Integrating Technology in Large College Classrooms
Carly N. Jordan
Amidst the current revolution in technological resources and its invasion into
every aspect of modern living, it seems only natural that educators would begin to
integrate new technologies to improve student learning. Some technologies are perfectly
suited for an educational setting, and others are being cleverly adapted for learning
situations. With today’s college students spending so much time interacting with new
technological devices, many educators feel that we should adapt our lessons to include
them. As a new educator still in graduate school, I am happy to explore any new ideas or
advances in educational technology. Truth be told, I aspire to be the vision of the
modern instructor, presenting interactive lectures with a Smartboard and setting up
discussion forums in Facebook. But even as I drift away in fantasies of being the perfect
21st century professor, I question the validity of it all. Sometimes I wonder if the real
reason I love to incorporate technology in my class is because it’s entertaining to me.
Looking beyond the novelty of fancy tools and programs, I wonder if all this new
technology really improves student learning. This literature review will describe a few
new technologies and their applications and implications for teaching and learning.
It is well established that, in general, effective technology integration is beneficial
to learning and teaching. Many studies have examined the effects of computer
technology on student outcome and learning, and there is definitely a positive
correlation (thoroughly reviewed by Timmerman 2006). Timmerman and colleagues
reviewed nearly 200 studies comparing student performance in computer-assisted and
traditional courses, across a wide range of disciplines and universities. Statistical
analysis showed a strong correlation between improved student learning outcomes (as
measured by a number of quantitative and qualitative measures) and increasing
implementation of computer technology in a course.
Their outcomes are especially increased when students enjoy using the
technology. Young (2003) studied more than 200 marketing undergraduates in courses
that had fully incorporated mobile computer technology, and found that implementing
students’ preferred technologies improves their attitudes and outcomes in a course.
These studies confirm that technology is beneficial to college student courses in general,
but I am interested specifically in ways to improve student achievement in large classes.
One of the greatest challenges in a large classroom setting is to encourage interaction
and discussion between students. In a room of 200 peers, many students are too shy to
speak up. It is easy to be invisible and anonymous in such a large group, and some
students will go the entire semester never saying a word. Fortunately, there are some
new tools and resources available to improve this scenario.
Mobile technology and digital ink are making a huge impact in higher education
right now, and for good reason. These new technologies are making life easier for
teachers and students, and facilitating learning in large classroom environments. Mobile
learning (abbreviated mLearning) is best defined as “the intersection of mobile
computing (the application of small, portable, and wireless computing and
communication devices) and e-learning (learning facilitated and supported through the
use of information and communications technology)” (Corbeil 2007). In the hands of a
clever instructor, mobile computer devices can be used to create unique educational
opportunities, otherwise unfeasible. Mobile devices used range from handheld digital
dictionaries to simple personal response devices to cell phones and iPods to handheld or
laptop computers. The complaints about implementation of these new technologies are
basically the same across the board (expense, small screens, having to bring something
extra to class). Despite some initial hesitation regarding these issues, recent studies
suggest that students are beginning to appreciate the benefits of mobile technology in
the classroom. In several recent reports, the majority of college students were
enthusiastic about mobile learning and eager to engage in future activities after trying it
out (reviewed in Fozdar 2007). Now students and educators alike are beginning to
appreciate the unique advantages and opportunities afforded by mobile technologies.
Personal response devices (also known as clickers) are basically remote controls
that transmit student responses to a computer program which instantly tallies and
displays data from the entire class. Classroom response systems (CRS) allow instructors
to “query and collect responses from every individual in his or her classroom, the
instructor can gauge instantaneously what students understand, and more important,
which concepts they are failing to grasp” (Greer 2004). This instant testing reveals
students’ misunderstandings before they leave the classroom, allowing students time to
think about an issue and perhaps speak to the instructor after class to clarify a point.
This also improves students’ metacognition by helping them to realize what they do or
do not understand. For shy students, this technology allows students to participate in
the class anonymously, giving each student a voice in the course without the risk of
embarrassment. For all the benefits to students, there are also advantages to instructors.
CRS can also be used by instructors to collect in-class quiz grades and attendance
records, which can be conveniently uploaded into a spreadsheet.
Data regarding the use and effects of CRS in college courses is abundant, and
most all research is positive. In one example, Greer (2004) and colleagues implemented
a CRS in several large sections of an introductory earth science course and collected
extensive student feedback regarding their use. Students reported that the system
encouraged attention and interaction, motivated them to attend and participate, and
made the class more enjoyable. Although the research on CRS effects on students’
attitudes and behaviors is very positive, data on the effects on student achievement and
performance versus in traditional lecture courses is limited. It does suggest, however,
that the amount of content covered is lower when implementing a CRS as compared to a
standard lecture (Caldwell 2007).
CRS are developed specifically for use in educational settings, but some
instructors are incorporating other technology already in use by students. The majority
of college students already own cell phones and MP3 players, and now these tools are
beginning to be integrated in courses in an effort to improve communication. Just last
week an article appeared in US News & World Reports detailing the first entirely cell
phone-based college course (a survey course on the mysteries of the pyramids) at an
online university in Japan (Kageyama 2007). On a much smaller scale, more and more
instructors are encouraging students to take advantage of the many features of modern
cell phones. Many cell phones available now come equipped with Internet access, video
and audio players, and data storage, in addition to the standard features of any cell
phone. Students can use their phones and/or MP3 players to watch or listen to lectures,
movies and animations posted online, and to record lectures or discussions for later
study. They can check email on their cell phones, and send text messages to peers or to a
willing instructor between classes. Some instructors of large courses are also using the
instant messaging function inside the classroom, allowing students to send anonymous
questions and responses during class (provided the instructor doesn’t know the
students’ phone number) (Markett 2006).
Both CRS and text messaging provide excellent options for increasing student
interaction, but are limited by the format of the data that can be transmitted. Combining
mobile devices like these with digital ink technology allows a wider range of applications
and possible interactions than with CRS or text messaging. Digital ink technology uses
an electromagnetic field laid under an LCD screen that captures information from a
special pen as it moves across the screen. Hand-written notes can then be saved as
image files or converted into documents using by handwriting recognition software.
This technology is currently available in tablet PCs and Smartboards, which are rapidly
spreading through the educational system from elementary schools to universities.
The best example of these technologies in action is going on right now at the
University of Washington, where the revolutionary new tool, Classroom Presenter (CP),
was developed. This system uses several tablet PCs distributed to groups of students
throughout the classroom that are networked with the instructor’s tablet or Smartboard.
Linnell (2007) and colleagues have implemented this technology in several core courses
in environmental science to increase students’ problem-solving skills. Instructors create
the equivalent of Powerpoint slides in the CP program and send them to the tablets
around the room. Using the digital pen, the instructor can make notes on his/her tablet
which immediately appear on the students’. In addition, students can respond to a
question or problem slide by writing or drawing on their tablets and sending their notes
to the instructor. The instructor can then choose which student responses to display for
the entire class. Such a program would be perfectly suited for a course in biology, where
instead of multiple choice clicker questions, students could be asked to illustrate cellular
components, molecular structures, biochemical pathways and much more. However, it
is not practical for all situations, especially since the need for multiple tablet PCs
necessitates a significant budget. Given only one tablet or Smartboard, students could
still participate and share their ideas by coming up to the front and drawing on the
Students in CP-based classes raved about the system, citing its ability to increase
classroom discussion and encourage active engagement (Linnell 2007). Students and
instructors alike appreciated that the system provided students the opportunity to learn
from others’ ideas, both correct and incorrect. However, since this system is new and
mostly limited to the University of Washington, data regarding its effects is lacking.
With so many new and exciting tools to help deal with communication issues, the
large size of a class doesn’t have to be an obstacle to overcome, rather it can provide
unique opportunities for learning not possible with a small group. Wolfman (2002)
describes the power of a group mentality in a very large course, as “an infectious
enthusiasm magnified by the scale of the large classroom that energizes students toward
an activity”. By creating a comfortable learning environment and a community feeling
through the use of mobile technology, instructors can harness the excitement generated
by meaningful classroom discussion and translate it into lifelong learning.
Caldwell, J.E. (2007). Clickers in the large classroom: current research and best-practice
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Corbeil, J.R. and M.E. Valdes-Corbeil. (2007). Are you ready for mobile learning?
Frequent use of mobile devices does not mean that students or instructors are ready for
mobile learning and teaching. Educause Quarterly [Online], Nov 2.
Fozdar, B. and L. Kumar. (2007). Mobile Learning and Student Retention. The
International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning [Online], Jun 9, 8:2.
Greer, L. and P.J. Heaney. (2004). Real-time analysis of student comprehension: an
assessment of electronic student response technology in an introductory earth science
course. Journal of Geoscience Education, 52(4), 345-351.
Kageyama, Y. (2007) Cell phone college class opens in Japan. US News & World Report
[Online], Nov 28. http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/j/japan_cell_phone_college?si
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