College professors use technology to improve teaching

Monday, October 4, 2010
Andy Cline, Missouri State University associate professor of journalism and media, works with multimedia students Ashley Jackson, left, and Bridget Rapp in one of the school's most advanced technology classrooms, in Springfield, Mo. (Bob Linder ~ Springfield News-Leader)

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- John Strong, an associate professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, was frustrated with his classes.

"My lectures, for whatever reasons, did not produce a lot of questions from students," Strong said. "Basically I was the focal point of the class, and I could just videotape my lectures."

He did exactly that.

In spring, Strong became one of the first teachers at MSU to offer students pre-recorded lectures. He met students once a week, but used the face time for dialogues and discussions.

It worked.

"The students were more motivated," Strong said. "I was pleased."

Advancing technology offers new ways to teach. At MSU, professors are experimenting with new methods to deliver course materials with support from the university.

"One goal is to improve access," said Rachelle Darabi, associate provost for student development and public affairs.

Online education and blended courses such as Strong's allow scheduling flexibility favored by working students and can help maximize use of resources, such as classroom space, Darabi said.

Technology also has expanded the knowledge base, and professors can focus more on teaching critical thinking, Darabi said.

To assist its teachers, MSU last year established the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning -- a one-stop center for professors interested in exploring innovative ways to educate. Professors can find technical and professional support to design courses and help in recording lectures and using Web tools.

MSU also is auditing all its classrooms, hoping to equip them with technology that can facilitate teaching, Darabi said.

"It's a tool, a pedagogical tool, and we want to help people to use it well," Darabi said.

In newly renovated Siceluff Hall, MSU has one of its most technologically advanced classrooms -- Room 126.

Called a collaborative classroom, Siceluff 126 has six pods. Each has a flat-screen monitor and plug-ins for high-speed Internet. The room is wirelessly connected to the Internet, too.

Students can check out one of 30 Mac Pro computers in the classroom and gather around one of the pods for teamwork.

Each pod accommodates up to seven students.

At the podium, the teacher commands a control panel, through which he or she can manipulate all six pod monitors and teaching tools such as the projector, video players and personal computers.

Andrew Cline, associate professor of media and journalism, was the first to use the room.

"There is still a lot of controversy if technology is appropriate for the classroom. Does it get in the way of what's important?" Cline said. "But for classes like this, it's absolutely necessary.

"This class is about using technology," said Cline, who taught photojournalism in Siceluff 126 last semester and now has the multimedia journalism class there.

Siceluff 126 can be turned into a newsroom, allowing students to report and write news stories collaboratively in a realistic environment, Cline said.

Journalism students said the classroom has allowed them to gain hands-on experience, preparing them for future jobs.

"We're lucky to have the technology here," said Dillan Conn, a senior journalism student.

True to its name, the classroom facilitates collaboration among students, added Leah Randazzo, a fellow journalism student.

"We help each other; and we've become friends," she said.

Technology doesn't have to be in a classroom to be useful.

Lora Hobbs, a dynamic lecturer, uses nothing more than the whiteboard in her introductory religious studies class.

She likes to converse with students, throw questions at them and encourage them to discuss and debate among themselves.

But to do so, she has found help in technology.

Instead of using class time to deliver lectures, Hobbs records them in advance and has students watch the lectures on a digital video disc or through the Web before they meet for class.

When they meet, students are expected to discuss what they have learned from the lectures, instead of taking notes.

"It's active learning," Hobbs said. "I don't want my students to look at me. I want them to interact with me, engage with each other and engage with me."

The practice of pre-recorded lectures, for a while, was a prerogative of online education, but educators are introducing many elements of online education to traditional classes.

"Can I breed the two (course formats) and get a really good offspring?" said Hobbs, who had taught both seated classes and online courses before starting to blend the two formats last fall.

"I like to call it a hybrid," Hobbs said.

She works with media specialists at MSU to tape her lectures, which are available on DVD and through iTunes U, an online program that distributes educational materials through the popular iTunes Store.

Strong, who followed suit in spring, said the preparation work has been intense.

For her hybrid class, Hobbs' students meet once instead of twice a week, as they are required to watch the pre-taped lectures during the week.

In a recent week, students were assigned to read how Rudolf Otto and Karl Marx defined religion and to watch Hobbs' pre-recorded lectures on the topics.

When the class met Tuesday, it was students, not Hobbs, who talked about Otto's and Marx's views on religion.

Kim Weitkamp, a student of anthropology and Spanish, took Hobbs' class to fit in more credit hours around her campus job but has found the new format appealing.

"I find lectures rather boring," Weitkamp said. "But you get the flow of ideas in this class. You get to hear other people's perspective instead of facts."

Molly Parentin, a nursing student, said she enjoys the discussions and likes the fact that she can go over the pre-recorded lectures several times.

Kristen Smith, who studies administrative management, is another fan of Hobbs' hybrid class.

"You don't get bored," Smith said. "I think I learn better. You watch the lecture. You talk about it in class. You get to do the lecture twice."

Information from: Springfield News-Leader,

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