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After a full day of teaching at Boston College, Karen Arnold had to find time to read her students’ contributions to an online discussion board. Each was required to write at least one post, and, as usual, they seemed to have waited to do it until the night before the deadline.

“They would just blather something,” said Arnold, who teaches higher education and educational administration. “They didn’t have a conversation. It was more like a hoop-jumping exercise.”

That was around 2008, and Arnold has avoided assigning online discussions ever since.

Student and instructor at Bronx Community College (Photo by Ryan Brenizer)

Like other faculty with memories of failed experiments such as these, she’s pushing back against the widespread notion that technology can necessarily improve teaching and cut costs.

“We are fooling ourselves that we’re getting more efficient,” she said.

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It’s been a high-stakes bet. Universities and colleges are marketing themselves to tech-savvy teenagers while promising higher productivity and financial savings. They will pour $10.4 billion into education technology this year, according to the Center for Digital Education, from computers to in-class gadgets such as digital projectors and wireless “clickers” that let students answer questions electronically.

“We are fooling ourselves that we’re getting more efficient.” Karen Arnold, Boston College

But professors say they don’t have enough help to use this technology effectively, haven’t seen results from it, and fear that the cost savings administrators keep insisting that technology will bring could mean their own careers are on the line.

That’s left many in the university ranks rolling their eyes when the next “innovation” pops up.

“We’ve been hearing over the last four or five years that technology is going to reduce costs, increase quality and increase access,” said Diane Harley, director of the Higher Education in the Digital Age project at University of California, Berkeley.

She doesn’t think it can do all three of those things.

“I always say, pick two.”

Not that professors have completely resisted the trend. Nearly 75 percent have tried a new technology in their classes in the past year, according to a survey of 1,600 of them by Faculty Focus, a newsletter that shares effective teaching practices. Yet 34 percent said keeping up with technology was either “moderately” or “very” problematic.

Related: As online courses expand, so do questions about ownership

One of the most common complaints from faculty is that much of this technology creates more work, not less, a survey of 42 professors by David R. Johnson, a sociology researcher at Rice University, found.

One of the reasons for this inefficiency is that professors adopt educational technology from companies that market it to them directly, even when their universities aren’t equipped to troubleshoot or upgrade it, said Gary W. Matkin, dean of continuing education, distance learning, and summer session at the University of California, Irvine. Then, when something even better comes along, faculty and universities chase after that. “It produces this technology war,” said Matkin.

He thinks more universities will eventually switch to the model used by many corporations in which only certain technology is allowed. That way they’ll be better able to manage it — and track the results.

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Many schools have used this model to adopt the wireless clickers — or “student response systems” — in large classrooms. Allowing students to use the TV remote-style clickers to collectively answer questions can keep them engaged in lecture classes, according to a study at Canisius College, which found that student grades increased by 4.7 percent in classes that used clickers.

But the technology’s impact goes only so far. In another study released this year, by Butler University professor Juan Pablo Rodriquez Prieto, language students who took clicker-based quizzes performed about 4.5 percent worse than classmates who used pencil and paper.

Clare O’Connor, a Boston College biology professor who teaches several large classes and uses clickers regularly, agrees that they have limitations. She doesn’t use them for quizzes or tests, she said.

“I like students to have the opportunities to change their answers,” she said. “If students have to answer when a question appears on the screen, you eliminate the possibility of more reflective answers.”

One way schools have tried to lower the cost of education is by using another kind of technology: online courses. Yet even after teaching English online for 15 years, Wright State University-Lake Campus’ Martin Kich believes in-person courses offer students far more.

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He said he has to assign what he calls “busy work” to online classes simply to check that students are completing assignments, since there’s no opportunity to gather and discuss.

“Academically, they are very suspect,” Kich said of online courses.

Instead of lectures, online courses often use PowerPoint to present material. But studies have found that students, when given the ability to see lectures via PowerPoint — both online and in person — slack on doing their own assigned reading.

“Students perceive the teachers will highlight all of the material worth considering in the textbook,” University of Central Missouri professor Thomas M. Mitchell wrote in a study of the use of PowerPoint in classes. “Unfortunately, students accept this efficient and time-saving system as a normal way of learning and disregard reading as an effective method of acquiring information.”

As for Arnold, she abandoned discussion boards until her university upgraded to Canvas — an online learning management system — and encouraged professors to use it starting this year.

After getting student feedback, she assigned two students to moderate the discussion board each week, filling it with questions that would drive conversation. At the start of class, the two students recap the results, saving Arnold the need to keep daily tabs on the board.

“The good and bad thing about technology is it will do anything,” she said. But “you have to have time at the expense of other things you could be doing to figure it out.”

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Letters to the Editor

6 Letters

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  1. This is all very anectodal evidence with very little n the way of a pre and post analysis with specific costs and outcome variables. The classroom technology is changing so rapidly that it may take several longitudinal studies to resolve. The biggest issue is that students expectations for academic rigor is seemingly lower for on line courses. The only group who can resolve that issue are the profs by using the same standards for aon Lin and face to face and letting the chips fall where they may. Meeting the learning outcomes must be proven to be the same or better than face to face. If they are worse the cost benefit needs to be examined relative to the decrease in efficacy associated with on line.

    My personal view is that higher Ed is going to move toward a hybrid which blends the strengths of face to face and those of on line while simultaneously mitigating each modality respective weaknesses.

  2. If we are serious about closing the achievement gap in this country then EdTech is our last best hope to close those gaps to gradually increase access and reduce the time it takes for students to receive a BA degree. For many years I sat in the traditional classroom and connected with my peers in face-to-face classrooms yet that did little to prepare me for changes in the current workplace. Current EdTech technologies might be coming fast furious to contemporary college instructors but over time we will reap the benefits with students who are prepared for career success and long-term prosperity.

  3. When a professor admits to assigning ‘busy work’ and then says that online classes are not academically equal to face-to-face courses, where does the problem lie? With the technology or the people utilizing the technology?

    Higher Education in general needs to stop thinking the Technology will solve any problems. Technology is almost always a tool to be used by people to improve efficiency or outcomes. This article could potentially be title: The Gaps in Higher Education Technology: User Error and other Assumptions.

  4. Clickers and online discussions are simply two of the more recent fads, both of which will probably be history within 10 years. Don’t believe me? As a K-12 student, undergraduate student, graduate student, and K-12 classroom teacher I saw reel-to-reel tape recorders, filmstrip projectors, betamaxes, Apple II computers, whiteboards, smartboards, programmed instruction, etc. etc. come and go. I’m not sure if I really learned more than my parents did with the chalkboards and overhead projectors their teachers and professors had access to.

  5. A couple of thoughts … technology has created more work for everyone – answering emails and texts outside of the workday is common place now. Every professional or employee needs to learn the technology of their profession or job.
    Assuming traditional teachers can teach online with no training is a mistake and a disservice to both the teacher and students. Distance learning is a field of study that has existed in the field of education since the 1800’s and correspondence courses. There are proper techniques that can be used to engage students at a distance. A traditional face-to-face teacher may not be qualified to teach online. It is a different set of skills. It is only fair to provide training or give these classes to trained online teachers.
    There is research (that has been replicated) that shows there is “no significant difference” between online and face-to-face classes on learning.
    We can’t give up or stop using technology because it is harder, more work, different or expensive – I sure hope the car manufacturers, medical profession or farmers don’t turn their backs on technology as easily.

  6. At the CC level, there are large studies (in the states of Washington and Maryland among others) that show that students pass online courses at significantly lower rates than f2f courses. So, for the above comment about letting chips fall where they may, that is already happening. But what is the point of using a teaching medium is less successful than another teaching medium? The only winners in the push for online education are the tech companies. Shocking. Corporations are attempting to privatize education because they want to get their hands on the public money. This should always be kept in mind when analyzing any innovation in education.

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