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Does Technology Belong in College Classrooms?


University of Pennsylvania professor Peter Struck and his teaching assistant Cat Gillespie teach a class during a live recording of a massive, open, online class.

Modern technology has a strong influence on many things we do.

In fact, technology is shaping almost every part of our day-to-day existence, including education.

Ashok Goel is a professor with the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Goel says he uses the Internet in almost all of the classes he teaches. Every term over 300 graduate students take his class on artificial intelligence (AI).

The students never meet in person. All of the classes take place online -- through a website. The site lets students ask questions and complete their work from anywhere in the world.

Having hundreds of students in a class means Ashok Goel has to answer thousands of questions. He has eight teaching assistants to help him. But even that is not enough to give all the students the help they need.

So, in January, Goel had an idea. First, he noted that each term his students were asking many of the same questions. Then he decided to try an experiment.

At the start of the spring 2016 semester, he added a new member to his teaching team: Jill Watson. She was able to answer questions faster than most other teaching assistants. And she was available 24 hours a day.

It was only at the end of the semester that Goel’s students learned Watson’s secret: she was not a real person like the other teaching assistants. Jill Watson is an AI computer program.

Goel says only two students came close to predicting Watson’s true identity. He was worried about telling his students because he thought they would not like being part of the experiment. But once they learned Watson’s identity, they became very excited.

"Then, you know what happened? They not only asked that question about Jill. ‘Is she an AI?’ Once the identity of Jill was revealed they also asked if I was an AI."

Goel now uses Watson in two other classes, but still does not tell his students which of his teaching assistants is a computer program. He hopes this technology will make it easier for teachers to create their own programs to use in and outside the classroom.

And it appears stories like his will only become more common.

A website called Campus Technology publishes stories about how colleges and universities use new technology. In August, the site published a survey of over 500 professors and their use of technology.

Fifty-five percent of the professors said they ask students to use study materials online before coming to class. And, more than 70 percent said they combine online materials and face-to-face teaching in their classrooms.

Ashok Goel says the new kinds of technology becoming available will increase the availability of learning all over the world. But there are some concerns about how well the technology works.

SRI International is a non-profit organization that researches many different issues. In April, the group released the results of a survey of educational technology at 14 colleges. The study measured the effect of online classwork and special programs that measured student progress and made suggestions about educational resources.

The study found that the technology did little to help student performance.

Louise Yarnall is a senior research social scientist at SRI International. She says there are two major problems. First, she says, the technology has yet to reach a level that proves how useful it can be. Second, there is no system to make sure the technology is used the same way.

Yarnall notes that students and teachers all use the special programs in different ways. This means they may not be using the technology as best they can.

"Just like in school when teacher says, ‘Do your homework,’ we have found that students who do their homework tend to do pretty well in school and students who don’t do their homework often don’t do so well in school. And the same idea applies here with adaptive learning. If you don’t use it, you don’t progress."

Yarnall worries that once more technology enters classrooms, teachers and students will be more concerned about the technology than anything else.

Jose Bowen goes even further. Bowen is the president of Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland. He wrote a book arguing against the use of technology in classrooms. It is called “Teaching Naked.”

Bowen admits that technology does improve the availability of information. But he notes technology is not free. It still mostly goes only to people that have money to pay for it.

Bowen also warns that giving students more information through the internet or social media does not help them understand how to use that information. He says the job of a college is to teach people how to think critically and find their place in the world around them.

Technology can bring teachers to students all over the world, as in the case of Ashok Goel’s class at Georgia Tech. But Bowen notes that online classes do little for students with limited educational experience.

"So those tools are there. But the problem is that online content by itself doesn’t know how to ask you the question ‘What interests you? What motivates you?’ … The first thing a good swim teacher does is ask you a couple of questions. The first question is, ‘How do you feel about water?’ And if you don’t like water, then I change my lesson plan. … And if you love water, well maybe I push you in the deep end."

He admits there is a place for technology outside the classroom. It can do some things teachers cannot, like provide answers immediately when a teacher is unavailable.

Bowen says teachers must accept the many things technology can do that they cannot. But he and Goel agree that nothing can replace the personal relationship between teachers and students. And the training in the classrooms of today may be the only thing that prepares students for the technology of tomorrow.

I’m Pete Musto.

Pete Musto reported on this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor. We want to hear from you. How is technology used in college classrooms in your country? How important do you think technology is to learning? Write to us in the Comments Section or on our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

graduateadj. of or relating to a course of studies taken at a college or university after earning a bachelor's degree or other first degree

artificial intelligencen. an area of computer science that deals with giving machines the ability to seem like they have human intelligence

onlineadj. connected to a computer, a computer network, or the Internet

semestern. one of two usually 18-week periods that make up an academic year at a school or college

reveal(ed) – v. to make something known

surveyn. an activity in which many people are asked a question or a series of questions in order to gather information about what most people do or think about something

adaptiveadj. using the process of changing to fit some purpose or situation

contentn. the ideas, facts, or images that are in a book, article, speech or movie

motivate(s) – v. to give someone a reason for doing something

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