Teaching With Technology And Generation E
Today's college students are sometimes described as knowing more about computers, the Internet, and just about anything electronic than most anyone else on campus. We hear them called "Generation E." Electronic technology has been an omnipresent force in their lives since they were born. Tell them you typed your dissertation on a typewriter and you become a dinosaur before their very eyes.
For those of us grappling with how to use technology effectively in teaching, Generation E presents an interesting problem. What exactly can we expect students to know about how to use the computer technologies that we are just learning and trying to incorporate into our teaching? It's an issue that requires serious attention as university administrators increasingly urge faculty to infuse computer-based technology into our courses.
As with many social changes, answers emerge from experience perhaps more forcefully than from think tanks or environmental scanning groups. My experience using educational technology in my course "Children and Government," an advanced undergraduate developmental psychology seminar on child policy in U.S. government, taught me some valuable lessons.
As a Carnegie Scholar in the Carnegie Academy for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, I developed a Web-based pedagogy designed to facilitate student critical thinking and deep understanding. When thinking about child policy issues, I wanted to move my students from a "make sense epistemology" (Perkins, Allen & Hafner, 1983), where they typically thought about issues from existing beliefs, to a "critical epistemology," that required them to ". . . examine the data and the reasoning for inconsistencies, take alternative perspectives, construct counterarguments, and look for bias and overgeneralizations . . . [which] . . . is necessary to do for a deeper understanding of the situation and to achieve more reasoned and informed decision making" (King, 1994, p. 33).
My primary strategy for achieving this "hoped for" epistemological goal was to provide each student with a template of a "side-by-side frames" Web site. Each week students published to their Web site "point versus counterpoint" arguments for two different sides of a child policy issue of their own choice (e.g., "Does maternal employment negatively affect children's development?"). Students were required to include two pieces of evidence to support each argument, with at least one in the form of a hypertext link. Requiring students to support their arguments with evidence from the Web prompted them to think critically about its quality and credibility. I provided weekly feedback on Web site development, and classmates also reviewed each other's work.
To document changes in student critical thinking and the depth of their understanding, a 6-week learning record was created, consisting of students' archived weekly Web site work along with their weekly annotation paper. The annotation paper included a reflection on their Web site work for that week, their current position on the child policy issue, and an evaluation of the credibility of the evidence used to support their arguments.
At the beginning and end of the 10-week quarter I also collected students' responses to a questionnaire that assessed their orientation to critical thinking and their familiarity with, attitudes toward, and use of computers and the Internet.
Just because students are members of Generation E does not mean they have mastered even the most fundamental features of the operating system on their laptop or desktop computer. Some students in my course did not know how to move easily among open windows or even among applications that were running simultaneously on their computer. I received blank stares from some students the first time I said in class, "Minimize the current open window."
When students told me that they were familiar with computers and the Internet, for some this meant knowing how to send e-mail messages or how to order a sweater from a favorite e-commerce outlet. For a very small number of others, this meant knowing how to write computer code. Not only do some students arrive at college with limited computer skills, the range of ability and technology experience across students sitting in the same classroom can be vast.
We must wait patiently before we see in the majority of college students the effects of widespread progress in providing basic computer technology skills now being made in grades K-12. Until that time, instructors cannot take for granted that students come to college having mastered basic technology skills. Thus, we need to think through what skills students must possess and sometimes even devote valuable class time to reviewing the skills needed for class assignments and projects.
Ultimately, universities may want to define a set of basic technology skills required for admission and to offer remedial training for students who need it.
Most college students learn how to conduct scholarly library research on printed materials during their first-year English courses. However, when it comes to searching for quality information available on the Web, many students are at a loss. They are often slow to realize that, unlike information that is published in academic journals or books, anyone can instantaneously publish to the Web. This lesson was learned quickly as students realized others could read what they were publishing to their own Web sites! The ease of Web publishing typically sidesteps the peer review process or editorial oversight of any kind, increasing the need for heightened scrutiny of the credibility of information found on the Web.
The American Library Association (ALA) has developed important criteria for information literacy in the Information Age. "To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information." (ALA Report, Presidential Committee on Information Literacy, http://www.ala.org/acrl/nili/ilit1st.html). Additional information about what skills are required for information literacy is also contained at the ALA Web site.
Until universities institute information literacy requirements as they infuse technology into the curriculum, individual instructors will find Alexander and Tate's Web Wisdom (1999) a valuable guide for helping students to identify and evaluate the quality of information contained in different types of Web sites http://www2.widener.edu/Wolfgram-Memorial-Library/). This book and the accompanying Web site provide an important first step toward helping students achieve information literacy.
The assessment devices I included in my course design provided intriguing information about my efforts to facilitate student critical thinking. Students' responses to questionnaire items that assessed orientation to critical thinking revealed significant increases by the end of the quarter. Students also reported that the computer and Internet skills they acquired gave them a sense of empowerment, which has been suggested to lead to increased student ownership of learning (King, 1994).
Finally, contained in students' anecdotal comments and in my own reflections is the sense that, despite the long hours and sustained effort, the Web-based pedagogy employed in this course was well worth it. Students and instructor alike enjoyed the added challenge, critical thinking, and creativity required by the use of technology.
On some days members of Generation E even admitted that they were having a good time working on their Web sites!