Professors try to keep up with cyberage
Columbia University's new media center helps technophobic teachers create multimedia lectures and course Web sites.
NEW YORK — For college professors, it used to be enough just making sure office hours were held on time, or that long lectures were spruced up with a good joke - and a pop quiz.
But now they're finding that tech-savvy college students expect multimedia presentations in class, interactive assignments with video feeds on the Web - even office hours via e-mail. And many professors don't have the time or technical know-how to set these things up.
Columbia University in New York has one solution to pulling technophobic faculty into the virtual age: a $12 million center where they can go for help.
The Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CNMTL) has cutting-edge computers, software, and equipment, plus 50 full- or part-time "educational technologists" on hand to help. They are whizzes with the technical stuff and also either have or are pursuing graduate degrees in education. Their goal is to turn technology into a teaching tool - which can result in anything from Powerpoint presentations in chemistry class to virtual testing of old factory sites in environmental science (see story, below).
"Columbia is trying to change the pedagogy and the teaching methods that are used," says Tom Reeves, a professor of instructional technology at the University of Georgia in Athens who has visited the Columbia center. "Most universities have something along the lines of a faculty development center that teaches how to give better lectures,... but this is really on the cutting edge."
At first, faculty members are encouraged just to drop off a copy of their course syllabus, which the center will then convert into a course Web page with an electronic bulletin board. Then professors can come in and discuss ways to use new media technologies in their courses.
Now what button do I push?
While the center does help professors move ahead with broader and bolder digital projects, a main purpose is to assist those who are intimidated by technology.
Some - who are proud just to have mastered the VCR - want to get no closer to technology than to know what button to push to make a presentation roll.
"All you have to hear is two or three nightmares, and it's enough to turn you off," says chemistry Prof. Nick Turro.
Over the summer, he went to his course Web page for organic chemistry and got only an error message, which he says was "like getting into your office and finding all your textbooks are gone." Professor Turro likes the idea of using technology, but doesn't want to fiddle with its creation.
Other professors are learning how to do a little of their own digital development. They take workshops and visit the computer lab built in Columbia's main library just for them.
Sitting at sleek new computers with flat-screen monitors, professors peck and click away at their course material, which they can add to by using the digital audio and video equipment and scanners. Consultants stand nearby, ready to jump in and help when needed.
"A faculty member comes in, and we need to learn what they teach, how they teach, what their research is, what their style is," says Cory Brandt, an associate director of the CNMTL.
The idea is not to convert traditional lectures and assignments to digital material, but to use technology to spruce up presentations and make it easier to study in depth, says Frank Moretti, director of the center.
'King Lear' goes digital
For instance, a literature professor wanted his students to think about "King Lear" and to examine how the play has been presented in different performances. The old way would have been for the professor to bring videos to class and juggle them in and out of the VCR while lecturing to students who were half-watching while scribbling notes.
Now, on their own time, students log onto the course's "King Lear" Web site. There they find video clips from several versions of the play, which can be compared side by side; the corresponding text, searchable by line; notes from the professor; and biographical and historical background on Shakespeare and his time. Valuable class time is reserved for discussion.
The site is not meant to replace toting around a paperback of the play.
"That's important - this is not a reading environment, it's a study environment," Mr. Brandt says. "You'd probably still read the play in a book."
By working with the center, George Flynn, a chemistry professor, has gone from a traditional lecturer to one who uses a Powerpoint presentation via a LCD (liquid crystal display) projector. He calls it "the Chalkless Lecture Project."
The advantages, he says, are that his presentations are more detailed and clear, the students don't have to decipher his handwriting or battle glare on the chalkboard, and he can spend more time explaining and less time writing on the board.
"I really believe that it's a far superior way to communicate with the kids," he says.
Students agree, saying that multi-media resources make it easier to study as well as learn in class.
"It's not just a frill," says Chad Finley, a graduate student in physics at Columbia. "A book can just say something so many times, but if you can interact with it at home it's made so much more clear."
For Professor Flynn's chemistry class, images and notes from the presentations are posted on the Web. He used to hand out hard copies in class, too, until students told him, please don't. "The students said, 'You have to make us take notes,' " he says.
This summer, several departments sent graduate students to the CNMTL for six weeks of training. The students get a laptop and a stipend, and in return will spend about 10 hours a week helping their departments' faculty members create helpful resources using new media.
Both Mr. Moretti and Mr. Reeves say that having a familiar face right in the department will make some faculty more willing to give technology a try.
Faculty can also take workshops, some only an hour or two long. "None of the workshops are just about technology, they're all about using the technology in the context of teaching," Brandt says.
One e-mail workshop shows how to get students to discuss case studies online. So far, more than 400 faculty members have worked with the CNMTL, and they're not just the new guard.
"Lots of people said, 'Only the young will do this,' " Moretti says. "But 25 percent of the faculty the center has worked with are tenured professors."
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