October 17, 2013

PARANDEKAR: Adapting Education to Technology

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I was procrastinating on the Internet the other day and found a list of things that are now considered outdated in elementary school classrooms. The first item on the list was chalkboards, which made me realize that in my 19+ years of being a student, I’ve seen some dramatic changes in the use of technology in education. I’ll go through these changes from two points of view: the way that instructors teach and the way that students learn.

The transition from mostly chalkboards to mostly whiteboards occurred sometime around middle or high school for me, and I can’t say it affected my learning much (beyond the fact that we couldn’t secretly be amused at the teachers who were perpetually covered in chalk dust). Smart boards have come around since whiteboards, but I haven’t had the chance to see one in action — there’s one in the Vet School but I’m not sure who uses it. It’ll probably take at least a few more years before they really catch on.

Projection technology has made a bigger difference. I vaguely remember some science teachers using the old school slide projectors, but it was long enough ago that I can’t even really remember the context. Overhead projectors were the norm through most of grade school for me, and the occasional college and vet school professor would use them too. They usually expected us to copy down the things that they wrote on the overhead, so overheads made me very good at developing borderline-OCD note copying skills. If I didn’t write it exactly the same way on my paper as they were writing it on the overhead, it must have been wrong.

Now, we’ve moved past overheads to video projectors and Powerpoints, which I’ve found has led to the biggest differences in teaching. You have the professors who read off of their slides, professors who say a lot less than is on their slides and professors who go on wild tangents off of their slides. I’m not going to take the time right now to go into the pros and cons of each of these teaching methodologies, I’m just making the point that Powerpoints have changed teaching, and as students we have to try harder to understand what exactly the professors want us to know.

Technology was initially used as an adjunct to teaching, and now that it plays a more central role in it, I think that students have had to re-evaluate how to learn. I remember that I used to be fairly good at listening to a lecture which had supplemental notes and images and figuring out what the important points were. With Powerpoints, I’ve found that I have to split my attention between figuring out what is important on the slide and what the professor is saying. I don’t think this is bad — it’s just different, and requires us to be more efficient multi-taskers (which our use of social networking and technology, in general, has already pushed us toward anyway).

Personally, I’ve found that having a computer in class is crucial for me to get the most out of the lectures. There were a couple of years where I had to transition from needing to see hardcopies of things to being able to highlight and take notes on electronic devices, but now I find having a computer to be much more convenient than having to carry around large binders. Also, I use a note-taking software that syncs with my phone/other electronic devices so I can access my notes wherever I am if I need to. I was looking around in class today and I would say that roughly 70 percent of my classmates use some type of electronic device to take notes with. This means that when the Internet in the two main lecture halls doesn’t work reliably, as has been the case all of this semester, our learning is seriously impacted when we’re unable to download the lectures in time.

Lastly, the changes that technology has made, in terms of education in science specifically, deserves a little bit of attention. We’re now able to all view a microscope slide on our computers that a professor is looking at on a microscope, and often the slides are just scanned and we can manipulate them as images on the computer instead of having to peer through a microscope for hours. This makes both teaching and learning much easier. We also have access to equipment in labs that allows us to understand biological processes to a much higher degree of sophistication than ever before.

It’ll be interesting to see where technology takes education in the future — so far, Prezis might replace Powerpoints, but I have a feeling that they’re more a fad than a trend. The double-edged sword behind all of this is that although technology facilitates learning, it also facilitates scientific progress and makes it so that there is a much larger quantity of information to learn. When will our brains no longer be able to keep up?