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Many professors are slow to embrace new tools that can boost learning.

The explosion of Internet technology offers enormous potential to enrich student learning at America’s colleges while allowing instructors to make better use of their time. Yet much of this educational opportunity is not being harnessed. Although most students are willing and have the technological know-how to grasp a variety of new learning tools, many professors have been slow to adjust the way they teach.

Instant messaging, chat rooms and other innovations are revolutionizing the way classes are taught. For example, with wireless Internet hookup, students can use their laptops in class, contributing to discussions with rapid Internet research. Online lectures enable students to log on from their dorm rooms and listen to lectures multiple times to catch material they may have missed. For professors, the advantage of this form of delivery is obvious: They don’t have to prepare lectures according to a class schedule but instead can record a series of lectures in one sitting, then post them to a class website for students to access at the appropriate time. Until recently, online lectures had the disadvantage of preventing students from posing real-time questions of their professors; they had to wait until faculty office hours, which often conflict with other classes or obligations. But now, programs such as Quizdom© and eInstruction™ allow interactive lectures in which professors can gauge immediately how well a class understands a particular topic.

A study conducted at Northeastern University examined other options, as well, including using e-mail and instant messaging to complement traditional face-to-face office hours. Through e-office hours, students were given set periods when they could interact electronically with a teaching assistant, asking questions related to homework or exam preparation. Most students were drawn to the idea. Their participation in office hours increased significantly, with the majority in the study taking part in e-office hours at some point during the semester. Instant messaging, in particular, had a major impact. Facilitating fluid conversations between students and instructors, it became a highlight of the e-office hours. While not used for this study, chat rooms offer a tool that is potentially even more useful. An instructor can open a dedicated room to allow students to join in a conversation. Those who join late can scroll through the conversation to see if a question has already been raised. This win-win situation frees instructors from the burden of covering the same issue multiple times, while students can find out quickly if their query has been addressed.

Online lectures, e-mail, instant messaging and chat rooms expand communication and increase flexibility.

An obvious question is whether students learn better in these non-traditional settings. Instead of trying to make a case for or against, we should recognize that non-traditional teaching approaches enhance the learning environment. Each student has a particular learning style. Some learn better in front of a chalkboard while others may learn using non-traditional methods. Understanding students’ learning styles and creating an environment that is both efficient for the instructor and effective for the students will lead to a higher success rate in courses. Today’s technology provides a stepping stone for moving the teaching framework to the next level and making more non-traditional teaching approaches possible.

The landscape of the classroom is being transformed, with technology becoming a driving force. Students are starting to write instructional information for their classmates and to communicate electronically with companies to solicit information for group projects. These added, creative ways of learning can be particularly helpful to students who don’t fully comprehend material presented in a traditional classroom format. Testing can become more flexible, as well: Exams can be given outside the classroom, with students signing honor pledges.

As technology continues to develop, instructors will be challenged to find appropriate and useful ways to incorporate it into their teaching. Rather than resisting, instructors should seize the opportunity to expand the learning curve, as student acceptance of these new learning techniques will only increase. By not fully understanding today’s tech-savvy student, an instructor will undoubtedly miss opportunities not only to further students’ growth but also to improve his or her own teaching skills.


Reginald E. Rogers, Jr. is a fifth-year Ph.D. candidate in chemical engineering at the University of Michigan.




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