• October 21, 2014

A Technological Cloud Hangs Over Higher Education

I was there when it happened. And for the record: I did object. I was but a teaching assistant; the decision was not mine. The decision was to replace the pendulums and other demonstration gizmos in the undergraduate physics teaching laboratory with computers and software.

To be sure, the change would be convenient: no more time-consuming preparation of experiments, no more lectures on how to make demonstrations work, no more disinclined planes or springs sprung too far. This was cutting-edge. The students would love it. Students like computers. And aren't computers the future? Don't we need to get with the times and prepare students for the information age?

With great reluctance, I packed up the pendulums one last time, helped install the computers, and then stood witness as another three-dimensional classroom was replaced with a computer lab. The students would now be greeted by glowing screens and a printer for their data.

I didn't return to the demonstration lab the following semester; probably a good thing, as I was busy with my own experiments. To be fair, the students probably did enjoy the computers. They could press a button and make a pendulum swing across their screen. With a few keystrokes, they could change the hanging mass and the length of the string supporting it. They could even change the strength of the gravitational field. The software did everything, and there would be no more experimental complications, such as higher-order friction and drag. If students wanted to observe what Foucault observed, I suppose they could rotate their screens. Best of all, the students now recorded all quantities with perfect accuracy, so they wouldn't need to learn how to account for errors. There were no more experimental errors.

Countless other exciting innovations have ensued since that day in 1993 when one teaching laboratory shed one of its dimensions. Long gone are the overhead projectors—the noisy appliances with which we showcased our patiently handwritten transparencies. I confess that I miss those; we physicists tend to have innovative symbols. It seems unlikely we would have if PowerPoint had been around in the 18th century.

To its credit, PowerPoint did relieve us of hot projectors, smelly pens, and staticky transparencies spread out to dry, and students have certainly benefited from more-legible typefaces. Many students don't even need to labor on their own handwritten notes; they can simply download a scanned lecture or PowerPoint file and view it at their leisure on a laptop, iPad, or iPhone. It is all so irresistibly convenient and ... cool.

The tasks of asking and answering questions in the classroom, and the taking of the attendance, were solved by placing a clever new technology in the hands of each student: This "clicker" sends signals to a computer, somewhat like a television remote control. Colleagues informed me that clickers would solve the problems of low attendance and lack of student engagement. The added benefit is that instructors can take attendance without learning any names, and they can administer a quiz without subjecting students to the embarrassment of direct inquiry. (Predictably, the improvement in attendance was short-lived: It seems that some mischievous students are capable of wielding more than one clicker at a time and might even find financial incentive for doing so, particularly in the case of early-morning lectures.) I do wonder whether the clicker is designed to confirm the attendance of the student or the absence of a teacher.

Textbooks are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. We'll spare many trees that way. Old knowledge can be scanned. Instructors and students can annotate their PDF's. Unfortunately, the few textbooks that are still written tend to be horribly expensive by the time they reach the bookstore. With fewer instructors requiring books, and fewer students buying them, publishers say they need to set a higher price.

It has been a long while since I have beheld an innovative new textbook. With the incentive to write them virtually gone, what does appear is usually rehashed and cluttered with "Web resources." On an accompanying disc, one typically finds lectures and exercises that can be done on a computer. The instructor needn't invent questions—there is a bank full of them.

Busy professors certainly appreciate the time that these innovations have saved them. One can now summon a lecture from the bank, project it on a screen, and simply narrate it, if he or she wishes. There is far less risk of actually interacting with the students, who can ask troublesome questions if given the opportunity. And for homework crises, Cramster is only a few clicks away.

The Internet certainly channels a great deal of wonderful, fresh information into the classroom. During one recent lecture, I couldn't recall the year that Tycho Brahe observed the supernova, but I was saved by a student with a smartphone, who then narrated the whole tale from Wikipedia. I am actually rather fond of the Internet's capabilities; I use Twitter to disseminate hints and links. Some instructors don't permit laptops—too much distraction from the compelling PowerPoint lectures—but members of a generation that had keyboards beside their cradles are far more comfortable with the technology than we ever will be, we who remember fingers blistered from typing out a manuscript on a manual typewriter, long before floppy disks or even the Selectric.

Students of today are adept at taking notes on laptops and tablets and phones, should they choose to do so. Unfortunately for those students whose instructors haven't found a way to format test questions compatible with bubble sheets, test-taking remains arduous. Students must write with an analog pencil or pen, relying on the trained dexterity of the whole hand, not merely the opposable thumbs so adept at texting.

It is virtually miraculous how much information the laptops, tablets, and phones can bring into the classroom, almost free of cost. A steady torrent of fresh information has transformed the classroom. Gone or concealed in dust are most periodic tables, encyclopedias, and globes. All of that can now be called up on a screen.

The whole apparatus of instruction has moved into the cloud. (And at my institution, the cloud is present most of the time; only foul weather or an occasional IT glitch decouples us from it.) Whether we need the YouTube video of the astronaut dropping a hammer and feather on the moon or Newton's Principia translated, narrated, or lectured, we delight in using Google to retrieve it quickly from the cloud.

And so the instructor is the multimedia rainmaker who summons from the cloud everything that the modern American scholar must learn. The student is spared the necessity of a library; the library is in the cloud. Lecture demonstrations are also in the cloud, in the form of flashlets and applets sanitized of any complicating realities, non-idealities, and inefficiencies. And if a student should miss a lecture, the cloud will oblige: The student need no longer request notes from an instructor or colleague. Everything is in the cloud—even some of the most popular instructors. And that cloud hangs over all of America's institutions of higher education.

Keith A. Williams is an assistant professor of physics at the University of Virginia.

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