along with streaming video and course management software, which 46.1 percent of respondents said they use several times a week or more (compared with 39.6 percent in 2006).

The authors of the study, which surveyed 27,864 students at 103 two- and four-year colleges and universities, note that most undergraduates today are “digital natives” who have grown up immersed in technology in some form. But the “millennials” aren’t necessarily ready to cast off the yoke of human interaction and learn solely within virtual 3-D environments wired directly to the brain. The study finds “themes of skepticism and moderation alongside enthusiasm,” such that 59 percent preferred a “moderate rather than extensive use of IT in courses.”

Instead, students appear to segment different modes of communication for different purposes. E-mail, Web sites, message boards and Blackboard? Viable ways of connecting with professors and peers. Same for chat, instant messaging, Facebook and text messages? Not necessarily, the authors write, because students may “want to protect these tools’ personal nature.”

In short, as students become more and more connected to each other through various online mediums, they’re also becoming more untethered, with laptops and smart phones keeping them physically apart. As a result, the “emerging Web 2.0 paradigm” of “immersive environments” and dynamic information promise (or threaten?) to upend traditional pedagogies and even the way students learn, the authors conclude.

That could mean that some professors might have to play catch-up, according to the report, “The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2007″ — a sentiment also indicated by some of the students in answers to the survey’s open-ended questions.

The epigraph to the report’s sixth chapter, from a student’s written comments, goes a long way toward summarizing what the authors say is the place of technology in the college setting today: “IT is not a good substitute for good teaching. Good teachers are good with or without IT and students learn a great deal from them. Poor teachers are poor with or without IT and students learn little from them.”

Seventy percent of the students polled said information technology helps them do research, a finding that is not surprising in light of the continuing popularity of Google and Wikipedia among undergraduates (sometimes to the consternation of their professors). But that finding also encompasses online library research and article databases.

When it comes to engagement, however, responses are more mixed. About two-fifths of students said they were more engaged with courses that had IT components, while a fifth disagreed and the rest didn’t say either way.

So technology’s utility in the classroom comes down to how it is used. The question, then, is: How can educators adapt their teaching methods to emerging technologies? And should they?

As my former boss and dear friend, Ryan, likes to say : “A good musician never blames the instrument”.

He claims he got that from Night Court. Some of you may remember the lawyer who was a sex fiend?

Beats me, i never watched it.