The Electronic Classroom

Scott Thompson

In his article, "Yet Another Task for the Teacher," (Washington Post, 10/27/96) Jay Matthews documents that since 1981, schools using computers have increased in number from 18% to 99% today. This is evidence that, for better or for worse, computers have infiltrated educational systems. Though there are even some skeptic individuals within the seemingly ultra-modern Generation X, there seems to be a general enthusiasm for technology in education and electronic education.

More Technology = Better Education?
The Epiphany Project: Training Educators in Implementing Technology (external link)
The Electronic Classroom's Success Story-From Both Students' and Teachers' Perspective

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Integrating Technology at University of Richmond

Does more technology translate to better education?

Basic arguments from both sides of this issue:

Those "technophiles" who embrace this change in how we educate our children argue that education must incorporate the skills students will need later in life--the skills that are relevant to "the real world." This is a common concern from undergraduates who complain in some of their classes, "When will we ever use this?" Computers are an important facet in the working world and are vital to almost every business today. To learn to use computers means that students are learning skills they will later need in the workplace. In his article, James Mecklenburger states, "Today, the technologies in most of America's schools have not kept pace with the technologies in the larger society. For example, telephones and typewriters, films, and videotape, computers and optical data storage have scarcely affected the operations of the schools, while they have transformed the operations of most businesses" (Mecklenburger, 106).

Mecklenburger also argues that computers and various software packages can help teachers organizegrading and lesson plans, leaving more time for teaching and learning. This, in effect, means more time to devote to students and the students' particular needs. Specifically, computers also seem effective in addressing the needs of students with learning disabilities, as Matthews points out in his article.

Computers and the Internet have the ability to fascinate both students and parents, consequently generating an interest in learning and school for both (Matthews). Mecklenburger stresses that "creative work with computers (106)" is possible. With computers in the classroom, assignments become more interactive and varied as teachers are able to be more creative with their assignments. Technology makes the mundane tasks of education easier and facilitates learning in more unconventional ways. For all the talk about different styles of learning, new and innovative ways of teaching might be a welcome development.

However, counter arguments question how much schools should rely on computers and technology to educate students. Matthews does point out in his article that, "there is little research to show that the expensive machines have helped students more than paper and pencils might have done." If computers can perform mathematical functions for us and correct our grammar and spelling, will students actually learn these skills, or will they simply depend on computers to perform such tasks? Students might ask, "If Excel will perform financial functions for me and Word Perfect will check my grammar, why should I bother to learn how to do these things in the first place from some archaic text book?"

Technical problems also occur in teaching and attempting to use new technology in the classroom that can monopolize class time. Sometimes, much to students' delight and an instructor's frustration, an entire class period will be used up in working out the technical difficulties, dealing with temperamental computers and fielding students' questions. Matthews documents examples in his article where technical problems led to damage to expensive machines: "A student got into the hard drive and accidentally deleted parts of the operating system. Extensions and printer settings were changed or deleted" (Matthews). Oftentimes, very little learning is accomplished when a teacher is in the beginning stages of implementing computers and technology into lesson plans. This can be a concern to traditionalists, parents and taxpayers who may perceive such a class period as wasted class time.

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The Electronic Classroom's Success:

Despite the effort by some to rely solely on lectures and verbal discussions, more and more faculty members are realizing the importance of technology and its potential role in the classroom. As the workplace has become more and more computer-oriented and computer-reliant, teachers realize that computer skills are marketable skills for their students, skills they can teach and incorporate into the subjects students are learning. Computers are not just prevalent in mathematics and computer science classes. At the University of Richmond, technology is present in many disciplines, such as Journalism, English, Business Administration and Music. Schools are feeling the pressure to add more labs, more software and more trained personnel to keep up with our Information Society. After all, "How could any responsible institution ignore a cultural revolution in communication and its tools (Hickey)?"

Most of the time, the transition to an electronic classroom is gradual--teachers implement the technological changes into their lessons and curriculum little by little. Incorporating technology into lesson plans takes time in that the teacher must change her perception of the classroom (Hickey). Usually, computers involve more collaboration and communication between students and this can be quite a big change for a teacher who is used to lecturing primarily. Though there can be technical problems that take up class time, most teachers have an alternative activity that doesn't involve computers if a major problem arises (Hickey).

In the past, educational technology consisted mainly of mandatory computer-lab work in which students were "marched through a set of steps supposedly equivalent to the cognitive states the 'experts' possess at different stages of completing a project (Barret, 51). In addition, many teachers perceived educational technology as a remedial tutorial where students could reinforce what they had learned by going through the steps or answering questions. However, no one can deny that, "learning is a social process when all members of a learning community struggle together to not only find answers but to frame and reframe questions as well (Harrington 5). So, educators have since found ways to make technology use more of a collaborative and social endeavor, in addition to an important learning device.

The electronic classroom expands the classroom and the learning community we think that the physical classroom represents. With E-mail and on-line resources, the classroom is no longer limited to the physical space in which a class meets. An electronic class "is always in session (Barrett, 52)." Students have the ability to E-mail their teacher anytime they have a question or students can E-mail each other, exchanging ideas and thoughts about whatever is being discussed within the physical classroom. Barret points out, "It is this sense of sharing that makes our conception of the electronic classroom appeal to other classes in the schools of engineering and science (Barret, 53)." Thus, the computer and technology make education so much more collaborative, as the communication capabilities of on-line resources facilitate the exchange of ideas and work (Barret, 52). Online discussions facilitate thought, as each student can find their own voice, expressing what they really think about a topic before anyone else has spoken and influenced them (Harrington, 9). Many writing teachers have their students exchange drafts on-line or through E-mail so that the revision process becomes even easier; students no longer feel the burden of having to meet physically with a group member in order to exchange papers. Computer conferencing seems to "merge the oral and written forms of language" and oftentimes "students perceive conferencing as conversation (Harrington, 10)."

In addition to making the revision process electronic, teachers can transform the traditional grading process into an electronic process. Many software packages, such as NEOS (Network Educational Online System), allow the teacher to comment on papers while online. Online commentary facilitates more complete commentary from teachers as an abbreviated word in the margins or a written "No" next to a point becomes insufficient. Online commentary forces teachers to comment on what's really wrong with the paper, rather than quick notes in the margins with a red pen (Barrett, 54).

The electronic classroom is being embraced by more and more educators as a means of getting students to talk and express ideas in a more relaxed forum. Online discussion groups and E-mails are also gaining popularity with students, as well as teachers. Barret reports that his own students "like the increased communication among peers, and they come to develop a feel for intellectual discussion." In addition to making learning a more social activity, the online discussion groups enables many students' writing to improve as: "students report that they write more, and more effectively, and that their style of writing is closer to their own voice than ever before (Barret 54)." Not only does the electronic classroom make learning more interactive with increased communication among students and teachers, but simultaneously students are learning the skills that educators must teach regardless of technology.

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