University of Calgary

Faculty vs. Faculty

Submitted by alumni on Sun, 11/06/2016 - 09:33.

Faculty vs. Faculty

Discover how technology is being used in classrooms in a debate between two professors — where one embraces technology and, the other, less so.
Illustrations by Travis Sengaus

When it comes to using technology in her classroom, Julie Sedivy, adjunct associate professor of psychology and linguistics, languages and cultures, follows a motto: “No more than is necessary.” She believes that, when class time is devoted to asking and exploring difficult questions, students become more curious and critical and that can lead to taking greater intellectual risks.

What kind of technological devices and practices do you use in your classroom?

It depends. In some lab classes, we use computers to simulate experiments. But, for “lecture” classes, I often ask students to put away all of their devices, including laptops. I started doing this about five years ago, and I was startled at how much it improved student performance and how much more interesting and alive classes became. I think that minimizing these devices reduces distraction, as well as it also shifts emphasis away from the idea that lectures are about transferring information from teacher to student. Instead of scrambling to transcribe the teacher’s words, students are free to focus on thinking.

How has access to online information impacted the teaching profession?

In principle, it should have helped professors focus on what they really have to offer, but I don’t think it’s worked out that way. I think students have come to see outside sources as replacements for professors, to see in-person contact with profs as redundant or dispensable. Maybe that’s because both students and professors have made the mistake of thinking that the role of professors is as keepers of content, rather than as expert guides who know what to do with that content.

In what ways can the use of technology improve/detract from teaching and learning?

I think the biggest pedagogical mistake we’ve made with technology is in failing to ask exactly this question. We need to be clearer about saying, “Such and such a technology is good for this, but it’s bad for that,” and act accordingly. It’s great for being able to present complex visual information and do useful demos. It’s great for being able to access research articles in a fraction of the time it used to, but it can be a real barrier to deep, engaged discussion, the kind where you break out in a mental sweat. And I think that, because it has made certain aspects of intellectual life easy, it has created the illusion that intellectual work is, or should be, easy. In fact, it’s very, very hard and it should be very, very hard — or you’re just not doing it right.

I think that email has actually reduced the communication between students and profs.

How do you use technology to communicate with students?

I use email. I use discussion boards. But these can be brutally inefficient for substantive discussion. In general, I think students dramatically underuse office hours. Oddly, I think that email has actually reduced the communication between students and profs — it has made students feel that in-person contact is bothersome to the professor (and maybe the student), but, at the same time, there’s a real limit to what you can deal with over email. Students who are having trouble understanding the material enough to formulate a specific question over email end up just not asking — because saying, “I’m confused, help!” is just not a useful email question.

In the age of easy access to online information, what has changed in the way students learn?

On the positive side, students have become much more independent in terms of searching out information that they think is relevant. But, because it’s become so easy to find out what someone else thinks about something, there’s a danger of becoming too focused on reporting conclusions, rather than formulating arguments. As more students interact online, I think that they lose out on what can be gained from in-person discussion and working through a problem together. Very few students seem to study together or simply throw ideas around. In my classes, I try to give students a taste of how powerful these kinds of intellectual exchanges can be, and it’s one of the big reasons I ask them to put away their devices.

How do you see the classroom changing in the next 15 years?

I like to think we’re going to get much smarter in how we use technology. I hope that we’ll use digital tools to free professors up from those aspects of teaching that are repetitive and uncreative to allow them to focus on creating relationships in which they can mentor, guide, provoke, challenge and inspire. If we don’t do this, I’m not sure that universities can succeed in the long run. U