GW at the millennium: Faculty, students cope with changing technology

Gone are the tenderly handwritten letters sending confidences to lovers or to parents; we use e-mail these days. Gone is the 10-year-old girl lying on her belly on a shag rug, writing stories; she’s upright at her workstation, surfing the Internet, playing video games.

-Bonnie Morris, GW women’s studies professor, from the Dec. 10, 1999 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Faculty members at colleges and universities nationwide are constantly catching up with new academic technology. As students give multimedia presentations, design Web sites and turn in papers using only Internet research, faculty members say they worry new technology is changing the way students learn.

A recent Newsweek article said as students grow more technologically savvy, faculty members are becoming more stressed:

According to a survey conducted by the University of California Los Angeles, 67 percent of 33,785 faculty members questioned said that `keeping up with information technology’ is a source of stress.

It’s not that they aren’t using the Internet at all, it’s that stress is a by-product of its use, Linda Sax, the survey’s director, said in the article.

Robert Wilson, assistant director for educational services at GW’s Counseling Center, said technology is a part of college stress, because it demands additional time and effort.

As technology gets more complex, it does require a different way of doing things, he said. It’s requiring all of us to think differently, how to make technology work for us.

Wilson said the benefit of technology is it gives students more access to their classes, not limiting them to a specific hour. And it provides students immediate links beyond the classrooms.

It’s a handy way of dealing with the learning process, he said.

But new technology continually forces faculty to rethink how it structures courses. Professors have to monitor conversations between students on e-mail.

The challenge is to use the electronic razzle-dazzle to be effective and draw the user in, Wilson said. Students have to be entertained, but, at the same time, they have to be engaged.

That’s trickier, he said.

To make technology work for them, faculty members must first learn how to work the technology.

GW created the Instructional Technology Project to help faculty learn and improve computer skills. According to GW’s Instructional Technology Lab Web site, faculty may take courses during the summer that include everything from computer fundamentals, to using e-mail, to implementing graphics and video.

Yet after faculty members become computer whizzes, they still have to engage their students.

The issue isn’t just learning how to use a personal computer or e-mail; faculty members are wondering if technology is really helping students learn. Students are turning in polished papers with professional graphics and fonts, but professors say they worry students rely too much on word processing and the Internet.

Bonnie Morris, who teaches women’s studies at GW, said she first learned how to use a computer during her last year of graduate school. She didn’t start to use e-mail until about seven years ago and started using the Internet only two years ago.

Morris said she’s seen more and more students use the Internet as a source for research papers. And she finds students have a hard time distinguishing good sources from bad ones.

No one can figure out how to cite the Internet, she said.

In her western civilization class, she assigned a paper on the attitudes about women in education. Some students went to the Web sites of small colleges and quoted out of the recruitment material.

It had no author – it’s an advertisement, she said.

Morris said the presentation and format of student papers has improved over the years.

But (the students) still don’t know how to use commas, she said. It doesn’t make them better writers.

In a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education in December, Morris wrote, Yet, as most faculty members lament, our students’ nicely printed-out pages hardly compensate for their increasingly abysmal writing skills.

She said the Internet has made communication with students easier, yet she is still surprised to see that students who have strong opinions are shy about voicing them, such as writing letters to the editors.

Despite the growth in the past year of the Web-based Prometheus system, which GW professors can use to post their syllabi, grades and announcements, Morris said she does not use the program. She said she is reluctant to make up paperwork for her classes and then put it on the Web as well.

It’s unfair to expect the faculty to do everything twice, she said.

She said she does not encourage her students to e-mail their homework. She would rather see them staple it and show up to class. Yet she doesn’t mind if students want to bring a laptop computer to take notes.

Morris cautions about using e-mail to vent frustrated feelings. She said every year she discourages her students from sending hostile e-mail if they are not happy with their grades. She said it is easier to say rude things when a person is typing in front of a screen and not face to face.

And then I can print it out and have it documented that you were rude, she said.

Yet Morris said e-mail has facilitated conversations she could not have had otherwise.

People write me letters from all over the world, she said.

She said she worries about the amount of time students spend in front of a screen on the Internet

You see commercials on TV where toddlers are typing on `My First Little Keyboard.’ Morris said. It’s scary.

She said she would like to see laptop computers become more streamlined and personal. Until then, there is no substitute for a journal.

A laptop, though increasingly lightweight, can’t be jammed into a jeans pocket while one gathers shells beneath the beach pier, Morris wrote in the article. The spontaneity of journal keeping, the ability to stick an autumn leaf or a movie stub between marked pages, has been transformed by technology.

You can’t take (a journal) with you on a bus in Morocco or a mountain top in California, she said. Nothing is better than a journal.

She said perhaps someday she will implement the idea of a virtual classroom into her teaching.

I hope to see a balance – in 2000 and beyond – between the tools of professional presentation and the lives we live as writers, Morris wrote in the article. .The habit of writing, which best prepares young students, should not hinge on the rooted verticality of a computer screen. Like Anne Frank, like Arctic explorers, we must be prepared to write our greatest testimonies in non-technical conditions, where and when we can.

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