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Technology in (and outside) the classroom

June 10, 2010

Image: piece of old and rusty machinery

The last few weeks we’ve been considering what you might call the flies in the eLearning ointment, in the form of recent studies suggesting that, despite the rapid spread of digital technologies across the higher education landscape, tech-enhanced learning has not so far had the transformative effect on actual classroom practice that some had expected and hoped.

Perhaps the most interesting of these studies is Larry Cuban’s New Technologies in Old Universities (Cuban, 2001). Cuban investigated the use of new technologies by teaching staff at Stanford University in the 1990s – a period of massive hype about the potential of information tech to transform the classroom experience, and equally massive tech investment by US universities. What he found was near-universal adoption by faculty of information technologies, but almost no integration of them into their classroom practice. Academics were using ICTs for writing, research, and teaching preparation – but hardly at all in class.

As a result, at the turn of the 21st century, the traditional lecture remained the predominant undergraduate teaching format for all disciplines at Stanford, an institution you’d expect to be more open to Silicon Valley’s computer revolution than any other on earth. Cuban estimated that the small band of pioneers who were using information technologies in the classroom to teach in radically new ways amounted to no more than 2% of the total Stanford faculty.

Disappointing perhaps – but I wonder how surprised we should be by this finding. Firstly, even the most student-centred, constructivist-oriented academics have been hired at least in part to disseminate a body of knowledge, and for this the lecture format can work quite well. “Because it is more efficient to convey subject matter and the essentials of a discipline to large groups than to small ones,” Cuban points out, “the lecture prevails” (Cuban, 2001).

Secondly, Cuban’s study notes two things that certainly have changed in the HE landscape. First, even 10 years ago when his study was conducted, Stanford students “had abundant and easy access to information technologies” both on and off-campus, with 95% of students owning their own computers by 2000 (Cuban, 2001). Second, although lectures accounted for more than half of all teaching hours, a number of alternative, more interactive, teaching formats were being adopted by increasing numbers of professors in a growing number of disciplines: seminars, student presentations, small group collaborations, discussion sessions after lectures, dialogues and debates.

I think these two changes are linked. You don’t have to subscribe to Prensky’s digital natives thesis to believe that one of the first impacts of pervasive digital interactive technologies is to change students’ habits and expectations. Net Generation students don’t necessarily expect their classroom to be computerised, but they do expect more interaction with their teachers and peers, more opportunity to question assertions and debate ideas. I suspect it is this demand for interaction that’s helping to drive the new teaching formats.

Another, more recent, study focuses in on this question of university students’ use of information technologies and their possible impacts on teaching and learning. The Educause Centre for Applied Research (ECAR) Study of Undergraduate Students’ and Information Technology 2008 surveyed over 25,000 students across more than 100 North American HE institutions (Salaway and Caruso, 2008), and confirms that the great majority of US students now arrive at college equipped with internet-capable computers and mobile devices, and use them daily to support both their social life, their leisure and their learning. What they don’t do in such large numbers is expect these same information technologies to be as pervasively present in the classroom as they are in their lives generally. Almost two-thirds of the ECAR sample said they preferred only “a moderate amount of IT in their courses”, insisting they would still attend class even if all course materials were available online and emphasising the overriding importance of face-to-face contact with their teachers. Again, this finding seems hardly surprising: why would students at a campus university not want lots of face time with their teachers?

A more interesting point about the ECAR findings is the shift they hint at away from the classroom as the principal locus of undergraduate learning. Consider the following statistics about the IT usage of the ECAR student cohort:

• 93% use the internet to access their university VLE or library
• 74% use SMS
• 68% use social networks to share files
• 50% use social networks to communicate with classmates about course-related topics
• 47% contribute content to photo or video sharing sites
• 38% contribute content to wikis, and 34% contribute content to blogs
• 33% use audio and video creation software
• 27% participate in special-interest groups, and 16% in forums
• 17% use social bookmarking
• 6% use social networks to communicate with instructors

The picture this data paints is of a cohort who are continuously connected to a set of overlapping networks, including their university network, enabling them to stay constantly in touch and to access and share data of all kinds. They use these networks to socialise, to entertain themselves, and to date each other; but they also use them for learning – outside of class, 24-7..

Perhaps the researchers who’ve been seeking evidence of the transformational impact of information technologies in the classroom have simply been looking in the wrong place?


Cuban, L (2001) Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, ch 4

Sallaway, G and Caruso, J (2008) ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2008. Educause Centre for Applied Research

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