Taking Technology Out of the Classroom

(Cross-posted from Wealth of Nations)

By Susan H. Greenberg  

When it comes to using technology to foster education, the prevailing wisdom has been that more is better. Over the past decade, universities around the globe have invested heavily in the wired classroom, adding everything from external laptop connections to Blu-ray DVD players. But there is little evidence that these gadgets enhance learning─and, critics argue, they might actually hinder it, making both students and teachers passive. What if classrooms were restored to the pre-Internet days of wooden tables and chalk?

The Idea: Take technology out of the classroom. José Bowen, dean of the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Texas, has done just that. He wants his faculty to "teach naked," meaning without the aid of any machines. "Just because you have a PowerPoint presentation doesn't mean you have a good lecture," he argues. Classroom time should be reserved for discussions with the professor, aimed at teaching students to think critically, argue, and raise new questions. In light of the grim economic climate at most universities, he says, shunning new technology is also a sound way to save money.

The Evidence: Bowen, who teaches music, delivers content via podcasts, which students must listen to on their own time. He then quizzes them on the material before every class to make sure they've done the work, and uses class time for discussions and research pegged to the recorded lessons. He's been teaching the same material for 25 years, but since he implemented the new regimen, he says, his students have been more engaged and scored better on exams. College students asked by researchers to list what motivates them have consistently emphasized teacher enthusiasm, organization, and rapport, while naming lack of active participation as a major disincentive. Last spring the published a survey that found that 59 percent of students called at least half their lectures boring─particularly those involving PowerPoint. 

The Conclusion: Technology has a place in education, but it should be used independently by students outside the classroom. That gives them more time to absorb lectures via podcast or video, and frees teachers to spend class time coaching students in how to apply the material rather than simply absorb it.

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