Teaching and Change

Those who read this blog regularly note that I have not been very prolific in my posts so far this month.   I’ve been even worse at following other peoples’ blogs.  There is a reason for that – I’m teaching a winter term course on line (German and Italian Politics), a purely web based course.  It has been a work intensive experience, but one which is going well, and something I’ll probably do a lot of in the future.   All this has me thinking about the way technology has changed education over the years.

My benchmark is my own undergraduate career.   In some ways I was at the end of the ‘classic era’ of post-war education, graduating from Augustana College in Sioux Falls in 1982, just before technology started to change universities in a fundamental manner.

On an average day I’d get up, shower, and with a few friends from the dorm floor (the dorms were mixed gender, but floors were either male or female) head to breakfast at the cafeteria.    If I had an 8:00 class I literally could time it that my alarm could go off at 7:53, and I’d brush my teeth, pee (those two at the same time — multi-tasking), get dressed and be in class on time.   Our cafeteria was not that much different than a high school cafeteria.  There were two lines; for breakfast you’d get toast, cereal, maybe pancakes, eggs and sausage.  To drink there was orange juice and milk.  Lunch and dinner usually had a choice of two entres (perhaps a pasta or some chicken dish) and there was no going back for seconds.  That’s changed dramatically — now students have salad bars, pizza bars, sandwich centers, main courses, ice cream, self-serve soda, and can graze on whatever they want.   We could only fantasize about such college cuisine — yet I think students now complain just as much as we did.   Augustana was served by the ARA company, which merged with another to form Aramark, which serves UMF.

In class the main “technologies” involved either chalk on a board, or an overhead projector.   I hated overheads.  When I started teaching they were still widely used, but I refused.  They have since all but disappeared.  I do not miss them.  Every once in awhile a film would be shown, usually from a reel on a projector.   VCRs existed, but in these early years they cost nearly $1000.  Televisions were not used in classrooms, though I still remember going to the dorm lobby on Thursday as everyone crowded around to watch the new classic — Mork and Mindy. Nanu Nanu!

Research had to be done in the library.  It was important to know how to use a few tools — the card catalogue, which involved rows of drawers of index cards, and the readers guide to periodicals.   The library was short on journals (it was not a wealthy private school), so we didn’t use journal articles very much.  We had a few — I remember Foreign Affairs — but most of the research was through books.   That limited what you could do.  Interlibrary loan was not around, and though personal computers existed, they didn’t even rudimentary word processing programs yet, let alone anything useful for research.

Still, we wrote papers.   Revising a paper was a major affair.  You could not simply go in and edit and make changes like one can with Word. I would type a draft (not ‘print out’ — we didn’t have access to ‘printers’), and then make major revisions by hand on that draft.  Any time I revised anything I’d have to type the whole paper over.   If it was small maybe I could make it just the page, or I could use white out.  Sometimes I’d go to my dad’s office and use his Secretary’s IBM Selectric (you could use a key to erase the previous letter).  But it was time consuming.  Then if I didn’t pay attention and went past the pencil mark indicating I was an inch from the bottom, I’d have to retype the page.   Luckily, I was a fast typist (still am), but for some the effort meant the first draft would be the last draft, revising was too difficult.

Exams and handouts were all mimeographed, or “ditto’d.”  The ‘ditto machine’ was hand cranked, and would make copies quickly and cheaply.   Handouts were sometimes called ‘dittos.’   Xeroxes (that’s what photocopies were called, thanks to the ubiquitous nature of the Xerox company at the time) were far too expensive.  The library had a xerox machine that charged ten cents a copy — in dimes or nickles of course.  If I was going to do some research, I’d often have to stop by the bank and get a couple rolls of dimes.

Teachers had little “grade books” where grades were marked.   Changes in schedules or assignments were announced in class — if you weren’t there, you missed it.    No internet, no texting, no Facebook, no e-mail, no cell phones (though each dorm room did have its own phone).

Nowadays just about every classroom is “smart” – you can show DVDs, hook up your computer, do power point presentations (with video and web access), and look things up right away if a student asks a question the teacher doesn’t have the answer for.  E-mail notices keep students connected to professors, and often replace the old fashioned visit to the office to ask about an assignment.   Research involves on line data bases, interlibrary loan, and simple web research.   A student at a small rural campus has access to information unimaginable in the past.  Research I traveled to Germany to do as a graduate student could be done easily now by an undergraduate on line.

On line courses are the new trend, growing far beyond the rather gimmicky market driven approach that “Phoenix University” had in the 90s.  Using software like “Blackboard” (a term students might soon not comprehend), students can submit assignments, get feedback, have grades posted, participate in discussions, and even view power points, video recordings, podcasts and the like.  You can use chat sessions, share websites, and engage the material and each other without leaving home.  Students who work can participate around their work schedule.

A few faculty don’t like this — especially a public liberal arts university like ours has built its reputation on close contact between students and faculty, personal relationships that seem endangered by technology.   After doing an on line course I say to that: rubbish.   In some ways, I think students have engaged the content of the course more intensely than in a normal course — they have to, they need to post daily work that gets an almost immediate grade in order to pass.   They can’t float through and then cram for an exam.  The discussion board will probably hit nearly 800 posts for three weeks — that’s 40 posts a student on average, talking about course content.  I’m in constant contact by e-mail or through Blackboard with students about research and questions concerning the course.   I read much more work than I do in a normal semester, because it’s all based on writing.  I feel like I’ve gotten to know new students and have had quality interactions.

Watching the rapid pace of technology driven change in the field of higher education is exciting.  In the 90s some thought web based courses would drive universities out of business.   Few believe that any more, especially since quality institutions are integrating that into their offerings.  But students are able to take courses form different institutions (multi-campus students) and while more information is available, some students still simply google what they need to know at the moment.   Like all technology, it’s a mistake to either condemn it as bad or praise it as good.  Technology provides tools, and if you use tools correctly, the results are good.

  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on January 15, 2010 - 16:07

    And just think, you have admitted in your writing one connection you still share with the new crop of college students….peeing while brushing teeth so as to sleep in until the last possible moment on days with early classes!

    Now just remember, if anyone says they can do that and play with their blackberry as a way to one-up you, ask them how much time it takes to clean up the bathroom floor from the inevitable accident cuased by this multitasking!!!

  2. #2 by Eve on January 17, 2010 - 21:34

    What an interesting article! I smiled, remembering what classroom life was like back in the ‘old days’ prior to Word!

  3. #3 by Josh on January 18, 2010 - 20:08

    Technology may work for some courses, but not for others. In some ways, I think the humanities will take advantage of the technology more than the sciences. That’s okay. I know as a student mathematician, there’s nothing more pleasing than a good lesson with the use of nothing but a chalkboard and a piece of chalk.

    While your description of academic life in the 70’s and 80’s does seem old fashion, I sort of wish it was still like that now.

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