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A Student's Views
April 12, 2010 - 10:06pm

A Dartmouth senior, Lucretia Witte, conducted a research project "collecting information and testimonies on how students view the roles of technology, for good and for ill, in their learning experiences". Below are some questions (from me) and answers (from Lucretia) about her research project. I hope that you find these thoughts about her research process and findings as valuable as I do.

Question: Please describe your research project. What were your main research questions? What methods did you use to conduct your research?

This project's goals were to gather feedback from students on their experiences with information technology in the classroom. I focused on three main arenas: what do you like and wish to keep, what do you not like, and what do you wish you could change or add? From these initial questions, I asked students about their favorite and least favorite classes and why, about their learning styles, and about their thoughts on IT in the classroom at Dartmouth. I knew that there would be no one "right way" to incorporate technology, but I began this project in hopes that student feedback could help faculty direct their efforts best within their own class formats.

At first, I began with a combination of SurveyMonkey questions and one-on-one interviews. Although I knew that my SurveyMonkey information wouldn't be as valuable as deeper conversations with students, it helped me get some understanding of the breadth of issues that students face and the variety of attitudes with which they approach their academics. Chem 5 is vastly different from English 70 -- yes, obviously, but HOW? This info helped me to target better questions in one-on-one interviews. The one-on-one interviews helped me to understand the logistics of academic fields with which I am unfamiliar, and helped to spark ideas for new ways to use technology that are as yet, untapped.

Now, however, my research has evolved to a sort of cross between the two methods. I invited about 80 students (so far) to be part of a Blackboard discussion forum on their ideal and least ideal classroom experiences and the role which technology might play in those. This has the depth of the one-on-one interviews but also allows for the breadth of information that I got out of my initial survey.

Question: What were your big research findings about student views on technology and teaching? What surprised you? What would be the main things that you would like both professors and the leadership of colleges and universities to understand?

Students really love to feel like their prof cares about how they engage with the material. Most students are inspired by professors who listen to them discuss their opinions, who give them in-depth feedback on assessments, and who ask for student questions. In the discussion forum, almost every student says that their ideal class would be no larger than 20 people, despite the fact that those participating are a blend of Econ, Bio, Pre-med, English, Language, History, Engineering, Gov, and so on. While not every class at Dartmouth can be a small seminar, professors who have virtual, written, or in-person dialogues with their students make those students feel empowered to learn. That's where technology comes in-- even if the format of a class makes discussion tough or one-on-one interaction between students and profs difficult-- technology can provide an easy way to begin a dialogue, to be perpetually re-evaluating the new ideas and facts of a course in a multilogue.

Additionally, Dartmouth students love to feel a degree of control of their education. They love a firm set of learning expectations that have open-ended potential for fulfillment. Across the board, students noted that they would like to have the opportunity for many different types of assignments and assessments. With the classroom technology we have today, students could make a movie, create a webinar, write a blog, give a presentation supported by Ppt, or take their exam online; and learning materials can be movies, news links, podcasts, journals from any time or place in the world, virtual tutorials, or online texts. If the professor can establish a universal criteria for what the project conveys, students love to have choice in the way they convey those expectations.

I was surprised that even though some students love Blackboard discussions, Powerpoint slides, and lecture recordings; almost an equal number hate them. It turns out, that while students like to have these technological "accessories" there as resources, when their profs do not read the Bb posts, only use a Powerpoint presentation to teach, or use lecture capture in the place of office hours, that these tools can defeat that valuable personal interaction between the professor and the student that I spoke of before.

More than anything, I would encourage professors to involve students in their own learning experience. Ask your students to take a pre-course survey one week before class starts. How do they learn best? What aspect of the course topic interests them most? What kind of assignments do they like? Is there any skill or aspect of the course that they feel apprehensive about? Best case, this allows professors to set the bar high for personal investment in the course, allows them to tailor the course to the students' interests, sends a message that the professor genuinely cares about the students' experience, and takes the first step in establishing that invaluable dialogue. Worst case, the professor gets some info about their students and doesn't end up changing the course.

Question: What are your professional plans? What advice would you give professors and colleges/universities about technology and teaching?

This year, I've applied to a number of teaching positions. I'd like to teach for a few years and then go to grad school-- English, perhaps law, we'll see. My dream job would be to eventually be (Dartmouth) President Kim... but before that, there's a lot that I want to understand about education in America.

To professors and leaders in education, I would say, "Embrace it!" My generation was weaned on technology. For better or for worse, it's our "language". Integrating technology into your classroom will give us the tools to translate our liberal arts education directly onto the most advanced issues in the modern world. And inasmuch as we look to our alums to support the school and guide it, to our teachers to steward principles of achievement and inquiry, let's look to the students here now to help shape a way of educating that feels relevant to the issues of today's world.

In sum, I believe virtual learning spaces are more than just tools. They represent an invitation from educators for students to take control of what and how they learn, a welcome to all of us to take up our roles as collaborative leaders, and a challenge to think beyond the boundaries of existing practices and ideas.


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