Jay Sekhsaria | How overuse of technology is hurting teaching at Penn

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Credit: Brandon Li

When people ask me how I’m settling into my first semester at Penn, I respond with a big smile on my face, “Alright, I’m doing great!” For the most part that’s true – a lot has gone well for me. However, there is one thing that I just can’t get used to no matter how hard I try: all the software we use for classes. In the first two weeks I had to learn Canvas, Slack, Piazza, and Ed Discussion – and that for just one class. Each of my five courses uses a different platform to send essential information.

In the space of a week, a class sent me 70 messages on Canvas, including one highlighting the deadline for a test – a test I missed because I have neither the time nor the mental capacity. to read them all. If the sentence “You should have checked [insert software name here]Sounds too familiar, you might be struggling with the same issue. No software seems to be enough for instructors and as one of the many students struggling to navigate and check them all consistently, I think it’s unrealistic to expect us to keep pace. Now you might be thinking, “Just turn on email alerts.” And by that, I say, do you remember the course with 70 posts on Canvas? Add in every Piazza question, every Slack post, and whatever else people use Ed Discussion for and you’ve got more mail than Harry got from Hogwarts.

Educational software has made a lot of things easier. I would much rather download homework from the comfort of my dorm than having to get up before class to print it out and hand it in. Having digitally accessible classroom materials made college life easier in a way my Gen Z could never understand, but it doesn’t take a major in economics to realize that after a while the diminishing returns come into play. There comes a time when the clutter created by using so many different platforms hurts students more than it helps. If professors expect us to stay away from our phones and do the workloads given to us, they have to consider that while the glorious new platform they’ve discovered might have some cool extra features, it might not be worth it.

Stumbling upon this communication glitch revealed to me a bigger trend in education, especially at Penn: everyone from elite institutions to community colleges scrambling to introduce as many innovations as possible into our model. teaching, prompting instructors and administrators to solve problems that do not exist. The flow of technology is not confined outside the classroom. Because of their ease of use and convenience, they are also breaking into Penn classrooms. Lectures, recitations, and even seminars today typically use some form of visual aid, primarily PowerPoint.

A freshman, who asked to remain anonymous, was frustrated to find her professor read a presentation verbatim with little to no interaction with students. I encountered similar frustration wondering what I’m supposed to look at on a slide with 83 words, six pictures, a labeled diagram, and five bullets, while my teacher talked about a random analogy for two minutes before moving on. on the next slide – a 152 word wall of plain text. To understand why instructors use PowerPoints and how effective they are for teaching and learning, I spoke to Dr. Jonathan zimmerman, professor of educational history and Dr. Philippe Gehrmann, professor and practitioner of clinical psychology.

Dr Gehrman, who originally used PowerPoints, came back to chalk years ago. Some of the reasons are that, “As soon as the instructor changes the slide, the students’ attention is focused on them. It’s kind of like the idea of ​​multitasking, which research has shown to be a myth – we are physically unable to focus on two things at the same time, so your brain ends up quickly switching between tasks, to cause of which both suffer. The fewer slides, the more engaged the students were. Another reason he observed was, “If I put information in a PowerPoint, all the information is presented the way I think it is, whereas without PowerPoint [students] take information the way they think, and the process of doing so requires them to think critically about what is written.

Dr Zimmerman added: “Creating a scenario where knowledge is reduced to a bunch of bullets can sometimes be helpful, [but] what students and the literature tell us is that it is radically overused. I think the interesting question here is, is this a good place to acquire and understand this information? And I think there was a lot of evidence suggesting that this is not the case. ”

The two teachers (who are highly rated on Penn Course Review) said that one of the more positive reviews of their course evaluations is that their lectures refrain from PowerPoint. “When PowerPoint became a big product 15 to 20 years ago, the question was often asked: ‘Why not PowerPoint? But now it’s pretty common in student reviews to see ‘Woohoo, yay, no PowerPoint!’ Said Dr Zimmerman.

Both also distinguished the good use of PowerPoints. They can be used effectively to display diagrams and images with minimal information and redundancy. They can be used as tools to supplement lessons. However, I would bet they are just used because “It is much easier to teach with PowerPoint because teaching without is very dependent on memory, the PowerPoint for the teacher is a cheat sheet,” according to Dr. Gehrman. To replace these ineffective lectures, I often find myself watching MIT OpenCourseWare, which captures what an engaging teacher can do with a piece of chalk and, in many cases, dispels the myth that slides are essential.

On the attractiveness of higher education to technology, Dr Zimmerman said: “Efforts have always been made to make education more efficient while reducing costs. This is evident in the controversial reverse model adopted by the mathematics department for calculus courses, which saw a decline in criticism and continued in person despite hindsight. While open to the idea of ​​reverse learning, Dr Zimmerman points out that its effectiveness depends on everything from the quality of the videos to how they are discussed in class. He points out that “if, in fact, we have introduced this innovation and we do not make any sustained research effort to find out if it works, it is outrageous and unacceptable.

So what is the solution ? Should we stop using technology? Should we ban computers? No. Diminishing returns just mean that as you use more of a good thing, it gets worse and worse, and at some point can become harmful. We shouldn’t stop using technology, we just need to critically assess how and how much we are using it.

For communication, the solution is standardization to Email + X, where X is any other platform. I would recommend Canvas, but it can be anything as long as it’s a thing. That way, instead of sifting through tons of emails, students can just check one consistently. For thousands of years, whether it’s writing on scrolls or succinctly ending phone calls to save on costly fees, humans have tailored their communication to the medium at their disposal. The internet has provided us with thousands of options to choose from and many of them can be great. But just like calling someone who doesn’t have a phone, forcing students to use unfamiliar proprietary platforms just ensures they won’t pick up.

Fixing the teaching, however, is more complicated. Teachers should realize that there is a good reason why teaching has remained relatively the same for a thousand years. They should more easily ask themselves if their use of the technology is necessary, assessing whether their PowerPoint presentations simply repeat or supplement what they are saying, whether they really need that extra chip, and whether the class would understand this example better. ‘it was written. go down step by step.

YAJJAT (JAY) SEKHSARIA is a first year university and engineering student studying Physics and Electrical Engineering in Mumbai, India. His email is yajjat@sas.upenn.edu.


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