Chalk Talk and Hypertext: Technology in the Classroom

Monday, March 14, 2016 - 4:43pm

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Illustration by Shane Achenbach

 

Every Monday and Wednesday at 1 p.m., room 1230 of the Undergraduate Science Building slowly fills with students. Around 1:05, Communication Prof. Paddy Scannell walks to the chalkboard at the front of the room and begins to write out his plan of attack. As white chalk hits green slate stone, his nearly 50 years of academic teachings present themselves to approximately 80 students that are still filing into room.

Usually, the format of the writing reads as an outline, but sometimes diagrams of interconnected ideas or key figures commandeer a large portion of the board. When the writing stops, the professor takes a step back, looks over his work one final time and begins his lecture. Throughout the lecture, he will add points or diagrams that complement what is already there.

In a world of hyper connection, PowerPoint presentations and iClickers, Scannell consciously selects only two technologies to engage with his students: his voice and the piece of chalk in his hand. It is the technology of talk and the technology of chalk brought together to educate the masses.

Although it isn’t electrically powered or connected to the Internet, Scannell’s lecture is technologically considered. It is technological efficiency in its purest form.

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The nature of the average college classroom is radically different today than it was even five years ago. In almost every classroom on campus, professors have the ability to use a projector screen, a desktop computer, document cameras and sometimes even electronic whiteboards. Looking back at those professors are often hundreds of glowing Apple logos, illuminating the thousands of dollars in laptops brought to class each day by students.

With an ever-expanding wireless network supported by the University of Michigan, both professors and students in modern higher education quite often mix class with the Internet interactions. Professors might spend some of their lecture showing a YouTube video or a Prezi presentation. Meanwhile, students might spend some of the same lecture taking notes on a Google Doc while simultaneously filling out an online survey to find out which character from “The Walking Dead” they are most like.

Outside the classroom, learning management systems like Canvas and CTools connect professors and students in ways that 1950s college students could never imagine. E-mail systems complement such learning management platforms and allow for formal and direct communication between academic citizens.

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Zoey Holmstrom/Daily

 

Collectively, these in-classroom and online technologies have shifted the conversation in higher education from what a professor says to what technologies they use in the framework of their teaching.

Barry Fishman, a professor in the School of Information and the School of Education, focuses much of his teaching on how technology plays a role in the collegiate classroom. Having developed (among many, many other projects) a gamified class format called GradeCraft, which mirrors the achievements one might experience in a video game rather than traditional grading scales, Fishman knows all about how technology influences higher education.

His first experience with technology in education came when one of his undergraduate English classes was formatted entirely in hypertext, which is the underlying format for the World Wide Web.

Rather than relying on the traditional English book, Fishman’s professor used hypertext pages as the backbone of his classroom. In this hypertext network, Fishman’s classmates created content that became interconnected in ways that were not possible in a hardcover novel.

“It caused me to think about my own learning in a way that surprised me,” Fishman said.

Since that time, Fishman has dedicated his teaching and research to the pursuit of implementing technologies into learning environments that enhance the educational opportunities for all those involved.

His current venture, the aforementioned GradeCraft, has the ambition “to motivate students and allow them to feel in control of their own learning.” Rather than assigning arbitrary percentages to assignments and allowing grade finalization to occur three weeks after a final exam, GradeCraft allows students to progressively gain points to reach different achievement levels.

For example, a student who reaches 7,000 points out of the 12,000 possible points with 10 assignments valued at 700 points each might earn a “C” grade if they are to not advance any further. Reach 10,000 points and that student will earn an “A” in the class. These scores update progressively and are meant to visualize academic progression, simultaneously encouraging students to take risks without fear of failure and keep working for greater game (read: academic) achievement. By turning the class structure into a real-world video game, Fishman’s GradeCraft aims to incentivize learning and engage students in a new way.

His work has even taken him to the White House, having co-authored the Obama administration’s 2010 U.S. National Educational Technology Plan.

When compared to the nature of Paddy Scannell’s lectures in Room 1230, one might assume that Fishman and Scannell fundamentally disagree on how to teach. After all, Scannell uses a blackboard, chalk and his voice to teach his class, which is underpinned by a traditional grading scale and structure. Fishman bases his entire model of instruction around a concept that can be played using a controller on a high-def TV.

If there ever were polarities in the classroom, one would be wise to assume these professors were north and south. However, at the core of each professor’s ideology lies the same fundamental goal: to help students gain knowledge that is actually worth making the effort to learn.

“My philosophy of teaching is that the classroom experience should be some kind of human interaction between the teacher and the class,” Scannell said in discussing his class format.

The nature of a large lecture hall of 80-some students necessitates a relationship where Scannell lectures and the students listen; such sacrifices must be made given student-teacher ratios at large universities.

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Zoey Holmstrom/Daily

 

As far as his use of the blackboard and limited visible notes, Scannell said, “It’s not as if I’m making (my lecture) up from moment to moment, but I am talking it into existence.”

The technology of talk facilitates this interaction and prevails in one of Scannell’s lectures. Rather than reading directly off a sheet of notes or a slide, Scannell’s vocal variance and sentence structure make each statement conversational, educated and, most importantly, humanistic.

And what goes into those limited notes is a conscious choice by the seasoned professor.

“I don’t like making (my lecture) too cut and dry at this point,” Scannell said.

What he hopes to achieve in his teaching is not for students to copy definitions off a PowerPoint slide and get the “cut and dry” experience, but rather engage in a conversation that sparks interest in the topic at hand, a sentiment Fishman, in a sense echoed.

“Now that most facts can be looked up, anything you can answer with Google probably isn’t worth teaching,” Fishman said. The “cut and dry” information one might get off a PowerPoint is inevitably something one could also find with Google.

What one cannot find on Google — and what might be worth taking the time to learn — is the conversation around topics, ideas, facts and history.

“The teaching situation, ideally, is an interaction between the teacher and the students,” Scannell said. It is in such an interaction where the technologies of chalk and talk facilitate what Google cannot. Where a computer sits, waiting for input, Scannell engages on his own, guiding the conversation in such a way that only an expert human in his field could do.

Furthermore, as a resident-expert on all types of teaching software, devices and inventions, Fishman insisted, “It’s not the technology; it’s what you do with it.”

While some might complain that professors like Scannell should at least use PowerPoint, there is nothing inherently possessed in a PowerPoint slide that can teach a student what is worth knowing. Likewise, while Fishman’s gameful model of academic progression affords students the ability to engage with learning in a unique fashion, were it to be implemented in the same way a traditional grading scale might, the technological ideology of GameCraft would not help at all.

Although technologies like Smart Boards, iClickers and tablets all generate the type of hype that would suggest each device is the singular invention that is going to “fix” education, Fishman says this is a myth. While each of these products, and the GameCraft program more conceptually, all allow for new experiences, the implementations of each idea is what matters.

In contrast, Fishman said, products like iClickers don't bring something novel. “It’s a failure of imagination,” he said. “When people use clickers for attendance, that’s not new; that’s (just) a lot of infrastructure for attendance.”

“But when people do something interesting like collaborative problem solving (using clickers), that makes them more interesting,” he added.

For professors like Scannell, structuring his class to be most interesting and most adept at engaging students in order to facilitate learning might just consist of talking at a chalkboard for an hour and a half.

Of course, for all professors, it quite often doesn’t matter how interesting or engaging they might make their course if the students they are attempting to connect with are engrossed in a Buzzfeed quiz or the most recent Twitter updates. Laptops and laptop-based notes facilitate more distraction than ever before, so maintaining focus and engaging with the learning process can become more difficult for students.

But nonetheless, all of this is to say that, at the aesthetic level, professors like Barry Fishman and Paddy Scannell seem to be operating in completely different universes when it comes to the technology. But, when analyzed based on the ideology that underpins each professor’s views, we can see that technological devices or programs haven’t really changed the nature of education all that much.

Where Fishman hopes to see change directly facilitated in the university setting is in the overall structure of higher education. The nature of degree progression, based on distribution requirements, credit hours and measuring knowledge by the number of classes a person takes might soon see the axe if technology advances as it has recently.

“One of the exciting potentials in electronic teaching tools is they throw off a lot of data from the interactions,” Fishman said. “And, in theory, it could be used for very powerful means to help guide teaching or guide learning.”

Rather than relying on arbitrary measures like the credit hour, such large data could generate alternative credentials that signify actual knowledge retention and application.

Learning programs like ECoach at the University, which takes machine learning and applies it to artificial intelligence-based homework feedback, will hopefully use big data to enable in-classroom opportunities that educators dream of, as well. Of course, if improperly applied, even applications so advanced will serve little purpose beyond current measures.

Such is the nature of technology in the classroom. At the end of the day, the field of higher education is made up of human beings. And, in the eyes of human beings like Paddy Scannell, this human relationship will hopefully stick around for quite some time.

“So long as there are classrooms and so long as students assemble in a learning situation with faculty, there’s room for good old talk,” he said

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It’s nearing 2:25 and Scannell is now finishing his good old talk for the day. As students begin to close their laptops, zip their book bags and pull out their smartphones, Scannell begins to erase the chalk off the green slate stone in front of him.

Somewhere across campus, at quite possibly the same moment, a group of students is packing their bags and checking their phones as Fishman is finishing his class for the day. As Fishman logs off his laptop and unplugs it from the projector, his metaphorical chalkboard is wiped clean for the day, leaving the screen on which his lecture notes existed barren.

At this moment, a professor who engages in the technology of talk and a professor who engages in the technology of games exist in symmetry. At this moment, and in many moments in the future, the nature of education will not be defined by a screen being on or a chalkboard being covered, but by the respective thought that each professor decided to stop on for the day and where they will continue with that thought when their class meets again.