Technology making a distinction but not a difference?

February 25, 2011, 8:00 am

This article is the second one that I’ve done for Education Debate at Online Schools. It first appeared there on Tuesday this week, and now that it’s fermented a little I’m crossposting it here.

The University of South Florida‘s mathematics department has begun a pilot project to redesign its lower-level mathematics courses, like College Algebra, around a large-scale infusion of technology. This “new way of teaching college math” (to use the article’s language) involves clickers, lecture capture, software-based practice tools, and online homework systems. It’s an ambitious attempt to “teach [students] how to teach themselves”, in the words of professor and project participant Fran Hopf.

It’s a pilot project, so it remains to be seen if this approach makes a difference in improving the pass rates for students in lower-level math courses like College Algebra, which have been at around 60 percent. It’s a good idea. But there’s something unsettling about the description of the algebra class from the article:

Hopf stands in front of an auditorium full of students. Several straggle in 10 to 15 minutes late.

She asks a question involving an equation with x’s, h’s and k’s.

Silence. A few murmurs. After a while, a small voice answers from the back.

“What was that?” Hopf asks. “I think I heard the answer.”

Every now and then, Hopf asks the students to answer with their “clickers,” devices they can use to log responses to multiple-choice questions. A bar graph projected onto a screen at the front of the room shows most students are keeping up, though not all.


As Hopf walks up and down the aisles, she jots equations on a hand-held digital pad that projects whatever she writes on the screen. It allows her to keep an eye on students and talk to them face-to-face throughout the lesson.

Students start drifting out of the 75-minute class about 15 minutes before it ends. But afterward, Hopf is exuberant that a few students were bold enough to raise their hands and call out answers.

To be fair: This is a very tough audience, and the profs involved have their work cut out for them. The USF faculty are trying with the best of intentions to teach students something that almost assuredly none of them really want to learn, and this is exceedingly hard and often unrewarding work. I used to teach remedial algebra (well short of “college algebra”) at a two-year institution, and I know what this is like. I also know that the technology being employed here can, if used properly, make a real difference.

But if there’s one main criticism to make here, it’s that underneath the technology, what I’m seeing — at least in the snapshot in the article — is a class that is really not that different than that of ten or twenty years ago. Sure, there’s technology present, but all it seems to be doing is supporting the kinds of pedagogy that were already being employed before the technology, and yielded 60% pass rates. The professor is using handheld sketching devices — to write on the board, in a 250-student, 75-minute long lecture. The professor is using clickers to get student responses — but also still casting questions out to the crowd and receiving the de rigeur painful silence following the questions, and the clickers are not being used in support of learner-centered pedagogies like peer instruction. The students have the lectures on video — but they also still have to attend the lectures, and class time is still significantly instructor-centered. (Although apparently there’s no penalty for arriving 15 minutes late and leaving 15 minutes early. That behavior in particular should tell USF something about what really needs to change here.)

What USF seems not to have fully apprehended is that something about their remedial math system is fundamentally broken, and technology is neither the culprit nor the panacea. Moving from an instructor-centered model of learning without technology to an instructor-centered model of learning with technology is not going to solve this problem. USF should instead be using this technology to create disruptive change in how it delivers these courses by refocusing to a student-centered model of learning. There are baby steps here — the inclusion of self-paced lab activities is promising — but having 75-minute lectures (on college algebra, no less) with 225 students signals a reluctance to change that USF’s students cannot afford to keep.

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