A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Eduction caught my eye. It’s about the efforts of a Dean at Southern Methodist University to encourage his faculty to teach without PowerPoint and other computer-assisted classroom methods.
It seems that students find lectures boring, whether or not professors use PowerPoint to “spice up” their lectures with brightly colored outlines projected on Smart Boards.
Further, the use of technologies in the classroom has not fundamentally changed classroom dynamics: a lecture with a PowerPoint is really no different than a lecture with a PowerPoint.
So what’s the point? The point is that good teaching exists apart from the technology one uses or does not use. Good teachers can create fantastic lessons with podcasts, wikis, blogs, and other technological tools. Or they can just ask good questions and foment good discussion that leads to better understanding of the material.
As students (and parents) shopping for colleges, then, how should you view technology? Well, my advice is not to get carried away with the idea that a college that has wireless access under every tree is somehow better than the college where only the residences and academic buildings are wired (and with kids having smart phones in their pockets anyway, isn’t all that wireless coverage just costing you double?).
Also, don’t assume that colleges without smart boards and projectors and BlueRay players in ever classroom are better than those that do not. Some colleges pride themselves that their classroom experiences are focused on ideas, not on gadgets. Do you really need all that goop to teach verb conjugations or the Plato’s analogy of the cave? Even in science classes, a good deal of the learning takes place in the laboratory, where the technology of the Bunsen burner has not changed all that much.
Finally, keep in mind that all that technology is expensive, and that a large number of faculty on a campus are not taking full advantage of the capabilities. Much of that technology is gathering dust, as faculty members continue to read their lectures word-for-word. Your tuition dollars and technology fees are used to pay for all that machinery.
Demand drives costs in higher education. Spending on technology has helped fuel spiraling costs of college attendance in the past 20 years. I think it’s healthy that some colleges and universities are reevaluating this spending, and instead examining what really makes a difference in the classroom: good teaching.