Technology gaps in the classroom

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Universities are supposed to be places where the young come to learn from the old, where students seek the knowledge of the masters. It has always been this way. Yet there is one area where things are now upside-down, where the young outpace their elders: technology. Over the past decade or two the young have overtaken their fearless leaders; we are now faced with the sad reality that many of those sitting in the chairs in front of us know more about using technology than those of us standing in the front of the room.

We all know some of this reality. New technological lingo – IM, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook – are a common language for students long before the strange words mean anything to the faculty. Students whiz around creating PowerPoint presentations, digital video productions and sophisticated web pages for the class, and the world, to see, while faculty look on in amazement (or horror). Sure, many students still can’t write a coherent paragraph or effectively analyze a passage of literature, but they can multitask in the classroom with aplomb. That can lead to students exploiting a professor’s ignorance. With the advent of wireless networking in many classrooms, faculty are often clueless to the fact that a student who brings a wireless-equipped laptop into many classrooms today to “take notes” can multitask all class long: IMing their friends around the country, visiting other students in MySpace or Facebook and browsing for deals on eBay.

Students are often also far ahead in terms of computer hardware and software, too. My very unscientific study of Mac vs. PC, based on those students who bring laptops to class, reveals that roughly half the students are buying Macs. And why not? As the Mac ad goes, they just work. Meanwhile some universities, in a misinformed effort to do some cost cutting, limit their faculty to Windows-based machines. They are told that it is more “efficient” to have a “uniform” computer platform, so faculty sit in their offices with hordes of virus protection and mal ware, and wait for the latest security patches to fix the hundreds of holes found in Windows (12 more this week alone!). Nothing like “efficiency” getting in the way of getting things done, and uniformity to stifle creativity! Too bad we can’t be as technologically savvy as many of the students in our midst.

Be we are trying to redeem our ways. Though we faculty are often semi-fossilized in our knowledge and use of technology, we’re doing our best to catch up. We’ve been encouraged to use the LCD projectors available in many classrooms to display our computer screen on the big screen – if we can just figure out which cable to plug into our computer and which buttons to press to actually make the image show up on the external display. Many universities have access to federal Title III money to develop and enhance their technology. We’re learning to use technological tools to improve the class experience: digital video cameras to record our lectures for students to later review as podcasts on the university’s streaming web server; iPods with Bluetooth remote microphones to loan to students so they can go record personal stories and integrate them into their PowerPoint or Keynote presentations. Perhaps once we really get the hang of it you’ll see more of us doing video blogs or using iSight or Skype to conduct live interviews with a political scientist in South Africa or India.

Now if we can only figure out why we don’t have any friends in MySpace, what we are supposed to “dig” in Digg and why there are so many periods in del.icio.us. We can always ask our students.

Ken Martens Friesen, Ph. D., teaches political science and history at Fresno Pacific University.

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