Plugged In to Learning

The modern college student arrives on campus with more than just a suitcase in tow. An array of gadgets will also be on hand, including a tablet computer, a smartphone, an MP3 player, perhaps a laptop. Today’s students are used to having the world in their hands — literally. They know how to multitask and can find the information that they need, usually within a matter of a few seconds.

Students are technologically advanced and it would be not only archaic but also inappropriate for their colleges to expect them to learn their lessons from the standard textbook. Isn’t it faster and easier to flip on an iPad and search for the details about the first day at the Battle of Bull Run on Google instead of heading to the campus library to find the same information in a book?

Analyzing Scientific Data

Science classes can be actively engaging for both students and professors alike thanks to the offerings available from companies that provide hands-on science equipment. This array of different products includes probes, sensors and software to encourage a well-rounded learning environment. Among available devices for science laboratories is a standalone handheld interface device with a touchscreen that enables students to collect, share and analyze data from experiments. In addition to collecting their data, students can save notes on the device, and use it with various compatible probes. This device also contains a GPS for tagging data outside of the classroom and an email feature so that students can send data to their professors.

Data gathered on a standalone interface device can be controlled wirelessly from a Windows or Macintosh computer and projected for the entire class to see. These devices can also wirelessly stream data to iPads and other mobile technology. This enables students to share their data and opens up the lesson for discussion. Professors can review data across the entire classroom, seeing everything that their students have gathered.

“Today’s students have grown up with technology and they expect to be engaged in the classroom just as they are in every other aspect of their lives,” says Dr. John Melville, staff scientist for Biology at Vernier Software & Technology. “They are very adept at technology and they expect the learning environment to be intuitive. Students can’t imagine learning any other way. It just makes sense for technology to be utilized in class.”

Goodbye Chalkboards

Old Dominion University (ODU) located in Norfolk, VA, has more than 24,000 undergraduate and graduate students in over 50 degreed programs. The university utilizes technology to engage its students for different purposes but also to streamline learning. Dwayne Smith, classroom central senior engineer at ODU, says, “We have realized that not only do our faculty members need the traditional tools to teach at the front of the classroom, but it is also relevant to provide the proper technologies for a full learning environment.”

ODU strives to provide cutting-edge technologies that appeal to and encourage students to learn but also are easy to use for faculty members who may have some hesitancy when first being introduced to these products. Document cameras had been widely used for years in ODU’s classrooms, but recently the campus upgraded their document cameras to gain high-definition quality and employ a newer, compact size. A professor can show information to the class by using the new projectors without needing to make adjustments to lighting or resolution, and students are able to see crystal-clear copy from their seats.

La Salle University, a private liberal arts college in Philadelphia, also uses various technologies and multimedia to keep students interested in their lessons. Professors use Skype, web conferencing tools, iPads and different apps to promote their lessons. Dr. Bobbe Baggio, director, Graduate Program in Instructional Technology Management at the College of Professional and Continuing Studies at La Salle, says, “We incorporate multimedia assets and a multitude of instructional technologies including Captivate, Articulate, Google Apps, self-directed learning modules, e-learning portfolios, social media, video, virtual worlds and collaboration tools to foster experiential learning that will be the basis of how trainers deliver workplace training in the 21st century. We focus on delivery online, on mobile devices, and using all types of cyber technology as an integral part of the learning experience.”

Hello Excitement

In today’s learning environment, part of most curriculums is for college students to collaborate in groups outside of the classroom on projects and presentations. But there has always been the issue of where such groups are supposed to go to study together or practice presentations. Libraries and residence hall rooms usually have not been conducive to this type of collaborative atmosphere, and most classrooms are off limits after classes end for the day. ODU has solved this problem for its students by creating the Learning Commons.

The Learning Commons facility within ODU’s Perry Library is an environment with campus resources, computers, a presentation room and recording equipment. Other services within the facility include a presentation room so that students can experiment in giving talks or presenting in front of others, collaboration rooms for groups to work together or study, and a multimedia room equipped with Macintosh computers. Faculty members are not present, so the Learning Commons is strictly for students to learn through collaboration and exploration in a comfortable environment.

Smith says, “ODU created the Learning Commons so that students could work together in groups or teams for collaborative assignments. We are preparing them for the workforce where they must have the skills to collaborate on projects. The Learning Commons is equipped with the technologies the students need to prepare for their classroom assignments. The students have embraced this facility and it’s amazing to see how important it has become to the campus and to the overall learning environment.”

New Ways to Learn

The higher education sector has discovered that while its students are beyond advanced in technology, it has had to scramble to keep up. Now, colleges and universities are implementing technology to ensure that learning is engaging, intuitive, colorful and exciting. Those dusty old textbooks are being replaced with Kindles, web apps, multimedia and a host of other technological products to make education appealing. Students expect the learning environment to keep them interested and colleges are catering to that desire with the implementation of new offerings every year. ODU’s Smith sys, “Today’s high schools are very technologically driven and colleges need to be the same way. We can’t expect students to leave a highly technological high school environment and come to a college classroom with just a chalkboard and a teacher behind a desk. It doesn’t make sense.”

Karen Spring has been a technical writer for more than 10 years. She began her career working as a marketing specialist for two computer distributors, handling projects for clients including Acer, IBM and Okidata. She also worked as a senior editor for an IT publishing and consulting firm. Ms. Spring has written technical reports on Microsoft products and contributes to a weekly newsletter that highlights network and Internet security topics.