Technology in higher education: Trying to keep up in the classroom

17/Mayo/2013 | 12:08

By Consuelo Naranjo
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Moore’s Law, which says computing capacity will double every 18-24 months and reaffirms the continual advancement of processing power, also serves as a bellwether for the constant technological upheaval in all other areas of our lives. Trying to keep up has never been so challenging.

Integrating new technologies into daily life, which now includes social media and smart mobile devices, is essential and their usage in higher education is forcing professors and students to adapt their teaching and learning strategies to new realities.

According to Business Insider website, Comscore, an Internet technology company that measures digital activity, reports that more than 235 million Americans own a mobile device, half of which are smartphones.

Because younger generations are the quickest to master and implement technology into their daily lives, the proliferation of hand-held mobile computing devices underscores a reality now evident on college campuses: the days of simply taking notes and reading text books are over. So, too, is the need for a student’s physical presence in the classroom.

Florida International University (FIU) offers a look into the expanding possibilities offered by new digital technologies for both students and faculty.

FIU spent $8.3 million dollars in technology fees last year according to the University budget summary from 2012-13. In addition to the latest hardware, Blackboard and Moodle - an integrated set of web-based course management platforms where faculty and students can access presentation software, audio, animation, grade books and academic material - have become essential tools for a new style of education.

“We are experiencing such an extraordinary transformation in technology,” said Matt Hagood, director of Media and Technology Services for the Division of Information Technology at FIU. “Moodle and Blackboard have changed our students’ lives dramatically,”

Like many universities around the world, FIU also is updating their entire online academic system. Currently, thousands of books, articles and textbooks are only a click away. This is in addition to outside resources such as Google Scholar, a search engine that accesses scholarly literature across disciplines.

Student Ben Taleb said Google Scholar is a necessary complement to solid instruction. “I am lucky to have access to the most current information available. Technology, along with great professors at FIU, has helped mentor students, creating well-rounded experts in the field,” he said.

Increasingly students are receiving instruction, support, and mentoring outside of the physical classroom setting.

In 2011, the Center for Academic Success at FIU began online services allowing students the option of whether or not they want to fill their academic needs face-to-face. Many have opted not to. After-hours and weekend appointments have become very popular with students who prefer to communicate with a peer-tutor via video conferencing.

“Online tutoring is a really good option for students who cannot make it to the center because of time constraints or transportation issues. Our extended schedule tries to accommodate those who work odd hours or need last minute help on an assignment,” said Nazneen Zaidi, a tutor at the Center for Excellence in Writing.

But the changes in how students learn and interact in higher education begin well before entering university. Ziyad Ben Taleb, a PhD student specializing in public health who is originally from Libya, said, ''By having access to technology and searching tools, I was successfully able to apply for a scholarship and academic programs in the US and elsewhere. Without Internet accessibility I would not be here today perusing high levels of education.''

Once technology brings students together, it is up to the professors to keep up. “It is much harder now for a professor to maintain students’ attention than it was two decades ago,” said assistant professor Yu Liu. “Nowadays, it is a challenge for professors to keep students focused in class.”

Taking the ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ approach, Liu decided to incorporate social media platforms such as YouTube into her lectures. She captures her students’ attention by showing videos, TV series and short documentaries. By leveraging technology in the classroom she said students, “can ignore personal technological devices,” that might otherwise distract them in the classroom.

Moses Shumow, assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication and one of the founders of the digital media studies program, also tries to create a technological bond with his students. “What we are trying to incorporate are digital aspects to all the tracks, giving students a broader way of thinking while they better their skills,” he said. “We are living in a communication revolution and we need a new set of skills to understand it.”

Those skills include using tools like “clickers,” a remote control keypad connected to a database that allows students and professors to participate actively in class lectures. The device also allows professors to monitor attendance. “Clickers are a teaching strategy. I try to get away from the idea of me talking and students just taking notes,” said Shumow.

Clickers, smartphones, and tablets have become indispensable tools for learning, according to Emmanuel Cabrera, who works at the Apple store in Miami. “New technology and the Internet world is allowing people to learn in a way that we have never seen before,” he said.

Moises Fuertes, a junior majoring in digital media, believes that technology is also becoming a necessary tool to communicate effectively. “More people use mobile texting or Facebook for university purposes than ever before,” he said.

The FIU Facebook page has more than 51,000 likes while the FIU Twitter account has more than 11,000 followers. And the hundreds of hashtags connecting to FIU on Instagram, an online photo sharing and social networking site, demonstrates its popularity as a way of communicating among students, faculty and staff.

Fuertes says he uses his smartphone to access the principal social networking platforms. “I go to my Facebook app to set up meetings and keep in touch with group members in my classes. I find that messaging them on Facebook is more effective than calling or texting.”

Though technology is transforming notions about how to interact and learn at the university level, the changes obligate a strong sense of prudence and responsibility, which college students sometimes lack.

Privacy issues have become a major dilemma as social media booms. A late night picture may create problems in the future when looking for a job opportunity since everyone can see everything.

According to a study published by the Journal of Applied Social Psychology in 2012, employers use Facebook as a tool to determine whether or not a potential employee has a positive presence in social media. Poor judgment in managing social media may harm a student seeking employment.

“Students need to start distinguishing between their youth and what is going to be expected from them professionally in the real world,” Shumow said. “The college setting is a great place to start practicing that.”

As long as a student can master self-control while being part of the world of higher education, the constantly evolving technologies that are transforming this world will only open future doors of possibility.

Consuelo Naranjo is a native of Quito studying communications at Florida International University. She originally wrote this article for The Beacon, FIU’s student newspaper.

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