Friday, January 27, 2006

Technology,Webcasting, and Classroom Attendance

There's been a lot of talk recently about how technology will change the academic landscape. I remember when it was "cutting edge" just to have a website of any kind for your classes (and if you had a script for a discussion board, you were in the top 1%). Now, services like WebCt and Blackboard, have made it so easy that there's almost no excuse.

Now the latest thing is "webcasting" (video clips of class that can be delivered over the internet). For an good example of this, go to Aswath Damodaran's website at NYU.

But, using technology like this comes at a cost:
Americ Azevedo taught an "Introduction to Computers" class at UC Berkeley last semester that featured some of the hottest options in educational technology.
By visiting the course's websites, the 200 enrolled students could download audio recordings or watch digital videos of the lectures, as well as read the instructor's detailed lecture notes and participate in online discussions.

But there was one big problem: So many of the undergraduates relied on the technology that, at times, only 20 or so actually showed up for class.
Read the whole LA Times piece here:

I'm personally not bothered by there being fewer students attending class. There are a lot of reasons why:
  • I try to keep my ego out of my teaching (hard to do, but at least I try). I'm paid to show up and teach. If there are two students there, I teach to two students.
  • Students are adults (at least, that's what we tell them). So, if they can pass the tests without being in class, more power to them. Making classroom attendance required (or giving pop quizzes or passwords out in class) seems like making students come to class to assuage my ego. Of course, some students will use the support material as an excuse to skip class when they really need to attend and will end up failing. To me, that's part of the learning process - make a poor choice, and pay the cost of your bad decisions. This teaches people to make better choices (or, as the redneck father often says in raising his sons, "That hurts like hell, don't it? Betcha won't do that again!".
  • Fewer students in class means that I can spend more time on each student who shows up. Ideally, we'd have a self-selection process where those who can learn from their computer without coming to class do, and those who want the classroom experience go there.
The "virtual classroom wouldn't work well for all setting. I think it's work best for "established body of knowledge" classes, and less well for classes/subjects with a lot of ambiguity. For example, in my intro class, I can easily see me eventually doing podcasts. The website for that class already has copies of all my slides, solutions to assignments and end-of-chapter problems, a discussion board, a whole slew of announcements, and a collection of short "guides" to common problem areas (like, for example, how to calculate the principal and interest over any two arbitrary points on an amortized loan). So, webcasts wouldn't be too much of a stretch.

On the other hand, webcasts would work poorly in a subject where the discussions are the critical part of the class. My case course (the Advanced Corporate Finance class) is a perfect example. In a good case-based course, there aren't any "perfectly correct" answers (just degrees of "good"). So, the in-class discussions are the single most important part of the class (and they're different each time a case is discussed). So, in this class, I use the website primarily to put up sets of questions for the students to ponder before the case and "follow up" material following the cases. I also make all the students provide write-ups of their case analyses that get posted to the web BEFORE the cases get discussed. So, in this case, the web has only ancillary material that supports the in-class discussion.

Like anything else, it's the right tool for some situations, but not for others. Just because you have a hammer doesn't mean everything's a nail.

One thing that will likely happen because of the increased focus on technology is that those who master it will increase their market value. With webcasting, you can as easily reach a class of 200 as a class of 20 or 30. So, the "good" webcasters will become much more valuable to their schools. On the other hand, those who don't learn it will be disadvantaged in some settings. Like I said, it's not the answer for all classes, but it will work for some.

I actually wish I had lower attendance in one of my classes - it's set in a small classroom, and in their infinite wisdom, our wonderful administration has actually enrolled more students than the room holds. Luckily, there's usually 5-10% of the class absent at any one time, so it works out. And in this class, there'll usually be 20-25% of the class who drop by midterms. Still, webcasts would give the room some slack. Or, I could just do this.

In any event, I'm enough of a techno-geek that I'll have to try webcasting eventually, if just to keep my status as the Alpha Nerd (or is that "UberGeek?) among my peers.

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