During winter quarter, Cal Poly economics lecturer Solina Lindahl tried a different teaching method, using Learning Catalytics software.
The technology allows open-ended questions that ask for numeric, algebraic, textual or graphical responses. Students use web-enabled devices such as laptops or smartphones to submit their answers.
One time, Lindahl launched a graphical question in class and her students drew graphs in response. In the end, the graphs were merged into one on the screen in front of the class.
But on the screen, she saw “gibberish” — a shocking moment for a professor with 19 years of experience and class mood-sensing skills as Lindahl.
She thought she knew how to read body language. She thought the smiling faces of her students signaled that they understood the lecture, which she thought was clear, funny and interesting.
“It was a really enlightening moment,” she said. “Because almost no one got it right, and it was one of the questions I thought for sure they nailed.”
Without the technology, Lindahl said, she would never have figured out what students were missing.
Lindahl is not alone in her quest for the best technology in learning and teaching.
From the appearance of a 3-D printer in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design to the use of a drone to teach news gathering for journalism students, professors at Cal Poly and across the country are adopting more sophisticated teaching methods that involve cutting-edge technologies.
“We’re living through a great period of change,” Lindahl said. “What comes out of the other side, I don’t know. Does the education model change altogether? It may.”
Lindahl recalled switching from chalkboards to PowerPoint slides and then iPads (just a more advanced type of chalkboard, she said) and is still working to keep up with the trend. Her latest discovery is the new version of Keynote for iPads, which allows her to annotate on top of her Keynote slides.
Her favorite technology is Twitter, where her handle is @SolinaLindahl.
“It forces the writer to summarize in so few words, and it’s kind of an art form,” she said. “And I like that challenge.”
Incorporating technology into teaching, however, can be stressful.
For example, when Lindahl tried using Learning Catalytics last quarter, she allowed both laptops and smartphones in the classroom and noticed “so much off-topic content consumption was going on.”
Allowing students to access their personal devices in class means they may be checking their social media accounts instead of focusing on class materials — a double-edged sword that teachers have to deal with.
But just when Lindahl was about to switch to a clickers-only policy, an app that replaces clickers at a cheaper price was released, giving students a reason to use their smartphones during class again.
That dilemma, however, is nothing compared to her biggest headache: emails, a technology she wishes she could cast away.
Despite emphasizing in her syllabi that students should talk with her in person rather than via email, Lindahl still receives approximately 20 emails per day.
It bothers her not to answer them, she said, but she thinks it is unfair that some other students don’t break the rules and don’t get help.
To Lindahl, technology brings both advantages and drawbacks.
“It will have a positive effect in the long run, but not yet,” she said.
The most common technology seen in classrooms for art and design senior Jessica Clogston-Kiner is Apple computers. She has heard of the 3-D printer on campus and thinks it’s cool, but prefers to have a good balance between the old-school teaching style and a technology-driven one.
A 3-D printer produces a three-dimensional solid object from a digital model by cutting the virtual object in 2-D slices. Slices are printed on top of each other and form an object.
“I personally like a lot of hands-on,” she said. “I don’t know if I can handle just online courses. I kind of like to have somebody show me how to do it … Maybe that’s why I like the whole Learn By Doing thing of Cal Poly.”
For mechanical engineering junior Eliot Kahn, the most interesting technology he’s seen is a SMART Board in his computer programming class.
A SMART Board is an interactive whiteboard that uses touch detection for user input. It requires a computer, a projector and interactive whiteboard software to operate. Touch input can be made from a finger or pen.
“I think that technologies have a lot of possibilities,” Kahn said. “But they don’t usually seem to be used for a lot more than just a fancy chalkboard.”
Kahn said though some teachers can adapt to technology in teaching trends well, others can’t, and it’s not a big issue to him.
But if professors ever get lost in their search for the best technology in teaching, they can always go to the Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology (CTLT) for help.
Patrick O’Sullivan, director of the CTLT, said when he first came to Cal Poly, he was told the university was “behind the curve” in bringing in technology.
He said when a teacher fails to engage students, it might be because they chose the wrong technology.
“When what they do in the classrooms is well-designed, it’s very hard for students to find a moment to check Facebook or check their Twitter or whatever they’re doing, because they are so deeply engaged,” he said.
O’Sullivan earned his master’s degree in technology communication from University of Southern California, and his doctorate degree in communication from University of California, Santa Barbara. He has a broad definition of technology.
“I would count something like picking up a rock to break open a coconut,” he said. “That’s a tool. That’s a technology. The use of the implement or the tool is a critical part of technology, and sometimes, it’s all the technology or the dominant part of what technology is.”
With that definition, O’Sullivan said posing well-crafted questions that prompt students to think deeply and challenge their assumptions is also a technology.
O’Sullivan said when teachers modify their teaching to increase student engagement, “students love it. They’re working harder than ever. They learn more than they ever have. The professors come away saying, ‘I wish I had done this years and years ago.’”
He said no one is born a teacher, but every teacher can learn to be effective “if they take the time and do the homework.”
The impact of technology on education isn’t just seen inside the classroom. In fact, technology has also opened doors to a virtual market of textbooks that causes headaches for people involved in providing courseware.
In fact, Reza Kazempour, academic courseware manager of the University Store, always has Advil available in a cabinet in his office.
Before Amazon and other textbook websites took off, things were easy: The bookstore sold books to students, then bought them back and put them on the shelves.
But those days are gone. Now, the University Store has to carry new books, used books, e-books, rentals and sometimes free online books.
“I’m not blind to the fact that sometimes students come into the store and they realize that they can get (a book) cheaper online,” he said. “But you can’t compete as a store with a person who has one copy of that book for $10.”
Kazempour said the University Store has now turned into a service center that gets textbook information from professors — a process that requires a lot of work — and provides it to students. The store also offers textbook price comparisons on its website.
If students choose to buy books from Amazon, “at least we provide that information to them,” Kazempour said.
But, Amazon doesn’t give money back to the university, hire student employees and donate and provide scholarships for students, Kazempour said — the University Store does.