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Classroom Technology Faces Skeptics At Research Universities

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