In a push for increased student engagement, some faculty members are embracing new technologies as a potential solution to problems with traditional methods of teaching. The effort comes in the midst of several technology-centered initiatives to “develop a better understanding of how best to educate [students] in a full range of media,” as part of the college’s strategic plan.
According to Jaya Kannan, the director of Technology for Curriculum and Research, the new technologies encompass a broad range of tools and devices meant to combat many different obstacles in pedagogy — examples include the use of virtual reality, video games and podcasts, as well as the increased application of long-standing technologies like Moodle or other online interaction platforms.
“If you took just virtual reality as a case study to show these innovative practices, I think what is interesting is that every discipline is different in how they use it, and every pedagogical angle is different,” said Kannan.
In neuroscience professor Josef Trapani’s neurophysiology class, students have used virtual reality to simulate stressful environments and measured their physiological responses to the fabricated situations. The point, he said, was to acquaint students with basic lab techniques in an engaging manner.
“It was a neat way to start off the semester, yet it still had a lot of great pedagogical outcomes,” Trapani said. “My career is built on doing experiments like this, and something like this is much more enjoyable than more basic, routine experiments. Learning doesn’t have to be this arduous thing.”
“Student learning is my ultimate goal,” he added. “I don’t do it for the sake of technology. I want to do it if it’s actually impacting the learning. I want students to learn things through it. Everything I do in the class is around that actual point.”
Religion professor Andrew Dole also worked with virtual reality to improve the student experience, creating a distraction-free environment where students could read and mark up long-form digital texts as if they were physical copies.
Currently, this technology has not been used by students due to what Dole described as “ergonomic limitations in the hardware and mobility issues,” but he does hope to refine the tool when he is given the chance.
Dole sees this use of virtual reality as a way to counter some of the negative effects of current technologies, noting the double-edged nature inherent in many new innovations.
“Technology — it makes certain things possible and it makes certain things difficult,” he said. “New technology has not been good for the skills and practices that classically go into a humanistic education, which involve being able to focus for a long time on lengthy texts that contain complex thoughts.”
Though the response to new technologies has been mostly positive, students also share Dole’s mixed view of technology.
Emily Park ’19 took a class on video games with English professor Marisa Parham last year and agreed on the importance of connecting new technologies with relevant classroom material.
“This was a video games course, so students had to play video games on consoles and such, which isn’t all that common in most classes,” she said. “However, the topic matter of the course lent itself nicely to thinking about a commonly-used technology in a different way.”
On the other hand, Aahnix Bathurst ’19, who is taking one of Trapani’s courses with virtual reality, expressed ambivalence over these projects, saying that “it’s amazing for visual learners, but for more tactile learners, it’s not too good.”
In a broader sense, he noted that “virtual reality, while incredible at delivering experiences for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to participate due to lack of resources, cannot compensate for the act of actually doing whatever is simulated.”
Trapani also observed that the structure of his use of virtual reality is “very visual,” which could pose problems, especially with students who are visually impaired. “With every bit of technology, there’s going to come some limitations. Being aware of them — being aware of who your learners are, and how those limitations your different learners is key,” he said. “I’m still learning about better ways to teach, especially for methods so that I can reach all students in the classroom.”
For new technologies outside of virtual reality, many of the same attitudes seem to apply in the minds of students and faculty. In a general sense, Kannan noted that “when faculty members do bring in technology, it’s a very clear and meaningful application — they have a clear pedagogical purpose,” in accordance with faculty responses to virtual reality.
For both Trapani and Dole, more development, investment and innovation in virtual reality would allow them to use technology more broadly in their teaching. Trapani would hope to expand his virtual reality experiment “into a multi-week lab,” he said, and Dole would use his reading tool more generally across his classes.
Still, Kannan said students and faculty should not lose sight of the fundamental goals involved with the use of technology in education.
“One thing we are worried about now is ensuring equal access. And not all tools are accessible,” she said. “We must be mindful of that when working with faculty.”