Technology on Campus

Hannah Bartman

Photos by cade beck.

The average Whitman student is surrounded daily by technology. Between doing work with word processing to reading e-resources, the use of computers in education is becoming increasingly vital.

Technological advances have slowly been seeping from students’ personal lives into the classroom. This has forced professors to reevaluate their use of discussion in a world where human contact is being replaced by digital communication. E-books, blogs and other discussion-based Internet sites are ways that professors have adapted to a more tech-savvy world.

“If I can provide [students] the opportunity to utilize the tools that they use outside the classroom also inside the classroom and keep it focused on the activity, then I see no problem with that,” said English Professor Christopher Leise. “This is the reality of how students study and consume information. I would rather keep pace with how you guys do your thinking and learning rather than to try and force something unnatural.”

One way that Leise accomplishes this is through his use of Wikispaces and blogs in his class. In Wikispaces, students can tweet questions they may have about the reading, or post some of their own work. This allows for group collaboration and discussion of ideas that extends outside of the classroom.

“It allows for the conversation to stay active beyond class,” he said. “Once they are done, I think the sustained conversation about what they’re doing with their paper and how it’s being received by an audience really gives them a clear sense that it’s not just homework for a class, but it is part of a fundamental act of communication [and] that other people might be interested in what they have to say. I think that really reflects what we do as writers in the scholarly sphere.”

The same is true with the use of blogs in classrooms. Both Leise and Professor of History Elyse Semerdjian use blogs to encourage communication outside of the classroom. Blogs have taken the expression of ideas and peer criticisms to a level of ease that would have been implausible without the Internet.

“It helps [students] steer away from the sense that there’s a way that you’re supposed to write for college, and more towards the idea that there’s a way that you should write for other people so that they’re interested,” said Leise.

Discussion in a public format not only widens students’ perspectives to the opinions of their peers, but it also provides them with the chance to make an opinionated claim, even if it may be wrong.

“I hope that my students will get used to thinking in public as well as in private,” said Justin Lincoln, professor of new media studies. “It’s okay to be wrong sometimes and change your mind, even publicly. Thinking is a dynamic process.”

The use of blogs and other modes of interaction on the Internet create another medium for contemplation of class material. Lincoln believes that the interactions of students on his class Tumblr site reinforces ideas to be discussed in class.

“I think that in the educational process we need to think about things many times. Just thinking about it once is not enough,” he said. “You think about something as you read it, as you respond to it, as you talk about it in class and then maybe in a different discussion later to connect to an issue that we’ve talked about three other times. That’s great.”

The use of technology outside of the class has a number of benefits, but it still holds debatable downsides during classroom discussions. E-books, while not utilized by many professors due to the lack of availability of full books online, can bring distractions and barriers to class. While e-books are typically cheaper for students, the lack of physical contact creates a different kind of comprehension.

“My sense is that a lot of faculty members are not completely sold that e-reading is going to always work for a good, small classroom dynamic.  It is not always conducive to an intense conversation and close reading,” said Semerdjian.

Assigning e-books also means that laptops and other e-readers are to be used in class, which brings other distractions directly into the classroom. Some professors feel that they are distanced by the use of laptops, and this disrupts classroom communication.

“I still have not figured out how to have a seamless conversation with the class while a person has a wall, which is the top of the laptop, between me and that person,” said Semerdjian. “Technology sometimes can become challenging to a good conversation.”

Bringing technology into the picture creates a paradox of communication. It offers multiple opportunities for students to continue communication outside of the classroom, but it also disrupts individual connections in classroom discussions.

While the Internet and e-books are increasingly being used in classes and for homework, not all Whitman classrooms have bridged into the newest available forms of technology. At times this is the choice of individual professors; however, the onus is often on the college itself.

Jon Loney, manager of instructional multimedia services, works to increase Whitman’s equipment and technology use. From creating smart classrooms by installing projectors and computer connections to mounting whiteboards on all of the walls in a classroom of the math building, Loney works to assist the professors in their increasing needs for technology.

“As far as the classrooms [go] I feel like we are a little behind [with technology], but there’s a certain element for which technology is unnecessary for us because of the size of the campus,” said Loney.

The lack of funding for large projects––such as tools for audience response systems or the creation of a technology network all throughout campus––makes Whitman fall behind in modernizing the classroom.

“We used to have a set amount of funds for adding new classrooms, but when we had the recession that was one of the first things that got cut,” said Loney.

Despite this hindrance, Whitman classes have still adapted to the varied use of web-based communication to further improve education. By utilizing the technological dependence of this generation for educational purposes, professors can continue discussion outside of class and produce an education that is a transition from the past.