Digitization changes learning

Students all around the country are now clicking, not writing, to answer questions in lecture every day. The advent of the clicker, distance learning, and tablet laptops has dramatically changed the role of technology in the classroom.

With digitization on the rise, there has been much debate whether this movement comes hand-in-hand with depersonalization.

Peter Madsen, distinguished service professor for ethics and social responsibility in the department of philosophy, observed the differing opinions with regard to digitizing learning.

“Many are fervent proponents of e-learning, while others claim that something gets lost in the rush to digitize the classroom, especially in ‘distance education’ formats,” he said. “Some hold that the traditional classroom that promotes face-to-face student-teacher contact and dialogue cannot be replaced as the best and most productive learning environment.”

Despite the misuse of technology in the classroom, it has had a positive impact on many departments, such as statistics.

“Two generations ago if [you] were to look at an introduction to statistics book, a lot more of the course would have been rote [routine] calculation,” said Gordon Weinberg, a professor in the department of statistics. “But because we can use calculators, and because the importance of quantitative literacy is now better understood, the teaching of introductory statistics is now using computers more for data analysis so that the humans can focus more in the concepts.”

Weinberg noted that students are now able to do more problems during a lecture or recitation due to the decrease in the process of calculations and the increased scrutiny of the results.
Students are able to perform calculations through computer programs such as the R software package that quickly make calculations, including measures of central location and functional estimators.

Amid the debates about the problems and advantages of the digitization of learning, Carnegie Mellon has attempted to find the best middle ground.

Madsen teaches a course called Ethical Judgements in Professional Life, which won awards in 2003 from the American Council of Education and the Institute for International Education.

Madsen’s course examines the ethical issues that confront doctors, lawyers, engineers, and social scientists through streaming video, audio CDs, electronic discussion boards, web-based research, and teleconferences.

Given that technology is integrated in the classroom, Madsen explained why this course is unique in its success.

“This is a hybrid course that combines traditional classroom techniques and technology enhanced learning,” he said. “It relies upon several key technologies, but it does not give up on the idea that the classroom can be a place for active discourse, case-based discussions, and caring instruction.”

Madsen suggested that it might not just be the mere integration of technology to classrooms that contributes to the class’ influence, but rather the balancing of traditional classroom techniques with the smooth incorporation of computers, that is successful.

“The most innovative technological aspect of this course is its use of video conferencing where CMU students have the chance to meet with students who study at Tec de Monterrey in Mexico,” Madsen continued. “They then gather in international teams to work on professional ethics issues, problems, and dilemmas through online tools.”

Carnegie Mellon is home to a number of technological initiatives, all of which have been integrated into the classroom.

In many physics classes, including Physics I and II for Engineers, among others, clickers are now used.

During lecture, a professor shows questions on a PowerPoint presentation, and students point their clickers at a sensor to submit their answers, which corresponds the letters they press on the clickers.

Sam Russell, a first-year electrical and computer engineering major and clicker user, shared his experiences.

“Back when clickers weren’t used and questions were answered verbally by someone raising their hand, you might actually get a relationship with your professor, but the vast majority of people won’t raise their hands, especially the people that don’t know the answer,” he said.

However, on the flip side, professors can now immediately tabulate the class’s results; they can use feedback from the clickers to take attendance, in addition to figuring what percentage of the class understands a certain concept.

Yet the use of technology during lectures is not always for academic material.

Daniel LaGrotta, a first-year information systems major, spoke of the issue of laptops in lecture classes.

“Even though the use of technology in classrooms has become more prevalent, this also has adverse effects,” he said. “For example, a lot of the time I see people with laptops in lecture browsing Facebook and chatting online, but not paying attention to the professor.”

Tablet laptops, while subject to these same distractions, allow students to take notes on the monitor and have dramatically changed the process of taking notes.

The process of taking a class in itself has also changed with the advent of online classes.
A new survey from the Sloan Foundation and the Babson Research Survey Group surveyed 4500 colleges and universities nationwide and found that average online enrollment across all levels increased 9.7 percent from 2005 to 2006.

Online courses are offered at Carnegie Mellon across a number of disciplines.

This semester, online courses are available for French I and II, Chinese II, Spanish II, and Information Design.

Experimenting with online classes, clickers, and more, Carnegie Mellon has and will continue to experience both the ups and downs of these advances in technology.