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Professors Say Technology Helps in Logistics, Not Learning

With PowerPoint presentations, YouTube videos, and online portals, technology is playing an increasingly important role in college classrooms and lecture halls. But are those technologies improving learning?

A study published this month in the journal Science, Technology, & Human Values found that professors at research-intensive universities believe the answer to that question is no.

A report on the study, “Technological Change and Professional Control in the Professoriate,” includes interviews with more than 40 professors at three universities. It suggests that professors often use such technologies for logistical purposes rather than to improve learning.

“There is little or no indication that innovative pedagogy motivates technological use in the classroom, which sort of flies in the face of how the use of information-based instructional technologies is usually presented,” said David R. Johnson, a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Georgia and the study’s author.

Instead, the report suggests, technology is more often used by professors for managerial reasons, such as to help with the demands of growing class sizes. While Mr. Johnson said most college administrators are not yet requiring professors to use instructional technologies, the pressure of teaching more than 300 students at once, for example, leads faculty members to adopt technology in ways unrelated to improving learning.

“You’re being told that you have to shoulder a larger and larger share of the burden, and here’s some technology that will help you do it,” said one anthropologist quoted in the report.

Mr. Johnson said the findings show a gap between how universities market their use of technology—often framing technology as more sophisticated than prior approaches to instruction—and how the faculty actually uses it. He called this a “ceremonial myth.”

“It’s a symbol that’s emphasized in environment, but not necessarily acted upon by members of the organization,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s an attempt to communicate legitimacy to parents, students, and prospective employers, but for the faculty who would actually use these tools, it’s not seen as a valuable tool, and it can even be a detriment to student learning.”

Another anthropologist interviewed for the study said technology-rich courses, in which PowerPoint presentations and online notes are used, can give students less incentive to attend class or pay close attention to the material as it’s being taught.

“They can sleep in class as far as they’re concerned,” the professor said. “It’s sort of like sperm donation. Who needs you anymore?”

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