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Chapter 20: Utilize Course Management Tools

The typical professor still teaches pretty much the way Socrates did 2,400 years ago, talking to a group of students in a lecture-discussion session. To be sure, the use of blackboards, PowerPoint, and perhaps some internet-based visuals has jazzed things up a bit. But as Carol Twigg and others have suggested, we have merely added some new technology onto old approaches to teaching. Yet as Michael Clifford has said, today’s students are inhabitants of a new information age, while many of the instructors are merely “immigrants” to new technologies, just learning to assimilate what students already know. Much of this, of course, is a generation gap issue that may close in time (although the technology continuously changes as well).

There are a vast number of new technologies available to revamp the learning experience, many of them involving interactive contact between the subject matter and the student, as opposed to mere absorption of content from a single instructor. The listing below is more illustrative than comprehensive, but a few examples will make the point. New learning or course management systems can help instructors manage their class and communicate with students; Blackboard is the market leader in this field, although there are important open source competitors.  Electronic clicker devices are used in growing numbers of classes, allowing instructors to obtain instant feedback from students. The instructor can ask the student a multiple choice question in class on a concept, and if a large percent of students click the wrong answer, the professor can modify his planned presentation to deal with the learning deficiency.

Interactive (so-called Web 2.0) approaches include wiki pages, blogs, video and note sharing. Students can interact with each other and instructors. Student blogging has proved effective in some courses, both to improve writing skills and to discern student knowledge and comprehension of key concepts.  Even YouTube and related video approaches are being used. If, as some think, “the best way to learn is to teach,” student-made presentations in the style of YouTube may offer, in some cases, opportunities to enhance learning.

In embracing technology, schools need to carefully evaluate new approaches. Are students learning more? Are costs rising or falling? Would it not be better to move to a relatively interactive on-line form of instruction than try to augment traditional instruction with new technology? The technology should be adopted only if it improves service quality (more learning, better educated students), lowers costs, or does both. To this point, the evidence of significant cost reduction from new technology is lacking.

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