The claim “Technology is changing everything” is a maxim that is often heard, especially in the field of education. Since I have been out of school for six years, I wondered whether new tech really is changing everything. I happen to have two good friends from my high school class of 2003 who went to college first right out of high school, as I did, but who have returned to school this last year at the University of Wyoming where they have just wrapped up their spring semesters. These buddies know what college used to be like nearly a decade ago and what it is like now. These two students are in the perfect place to make observations about the impact and pace of technology’s forward march.
Stew is a computer science major also studying Japanese at UW. His past school experience was at the University of Puget Sound where he majored in classical studies.
Matt has returned to school as a creative writing major after taking classes at UW, Sheridan College (WY, where he acquired an AS in English), and Southern Oregon University.
Stew (the Computer Science Major)
I met with Stew at Coal Creek Coffee in Laramie to talk about his experience. Whereas at Puget Sound, very few of his courses had online components, his courses now use online automation. For calculus, his professor uses WebAssign. Stew is critical of the application.
“Students and teachers understand that the system is frustrating,” he said explaining that it offers conveniences for the professor that his professor would not dare pass over, but the flaws in the system are glaring.
For calculus, the automated study problems require very specific notation for acceptable answers, yet that notational style fluctuates arbitrarily between problems and between assignments. He also complains that the feedback is poor.
Stew is worried that the ease with which answers to problems can be posted and looked up on the Internet contributes to the laziness and poor quality of the student body. He reports that online resources were much more important to his own coursework back at Puget Sound, where he made frequent use of Google and Wikipedia. But now he says, “I try to minimize the time I spend on the computer.” Bear in mind this is coming from a computer science major. Unlike his typical classmates, he prefers to think through problems offline before working through them online and only does so online because it is required. As for Googling information for homework, he believes that the ability to instantly have information on-hand hurts students, because glancing at an answer and copying it down is very different from actually learning the material needed to answer it.
Stew has also used Moodle. While Moodle didn’t take long to learn, he refers to it as “just another layer of complexity.” With Moodle his class has experienced problems, with the professor being forced to simply admit, “The grades are weird; ignore them,” when the app did not total them correctly. Also the system by default provides unnecessary email updates for turned-in assignments. It is supposed to notify the student when the grader has added new comments or has graded the document, but he also was getting emails every time a TA so much as moved the document to a new folder.
When he sits at the back of a classroom he sees “too much” tech. He believes that having too many devices in front of you in class creates “portals away from the subject [at hand].” He observes gaming and Facebooking in class frequently.
As we concluded our conversation he began rehearsing his kanji with Zen-like care on a tablet–one made of paper, I mean.
Matt (the Creative Writing Major)
When I spoke with Matt he was in The Grounds, another Laramie coffee house, finishing his creative writing final at the last minute on Friday of finals week. He was about to upload the final to eCompanion, another coursework automation app.
Like Stew, Matt observes that the use of paper is down. Back in the 2003/4 school year at UW, his assignments were either done on paper or, less frequently, submitted by email directly to the professor. Back in 2003 he didn’t take any online courses, and there was no automation. In Oregon about two years ago, he took his first completely online courses. Now all of his classes are hybrid–classroom and online.
Matt is happy with eCompanion. While he has heard that a previous version of the app was riddled with problems, a new version was released just before he returned to UW. His professors use eCompanion as their primary way to distribute the class syllabus, hand-outs, assignments, and grades, and as the main vehicle for students to turn in assignments. The program includes messaging and forum features, but these do not get used.
“It makes everything easier,” Matt said. “I mean, it takes thirty seconds to hand in my assignment. I type in my password, I go to the class, I click on the dropbox, and I upload it.” He also says he gets “stronger feedback” versus the grader’s scribbles that used to come back to him on paper assignments. He feels graders give more and more specific comments through the automated system, much better than a few illegible marks and a grade on the cover.
The types of devices Matt sees in the classroom typically include tablets and phones; the laptop, which was the enthusiastic student’s cutting-edge device back in his first round of college, would seem out-of-place now. In class he sees students taking notes on their smart phones. Matt, in contrast, is the only student to prefer pencil and paper for note taking. He fails to see the convenience in typing everything using a small, virtual keyboard on a tiny device when a pencil can speed across the paper almost as fast as you can think.
He says he has not seen a student playing games during class, or cruising Facebook or any other distraction–but he sits at the front of the room.
In general Matt sees new technology as a positive influence. It makes organization easier. It makes retrieving and handing in assignments easier. An automated system is easy for everyone, student and teacher.
So you might say that technology is changing everything. My inkling, however, is that “there is nothing new under the sun.” The tech might change the platform (carbon copy to Xerox to digital papers turned in via online apps), but there will always be the students for whom the system works and those for whom it doesn’t. There will always be cheaters and students who don’t pay attention in class. There will always be the students who sit in back and the students who sit at the front. The elements of education–assignments, tests, finals–will always exist, and so will the simple fact of the differing perspectives among students that make things that work for Stew not work for Matt, and vice versa.