Inside and outside classrooms, technology pervades College life

Technology has become so ubiquitous on college and university campuses across the nation that it is almost impossible to separate these tools from our daily functions around campus. “Technology is everywhere,” Dean Bolton said. “Every classroom is now laptop-equipped, and faculty regularly use blogs, online assignments, remote images and videos and much more.” 

Jonathan Morgan-Leamon, director of instructional technology, hesitates to use the term ‘technology’ as an umbrella term for the multiple uses for technology that we see on campus. He said technology includes not only “high-tech” contraptions, cutting-edge systems or machinery, but it also includes the simple, daily actions such as swiping into a building that have shaped our experiences at the College in more subtle ways. “‘Technology’ is a weird term to use because it’s so embedded in what we use [day-to-day] that I don’t see it,” Morgan-Leamon said. “A lot of times people think that technology is only the big fancy stuff.”

While the faculty wrestles with the pros and cons of technology in the classroom, including the use of sites such as Glow as a classroom tool, departments such as the Office of Instructional Technology (OIT) at the College help these faculty members to incorporate technology successfully into the classroom in order to satisfy a pedagogical purpose. One goal of educational technology engagement focuses on digital humanities in the classroom, which involves using technological tools in order to help facilitate discussion and enhance classroom conversation. Outside of the classroom, students are also engaging in more extensive technology through workshops and internships designed by OIT, which give interested students the tools to directly have an impact on the various ways technology is used on campus.

Technology allocation in budget

In the 2010-11 academic year, the College spent approximately $6,945,000 on technology, or 5 percent of its budget. In the 1999-00 academic year, $4,353,000 was spent on technology, still accounting for 5 percent of the total program budget.

According to Chris Winters, this 5 percent figure has remained relatively consistent over the last 12 years.

“The nominal [budget] has, of course, increased over time as overall spending has increased,” Winters said. Nominal dollars for the technology allocation peaked in 2007-08 at $7,965,000, but Winters said that this amount still only accounted for 5.6 percent of the program budget.

 Student involvement with technology

Morgan-Leamon said that the office uses a faculty-support model – in which OIT educates faculty, who can in turn educate their students – to help students realize academic and personal visions.

OIT can also help students with some individual projects.  “If a student came to us and said ‘I need to learn how to use FinalCut,’ or, ‘I need to create a map to go into my thesis,’ we could help with that,” he said. “But if a student comes up and says, ‘I need to learn how to program,’ we don’t have enough of us [at OIT] available to allow one person to specifically help this student.”

The College has launched programming to introduce students to technological possibilities. Each year, OIT runs a series of workshops in digital humanities aimed at students, as well as an annual film festival where students produce short films. This past summer, a video internship was available for students who helped film and produce the Williams Thinking lecture series.

Students who worked on the video internship over the summer have a unique perspective on the intersections between daily technology and the technology at the College that is more visible in specialized or behind-the-scenes efforts. Peter De Riemer ’13, a summer video intern, said he believes that Williams Thinking and the video internship program are steps in the right direction for stimulating the College’s technological landscape. Fellow summer video intern Ali Graeber ’14 added that she believes the right technological resources are already readily available on campus. “OIT is great about being available to fix computer problems and the resources are there for students to use and learn computer programs,” she said, also citing the Equipment Loan Center – which loans out a wide variety of visual and audio equipment for free – as a major resource.

“My internship this summer focused on using technology for media and communication. This is an area which I know the College is working to expand,” Graebner said. She said that serious discussions surrounding student involvement in video production occurred this summer, generating ideas such as creating a real video studio for students to actualize their production concepts.

In terms of the relationship between technology and extracurriculars, De Reimer pointed to student clubs as pioneers for this move. “I think more and more student clubs, like WCFM, are getting functional, attractive websites that allow for community building,” he said.

OIT-faculty relationship

OIT has a long history of working with faculty members with the aim of incorporating different modes of technology into their pedagogical goals and curricula. There are no College-mandated technological requirements for faculty, and professors are given free reign to accept or decline electronic tools for their courses. For instance, even Glow, which is the online course tool that lets faculty post course documents and create discussion forums, is optional.

Morgan-Leamon explained that while technology has been useful in helping faculty accomplish academic visions, the specific teaching focuses of faculty have not necessarily changed over time. “The pedagogical goal hasn’t changed,” Morgan-Leaoman said. “For example, faculty now use e-mail, before that they used telephones and typewriters and before that they used hand-written notes.”

One of the goals OIT has newly defined is in the digital humanities realm. OIT recently funded the purchase of a set of iPads for each of the students in the class “Theatrical Self-Production the Cartographic Imagination” taught by assistant professor of theatre David Morris. Morgan-Leamon described how the course, which involves coming up with a core idea at the beginning of the semester, and then developing an entire play from this conversation, is dramatically enhanced by this technological investment. “[With] the iPads, you can instantly have other students give comments and get back on an idea, and then when you get to class that week, you have discussions that are already in place, allowing you to have a deeper engagement with the material,” Morgan-Leamon said.

Morris has found the iPads to be a genuinely useful classroom tool. “I’ve found [the iPads] incredibly helpful, particularly for this class,” Morris said. “We’ve been using it as a way to help us archive all of our research and ideas that we have come up with in class, as well as used it as a camera,for basic video and sound editing, and documentation in rehearsal.” However, Morris said that he does not see the iPad as a required replacement for a simple notebook or laptop computer.

“One thing we were clear with [in this class] was that the iPad had to be an instance in technology that helped you in some way, instead of being a burden,” he said. “If there’s ever a time where it would be faster for a student to write down an idea on a piece of paper, they should do that. You don’t have to use the technology just because it’s there.”

Disclaimer aside, Morris has been generally happy with the incorporation of the iPad into his classroom. “I myself want iPads for everyone in all of my classrooms,” he said.

Glow in the classroom 

Glow, an online educational tool, can be used by professors to manage course materials, communicate with students and allow for online discussion. Before Glow, professors performed similar functions on the website Blackboard, but the switch was made beginning in the 2009-10 academic year.

Associate Professor of History Magnus Bernhardsson frequently uses Glow to communicate with his students. “For most of my classes, I also require students to keep a blog on Glow where they respond to or reflect on the class discussion or the class material,” he said. “I have found this a very nice way to continue the discussion after the class is over and also to enable all students an opportunity to articulate their opinion.”

Bernhardsson stressed that one of the advantages to posting blogs was the ability for students to hone their public writing skills, as “more and more writing in our society take place in the public digital sphere.” Additionally, the ability for students to comment on each others works in a semi-public forum offers them exposure to diverse opinions, Bernhardsson said.

Bernhardsson admitted that Glow does have its faults as well. “I wish I could personalize it a bit more and that it was a bit more user -friendly,” he said.

Assistant Professor of Mathematics Steven Miller opts to use programs directly in HTML, using a very low level interface, instead of Glow. “I find I’m able to post information very easily, and move things back and forth between different course pages,” Miller said. “Also, anyone can access the page. They don’t need a [Williams] account.” This has proved useful, since Miller has taken pages he created at the College and migrate them to Smith and Mount Holyoke, where he is spending his sabbatical.

Technology as classroom intellectual material

Associate Professor of English Christian Thorne has a reputation on campus for incorporating technology into the classroom, largely due to his “Introduction to Cultural Theory” course, which makes heavy use of movies, music and YouTube clips. However, Thorne insists that the technology he uses in his classes is not to enhance his teaching – rather, the subjects and discussions represented in his teaching are “centrally about that technology.”

“I’m not teaching a course on Milton that simply garners a PowerPoint presentation out of passages and frontis pieces from old books, but when I teach in a technology-heavy way, it is because we’re trying to make sense of that technology,” Thorne said. Thorne explained that he thinks technology can become “ornamental” in a class, especially if it’s outside of the traditional technology-heavy classes that one would find in the scientific or mathematical realm.

Thorne elaborated that he sees how videos and YouTube clips can become “snares to trap the attention of the students,” remarking that employing technology to casually enliven classrooms is not acceptable to him.

Bernhardsson articulated similar concerns. “I think it is very important that technology does not itself become the focus but rather merely the medium,” he said. “We still have to focus on the basics – reading and writing – and figure out how technology actually can sharpen the development of analytical skills.

Thorne sees the future as only moving forward with more integration of technology into the daily classroom culture. “The big question now for people is whether we need to be taking the move to smaller devices more seriously, such as tablets and smart-phones, and the ways that they can be used for pedagogically good purposes,” he said.

Pitfalls of technology

While many professors readily welcome certain forms of technology in the classroom, there exist many technological devices that serve to undermine, not enhance, the classroom experience. “Though I embrace it, I also want to be sure that students are not distracted by their own devices,” Bernhardsson said. “In my bigger classes, I ban the use of laptops.”

Associate Professor of Philosophy Joe Cruz ’91 also has a laptop ban in the classroom, largely for what the machines indicate about the quality of the educational experience. “There’s a small part of me that bristles, of course, at the inevitable distracted quick look at Facebook or e-mail that is hard for laptop users to resist,” Cruz said. “But the truth is that that only matters a little to me. If the seminar is not intellectually vigorous and charged enough to keep everyone’s attention, my view is that I need to work harder.”

Professor of Political Science Cheryl Shanks requires her students to turn off their laptops and cell phones. Like Cruz, she said that her students have no use for laptops in the classroom. Shanks added that forgoing phones is a matter of civility and courtesy. “How can students think we’re in a collective conversation and yet interrupt to reply to a text message?” Shanks asked.

“When I first started teaching in the late ’90s, cell phones were unusual,” Bernhardsson said. “When I got to Williams in 2003, they were also rare primarily because there was hardly any coverage here in the Berkshires. [Around] 2004 there was an epidemic, and phones were constantly going off in classes.”

Use of personal devices introduces the basic issue of the degree of reliance students have on these technological objects. “We have too much information at our fingerprints,” Bernhardsson said. “So the challenge for our generation, and especially this generation of college students, is not lack of information but lack of appreciation. Technology might help us here but shouldn’t enslave us.”

Moving forward

“Technology connects us, in a profound way, to events far beyond our doors,” Bolton said, alluding to the possibilities that technology may hold for furthering the intellectual discussions in the classroom as well as enhancing student life on campus. As technology such as iPads and smart phones becomes more commonplace on campus, it may be inevitable that, similar to the introduction of e-mail, such tools will feel necessary.

As technology continues to fulfill dual instructional and personal functions, members of the College community will consider the different ways technology brings those two realms together, or alternatively, defines education and amusement as separate. “Students and professors are using more and more devices, and I think that will jog the thinking within faculty about whether or not we want to take technology more seriously and not just use them as another platform [for entertainment],” Thorne said.