Classroom Technology Faces Skeptics At Research Universities

Professors at research universities prefer teaching with old-fashioned whiteboards, one study says.

David F Carr, Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

February 8, 2013

6 Min Read

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Professors at top research universities are highly skeptical of the value of the instructional technologies being injected into their classrooms, which many see as making their job harder and doing little to improve teaching and learning.

That's the conclusion of "Technological Change and Professional Control in the Professoriate," published in the January edition of Science, Technology & Human Values. Based on interviews with 42 faculty members at three research-intensive universities, the study was funded under a grant from the National Science Foundation and particularly focuses on professors in the sciences, including chemistry and biology, with anthropology thrown in as a point of comparison.

Consider the opinions of two different chemists. "I went to [a course management software workshop] and came away with the idea that the greatest thing you could do with that is put your syllabus on the Web and that's an awful lot of technology to hand the students a piece of paper at the start of the semester and say keep track of it," said one. "What are the gains for students by bringing IT into the class? There isn't any. You could teach all of chemistry with a whiteboard. I really don't think you need IT or anything beyond a pencil and a paper," said another.

[ Is online education over-hyped? Read MOOCs: Valuable Innovation Or Grand Diversion? ]

The most positive remarks professors had for classroom technology amounted to faint praise, with some saying they used classroom technology to cope with very large class sizes in introductory courses. In those settings, technological razzle-dazzle could be helpful, they said. "They're undergraduates -- you need to attract their attention before you can teach them anything. In my mind that's the name of the game … With video game culture or anything, you know, I think that will get 'em involved, you know, a little remote control."

The study got picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which reported it under the headline "Professors Say Technology Helps in Logistics, Not Learning," prompting a lively discussion in the comments section. Although many readers agreed that universities too often adopt technology for technology's sake, without a clear strategy for integrating it with instruction, others objected that the sentiments expressed in the article were misguided and missed the revolutionary potential of new technologies.

The author of the study, David R. Johnson, said he read those comments with interest but suspects some of the defenders of the technology who posted there are instructional technology professionals "who think by definition things are better just because they are technologically rich." University administrators also seem to be inspired by a "ceremonial myth that being a cutting-edge university means being high tech," Johnson said.

The professors he interviewed, on the other hand, were technically sophisticated in their own fields but had no vested interest in the success of instructional technologies, which many felt were being imposed on them by the university administration with no regard for their preferences. "I've been very disturbed at the way this university has tried to ram these technologies down our throats," grumbled one anthropologist. "My belief is that we should have a wide range of choices for teaching technologies, but what goes on here is the higher administration has decided what's best for us in a very paternalistic fashion. I've become hardened in my resistance to these attempts to impose the adoption of technologies. And even though I once might have been more receptive to some of them, I'm now saying no, I'm not going to do it." A "very, very small group" of the professors interviewed showed a more active interest in the innovative use of technology, Johnson said. One chemistry professor was not only using interactive response clickers to provide more feedback and evaluation for large classes but mining the data to understand the response of students with different learning styles. "I thought that was an interesting, pedagogy-motivated use of the technology," Johnson said. The majority of the professors, however, weren't going beyond the use of PowerPoint and online distribution of course notes, he said. Many of those interviewed also said that the technologies they were given to work with tended to make more work for them, rather than making them more productive.

Johnson conducted the research while working on his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia; he has since moved on to post-doctoral research post at Rice University. His research interest is more "technological change and its impact on skilled and unskilled labor" than innovation in educational technology per se, he said.

One educational technology enthusiast who posted on Twitter his objection to the Chronicle of Higher Education report on is Mark Greenfield, an educational technology consultant and director of Web services at the State University of New York at Buffalo.

In an interview, Greenfield said he disagreed more with the implications about the true value of instructional technology than the fact that some professors might be skeptical of its value. Where educational technology tends to fall down is where professors use it to teach the way they have always taught, rather than understanding the advantages of new media.

"In defense of the faculty -- and I have many faculty friends -- they often don't have the resources to use the technology correctly," Greenfield said. There is a tendency to add technology to the classroom without adequate training in how to use it effectively, he said.

Still, Greenfield thought the attitudes expressed in the study seemed extreme. "I would not say that attitude is pervasive among faculty," he said, noting that the sample size was too small to make generalizations. "I also think it's interesting that this is looking at research universities. I'd love to know what the results would look like from a wide survey, with a research university compared with a small liberal arts college."

Johnson said he noted that criticism is a recurring theme in the comments on the Chronicle's website, but he called it a misunderstanding of the research, which was qualitative rather than quantitative. Instead of creating a survey with per-defined choices that could be distributed broadly and run through a statistical analysis, he conducted interviews with a smaller set of subjects who were asked relatively open-ended questions. Also, the focus on science professors at research institutions reflected the interest of the sponsoring institution, the National Science Foundation, in improving science education.

"It's not meant to extend to all contexts of higher education," Johnson said. Professors at research institutions are rewarded more for research than for teaching, with instruction treated almost as a side job, he said. The attitudes of professors at a small liberal arts college might well be different, he said -- since teaching is a bigger part of their job, they might be more interested in new methods of teaching. Although he has no plans for further research on this topic, a natural follow up would be a broader look at the attitudes of faculty at multiple tiers of universities, he said.

Follow David F. Carr on Twitter @davidfcarr or Google+.

About the Author(s)

David F Carr

Editor, InformationWeek Government/Healthcare

David F. Carr oversees InformationWeek's coverage of government and healthcare IT. He previously led coverage of social business and education technologies and continues to contribute in those areas. He is the editor of Social Collaboration for Dummies (Wiley, Oct. 2013) and was the social business track chair for UBM's E2 conference in 2012 and 2013. He is a frequent speaker and panel moderator at industry events. David is a former Technology Editor of Baseline Magazine and Internet World magazine and has freelanced for publications including CIO Magazine, CIO Insight, and Defense Systems. He has also worked as a web consultant and is the author of several WordPress plugins, including Facebook Tab Manager and RSVPMaker. David works from a home office in Coral Springs, Florida. Contact him at [email protected]and follow him at @davidfcarr.

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