Professors, students question usefulness of technology in classroom

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Katherine Chen/Staff

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On the first day of class the lecture hall for Biology 1B was teeming with students. The unlucky ones shuffled into the course’s several overflow rooms, containing video projections of the live lecture taking place just next door.

Ava Rezvani, a sophomore and intended integrative biology major currently enrolled in Biology 1B, was fortunate enough to secure her seat by arriving well before the class began.

By the end of the semester, that same oversaturated hall may attract very few. The rest may rely on webcast, which allows them to watch the lecture whenever — or wherever — they want.

In fact, Rezvani has seen it firsthand in previous semesters. Though she personally aims to attend all of her lectures, webcasted or not, she understands why many would not want to attend the 8am Biology 1B class.

“It’s hard to motivate yourself to wake up in the morning and make the trudge onto campus for a class that you could probably watch on Saturday morning in your pajamas while eating cereal,” Rezvani said in an email. “No one is keeping track of your attendance and you are not getting any extra points for being there, so why do it?”

In the past, students have enjoyed the convenience of webcast, as is evidenced by the notoriously empty lecture halls at the end of the semester.

With this increasing trend towards bringing technology into the classroom, one must ask: does it really belong there?

UC Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education is attempting to determine the value of emerging technologies — such as webcasting — for higher education.

The center conducted a study looking at the use of technology aids in Chemistry 1A, a large lecture course. The course, which has more than 1,000 students enrolled each semester, uses webcast, PowerPoint lecture slides, online homework and quizzing, and iClickers.

The study, headed by senior researcher Diane Harley, concluded that while students found the technologies to be a positive component of the course, student performance was not significantly affected.

“Classes like Chem 1A are really large and can be very stressful for students,” Harley said. “Technologies such as webcast relieved stress for students because they could rewatch lectures.”

In fall 2006, UC Berkeley embarked on a five-year technological advancement initiative to increase the percentage of classrooms with integrated technology on campus from around 25 percent to 90 percent, according to Benjamin Hubbard, the interim director of the university’s Education Technology Services.

He said classrooms on campus range from the simplest, with baseline technologies like video playback and computer projection, to the most advanced, with customized technology like cameras for video capture.

“In the past, lecturers had to check out projection equipment from our offices and cart it across campus to their classrooms,” Hubbard said. “But that practice has dramatically decreased since a lot of our classrooms have been equipped with most of what our instructors need.”

While the aim of ETS is to develop and support the integration of learning with technology at UC Berkeley, Hubbard emphasized that the department is “tech-agnostic.”

“Technology can be a teaching tool and a catalyst for discourse,” Hubbard said. “However, we do not promote the use of technology simply for the sake of using it.”

Hubbard added that technology’s usefulness as a teaching tool varies across disciplines.

For example, Ananya Roy, chair of the global poverty and practice minor, is progressive in her use of technology in class and encourages students to use Twitter in her GPP 115 class to tweet comments and questions she projects live during lectures.

Many science courses are also “tech-friendly” but in a very different way from Roy’s class.

Biology 1A and Biology 1B are two large courses that employ technological tools such as webcast.

Mike Moser, the academic coordinator of Biology 1B, said that despite the positive aspects of webcasted lectures, students have been known to take advantage of the webcast and stop coming to lecture altogether.

“Webcast is meant to be a backup, not a substitute, for lecture,” Moser said. “Students are adults, and it’s not our obligation to force them to come to lecture, but when we see that hardly anyone comes, maybe one day we’ll just pull the plug on the camera.”

Biology 1A faced similar problems since lectures became webcasted in 2008. To incentivize attendance, Michael Meighan, the academic coordinator for Biology 1A, said that the course implemented the use of iClickers in fall 2012.

Since then, Meighan said, student attendance increased from between 40 and 50 percent to 95 percent.

Although both Moser and Meighan agree that technological tools have improved student learning in their courses, not all lecturers feel that technology has a place in their classrooms.

Ethnic studies professor Enrique Lima said he believes that technology serves as a distraction in his classroom and obstructs teacher-student interaction.

“I know this generation is all about multitasking, but I honestly feel that students are unable to comprehend lecture material while also shopping online or surfing Facebook,” Lima said.

In his Ethnic Studies 11AC course, Lima asks graduate student instructors to sit in the back of the classroom and monitor students who use laptops. If a student is off track, Lima tells his GSIs to call them out in the middle of lecture.

Ultimately, though, it is more than the iClicker-point incentive that draws many students to webcasted classes.

According to Rezvani, now four weeks into Biology 1B, students still crowd the lecture hall.

“(The professor) is so engaging and interesting that it’s no wonder they didn’t make (Biology 1B) iClicker based,” Rezvani said in her email. “Students will come to lecture despite not having the point incentive because Professor Feldman is such an amazing and knowledgeable professor.”

Pooja Mhatre is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected].

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