Going High Tech on Campus
UNO Alum (Summer 2006)
By Wendy Townley
When Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple Computer, introduced the world to the iPod in October 2001, few outside technology’s inner circle could anticipate the impact of the nifty white gadget. For $400, consumers of all ages could carry1,000 of their favorite songs on a device slightly larger than a deck of playing cards.
The coveted piece of modern pop culture – with white headphones to match – would change the way the world listened to its music.
As it would happen, the iPod would also change the way college professors conducted lectures. The phrase “podcasting” was born from the iPod, meaning any type of digital audio file that can be listened to on an iPod, similar MP3 device or personal computer. Translation: the spoken word could be heard ‘round the world at any time, day or night, according to the user’s schedule.
After UNO professor Timi Barone purchased an iPod for personal use in early 2005, she tossed about the idea of recording class lectures and posting them online for students to download and listen to as many times as they’d like.
Barone, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology, spoke with technology experts at UNO’s Information Technology Services (ITS) about the potential of podcasts a few days before fall classes began in 2005.
That first semester was spent working through the logistics of recording and sharing class lectures. Barone purchased a microphone and recording software for her iPod, which she wore around her neck during class. Barone would then download the recorded lecture from her iPod to her computer. She would e-mail the file to ITS employees, who would then post the lecture on Blackboard, UNO’s online bulletin board system used by students and faculty alike to exchange curriculum assignments and information. The lecture was converted by ITS to be listened to using two applications: QuickTime, by Apple Computer, and Windows Media Player.
In the spring of 2006, with the technological and logistical kinks all worked out, Barone conducted an informal study on the use of podcasts in class. She taught two Introduction to Anthropology classes that semester; one class of students had access to her recorded lectures, while the other class did not.
“By that point, we were hearing more about podcasting at other universities, but couldn’t determine its pedagogical value,” Barone says. “Just because it’s cool doesn’t mean it’s going to improve the lives of our students.”
A November 2005 Newsweek article suggested the availability of classroom podcasts could encourage student skipping. Barone read that article but wanted to learn more about student podcast use.
Barone’s lectures – which usually lasted less than an hour – were posted to Blackboard one week after each class. Barone limited the podcast to her lecture only, not including student questions or discussion in the recording.
At the semester’s end, Barone saw zero differences on exam grades between her two classes. There was very little difference in classroom attendance numbers, as well. Out of 25 lectures, the average number of attendance was 18.6 for those students who had access to the podcasts, compared to 19.5 for those students without podcast access. During the semester, six students enrolled in the podcast class dropped, while 10 withdrew from the no-access course. Barone attributes the numbers to homework.
“Our students are juggling a lot and can fall behind for a variety of reasons despite their best intentions,” Barone explains. “Podcasting helps them get caught up, even if it’s at 2 in the morning.”
Barone says her students used the recorded lectures not as way to miss class, but as a supplement to their notes. Students who didn’t grasp a particular concept could listen to Barone’s lecture as many times as necessary to understand the topic and move forward in the coursework.
Using A Digital Blackboard
What made Barone’s podcasting project a relatively easy reality for her students was the Blackboard Academic Suite – simply known as Blackboard around the UNO campus. Since 1998, UNO, along with educators at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, University of Nebraska at Kearney and University of Nebraska Medical Center, have used Blackboard to supplement classroom discussion, assignments and exams. The Web-based application allows faculty to post coursework and other materials for students to download, most often as Microsoft Word files. Blackboard also offers an online bulletin board, which serves as method to continue discussion and discourse about a particular classroom topic.
The first semester, Blackboard use jumped from 12 courses to 20, explains John Fiene, associate vice chancellor for technology at UNO. Each semester that followed, Blackboard use by faculty continued to expand at a quicker pace, doubling every five to six months.
“The growth rate was so phenomenal that we reorganized the IT services department to get behind it and support those using it,” says Fiene, who’s responsible for campus-wide technology systems at UNO. “We went from offering training in Word and Excel to almost exclusively putting all of our training efforts into development curriculum and using Blackboard.” The department even hired a full-time person to administer the Blackboard application.
Fiene says there wasn’t a “formal push” on campus for faculty to supplement Blackboard with their coursework.
“The people who were using it were sharing their success,” Fiene says. “That was the biggest impetus.”
Today, more than 1,500 courses at UNO use Blackboard every semester – a 75 percent course penetration rate. Fiene says 93 percent of students are taking at least one course that uses Blackboard, with 70 percent of UNO faculty using Blackboard.
The increased use of Blackboard created a great need for back-end support at UNO. Additional on-site servers were needed to store Blackboard files. And those servers needed to remain online 24/7 for students and faculty working at all hours of the day and night.
“The server uptime has been very good,” Fiene says. “We made a decision early on to oversize the hardware so that issues could be dealt with, even when demand jumps.”
Fiene says he can predict when Blackboard will be busiest, and when demand will dwindle.
“As you move toward the middle of the semester, with midterms, and the end of the semester, with final exams, usage goes up,” Fiene explains. “The demand on Sunday and Sunday nights is high, but it drops off Friday and Saturday evenings.”
Fiene says Blackboard has had another impact on student education besides increased access to course materials. The online application has allowed student discussion to continue long after class ends, and it offers more reserved students to pose questions and offer opinions in a virtual classroom environment.
“Students also post their work and have others critique it, with a greater emphasis on writing skills,” Fiene explains. “People who are perhaps shy in class, or even ESL (English as a Second Language), who might have difficulty in the oral part of class now have a chance to reflect on things.”
Long before students set foot on college campuses, they’ve completed 12 years of education that taught them the basics. Not until recent years has technology been part of the experience.
UNO associate professor Wilma Kuhlman studied firsthand the impact technology has on students as young as first-graders.
Kuhlman spent several weeks monitoring and examining a group of 17 first-graders at Rockbrook Elementary School in Omaha. The teacher, Elizabeth Campbell, allowed her students to use handheld computers to aid in pre-writing exercises.
When Kuhlman first arrived at Rockbrook, she was greeted by a first-grade girl who informed Kuhlman that she was “beaming,” meaning she and her pint-sized classmates were wirelessly exchanging information among their handheld computers. She then asked Kuhlman, “Do you know what beaming is?”
Kuhlman recalls the moment as “adorable,” but one that opened her eyes to the power of technology at an early age. The first-grade students drafted words and phrases on their handhelds and beamed them to Campbell for her to review.
They used the handheld computers in creative ways. For example, rather than storing phone numbers in the address book, the students saved word lists for quick reference when writing. The notepad feature allowed students to jot down (and save) classroom notes at various points throughout the day.
Campbell would beam assignments to her students’ handhelds, who would then get to work writing phrases.
Kuhlman was surprised at how comfortable the students reacted even when their handhelds froze or presented them with an on-screen error message.
“That was one of the challenges of using the handheld computers,” Kuhlman explained. “Because the technology is not always 100 percent reliable, they knew what to do as a matter of routine.”
The use of handhelds in the classroom was an ideal method to assistant students with their pre-writing skills, Kuhlman said. However, the technology should not be a replacement for traditional pencil-and-paper writing.
“The handhelds can’t make them writers,” Kuhlman explains. “It’s not a magic pill. It’s just a tool. And that’s the rule of technology in (Campbell’s) classroom: it’s a tool for learning. Even the pencil is a piece of technology.”
Kuhlman believes that introducing students to technology at an early age allows them the opportunity to learn in a flexible working environment paired with the confidence to explore new technology in the future.
“This experience, simply put, allows them to understand the variety of tools that are available to support them for whatever they do,” Kuhlman explains. “It can’t but help give them an advantage.
“Technology is part of their world. And to a certain extent, it’s going to give them flexibility, because they may not have the same tool next year. That will provide them that kind of flexibility with any kind of technology they are given.”
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