The Impact of Technological Change in Education
Throughout most of my time as a chemistry teacher, the technology of teaching and learning was slow to change.
I began my career in higher education in 1968, teaching lower-division chemistry at a brand new community college. Of course, I had previously been a teaching assistant while I was earning my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but as a founding faculty member at Butte College in California, I had free reign to design the curriculum, select the textbooks and lab manuals, decide which lab experiments and activities to schedule, and what the sequence of topics would be. I tried to engage my students as much as I could in both lecture and laboratory settings, with frequent demonstrations at the lecture demonstration table with the use of threedimensional molecular models for illustration. I often selected demonstrations that challenged their conventional thinking, such as showing that when a liquid boils, its temperature drops, and when it freezes, its temperature rises. When a student asked me if it was true that the foam in beer had more alcohol content than the liquid, we found out that it didn’t by titrating both for alcohol content in the lab.
My lectures included many questions that I asked of the students in general and sometimes directed to specific students. Attached to my belt was my trusted slide rule, which I used during lecture sessions to make necessary calculations, accurate to three significant figures. Students, of course followed along with their own slide rules. We used a keypunch machine and the college’s mainframe computer to run Fortran programs for the data analysis for some of our lab experiments. By the 1970s, the slide rule was replaced by the first Hewlett Packard (HP) 35 hand-held calculator. Before long, calculators were inexpensive enough for students to have their own.
In the early 1970s, the college purchased a portable Sony video tape recorder.
Of course, it was bulky by today’s standards, occupying a large suitcase when not in use. My first project was to prepare a video on how to use the balance appropriately to measure mass. This had previously been a time-consuming activity, requiring several demonstrations to small groups on the first day of lab. The new technology made the process more efficient and more effective.
Throughout most of my time as a chemistry teacher, the technology of teaching and learning was slow to change. The chalkboard, the demonstration table, and the hand-held calculator were the tools at my disposal. Lecture, demonstrations, laboratory experiments, and sometimes fieldwork were my main methods of teaching.
Extra study sessions helped the students to learn the material and to prepare for examinations. The keypunch and mainframe computer were eventually replaced by the first Apple microcomputer to process experimental data. Students took notes in class and wrote lab reports after each experiment. Quizzes and examinationsalong with lab reports were the measures of student learning and instructor feedback— and the basis for the grades that were issued at the end of the term.
Today, I teach doctoral classes in community college leadership instead of freshman and sophomore chemistry after several years away from the classroom. It is a different world, in part because the students are experienced community college faculty members and administrators instead of freshmen and sophomore chemistry students, in part because the subject matter is so different, but also because of dramatic advances in technology. I am sure that the teaching of chemistry has changed dramatically from the 1960s and 70s, and I would probably be using more engaging teaching techniques and more advanced technology were I still teaching that subject today.
In my doctoral classes today, I am able to beam well-known education leaders and policy makers into my classroom using video conferencing technology. After introductions, I usually ask the virtual guests both predetermined and spontaneous interview questions and then give the students a chance to ask questions. It is almost like being in the same room with people whom the students would otherwise likely not have a chance to meet. Students have their laptop computers, electronic tablets, and cell phones on during class, taking notes and searching the Internet for the latest information on topics that come up in our classroom discussions.
Between face-to-face class meetings, the students and I engage in lively online discussions on topics that are assigned or in response to questions that I ask, usually about an issue addressed in a recent higher education newspaper. I post information on the course learning management system or engage in email exchanges with the students daily for the duration of our course.
Every student in the class is engaged in the discussions and exchanges with me and with colleague students. This new environment is a significant departure from the lecture hall of the 1960s and 70s, where rigid seating made it almost impossible for students to interact with one another and where students in the back row may never have asked a question or been called upon. Today, between face-to-face meetings, we sometimes schedule a virtual class session, often involving a guest presenter, whom the students can see and with whom they can interact. These sessions can be recorded and links to the sessions can be placed on the course learning management system.
Students also listen to prerecorded interviews with policy makers and education authorities by clicking on links in the course learning management system. Rather than a textbook, students access articles and books through electronic links or through the university virtual library. Students turn their assigned reports in electronically to the learning management system, which automatically checks for original work. I grade the written work, typing comments and tracking suggested changes, using the word processing review tools. I can even record oral comments on individual student work. Students view their grades and see or listen to my comments and suggested edits through their access to the learning management system.
Another noticeable difference is the lasting connections made by my teaching. My former doctoral students frequently contact me for advice about other coursework or a dissertation topic. Even after the students complete their doctorates, they often email or call to ask for advice about a work-related issue or to seek career advice. They remain connected to one another as well. I often get copied on group email messages. The cohort learning environment that is enabled by technology helps the students to stay connected and to form a lasting professional network.
Today’s educational technology has almost forced a greater engagement between faculty and students and among students. It is helping faculty to focus more on the learning environment for their students. But it has also changed the way colleges do business. In the 1980s, when I was at Palomar College, we moved away from in-person registration lines to phone-in registration—and then, in the 1990s, to online registration. Today, students can order books online and may never visit the college bookstore. The card catalog is long gone from the library, and today’s research tools are more targeted and more efficient. Today’s college library is often home to computer labs and tutor centers. Tutoring and counseling sessions can now be conducted remotely.
Although I no longer lecture in my classes, I am frequently asked to speak or to consult in situations in which a presentation is most appropriate. My presentations today make use of PowerPoint slides instead of 35 mm slides or overhead transparencies, and I often use Internet connections to go to a website or to show a video clip to illustrate a point. Of course, presentations using newer technology can be as boring as any dull lecture if not prepared in ways to engage the audience, but they have the advantage of allowing the presenter to put together a customized presentation efficiently, and the presentation can be transported on something as small as a USB drive.
College leaders are also making use of technology to plan and to make data-informed decisions. They can evaluate the effect of new strategies to improve college completion rates and to improve efficiency. Analytics can now help colleges identify students who are most at-risk of failure or dropping out, enabling college personnel to intervene and provide needed individualized support. Early alerts can be sent automatically to students who need assistance. Customized electronic dashboards showing up-to-date information are now available to college faculty, staff, administrators, and trustees, enabling them to monitor progress toward college goals. Transcripts of coursework can now be forwarded electronically at the request of students. Systems that monitor energy and water usage enable college leaders to change behaviors and decrease expenses in order to reallocate funds to support more directly the mission of student learning. Class scheduling software makes a formerly complex and tedious task more accurate and efficient.
I am not an expert on educational technology, and other writers are likely to be much more knowledgeable about the topic. I am an educator who has been privileged to be a teacher, administrator, and observer during a time when new technologies have made it possible to increase student engagement and to make college processes more efficient and effective. With help, I have been able to learn how to navigate three different learning management systems.
However, there are some cautions to consider about reliance on complex technology. Community colleges were early adopters of online education and, today, online courses are usually the first to fill during class registration. However, studies have shown that student attrition is higher in online courses than in in-person or hybrid courses. Unless an online class is highly structured with built-in tools for engagement and evaluation, students may not have the self-discipline that it takes to complete the course. For that reason, entirely online courses may not be the best method of promoting student learning in developmental courses.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs), once thought to transform higher education, proved to have limited potential to replace other methods of instruction. Because of the high student to faculty ratio, engagement between faculty and students is limited, and the attrition rates are shockingly high. MOOCs may have potential uses for those who are not interested in a degree or credential or as supplementary material for a more traditional college course.
We also need to be cautious of overreliance on technology. Not too long ago, I was stuck in an airport for several hours because a malfunction in the airline reservation system caused all of its planes to be grounded. In an earlier time, planes were able to fly without computers, yet on that day a computer problem paralyzed the company. Not long ago, a disgruntled employee caused problems for thousands of travelers by destroying part of the air traffic control system near Chicago. Hackers have been able to break into sites that we thought were secure to steal information or to cause destruction. We need to be sure that our college systems have both appropriate security and redundancy to serve as a backup in case information is lost.
Higher education institutions have been historically slow to change. Some compare the rate of change in higher education to that of the Catholic Church. We probably all still know of some faculty members and administrators who resist the use of technology. Paul Elsner, the former chancellor of the Maricopa Community College District in Arizona, tells a story of a faculty member at one of the Maricopa colleges who used his office computer only as an expensive doorstop. But I have also seen some significant changes in educational methodology during my career, and newly hired faculty have grown up in a technological world in which they have generally used social media and other electronic methods of communication, entertainment, and learning most of their lives. They and their students will drive the use of technology to improve teaching and learning in our colleges. Pressure to improve student success rates will force institutions and systems to use technology to support students and to make the kinds of data-informed decisions that lead to improved outcomes.
George R. Boggs is president and CEO emeritus of the American Association of Community Colleges and superintendent/president emeritus of Palomar College in California. He is a clinical professor in Community College Leadership for the Roueche Graduate Center of National American University and an adjunct professor of Community College Leadership for San Diego State University.
This article is the continuation of a series authored by principals involved in National American University’s Roueche Graduate Center, and other national experts identified by the Center. Drs. John E. Roueche and Margaretta B. Mathis serve as editors of the monthly column, a partnership between NAU’s Roueche Graduate Center and Community College Week. For additional information send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org or, call 512-813-2300.