As more Digital Natives arrive at colleges and universities, professors and instructors of all subjects are trying to use digital technologies to better connect with students. In my personal experience as a sophomore at Harvard, some professors have been quite adept at using online resources – like watching music videos on YouTube during a foreign language class – while others have yet to embrace digital technologies.
Overall, however, most professors who I spoke to here at Harvard were passionate about the opportunity of using the Internet and its resources to improve teaching and make student’s learning experience more engaging. Many wondered where to start, asking which types of tools would be best to help students learn. In an effort to identify what digital “tools” students find the most helpful, I worked with the Romance Language department to survey hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students about their experience with instructional technology. Specifically, we asked them to rank digital technology tools (like blogs, podcasts, and wikis) on a scale of 1 -5, where 1 is “not useful” and 5 is”very useful.” We also asked them to describe their best experience with digital learning and to comment on any negative aspects of using digital technology in college courses.
Consistently, students ranked the posting of course material online and interactive syllabi as the most useful. They believe that all courses should maintain a website that contains readings, notes and other content so they can be accessed easily during the semester. Furthermore, students greatly appreciated interactive syllabi – a list of lectures and assigned readings with links to download them. Both of these features enable easy information access, something that saves time and confusion. However “web 1.0” they may seem, students view them as a necessity.
It was interesting to see how different groups of students ranked newer technologies like lecture videos, blogs, and RSS feeds. For example, undergraduates gave recorded lecture videos a high ranking, while graduate students did not. In fact, graduate students wrote in and note the negative aspects of lecture videos, claiming that they allow undergrads to skip class and take a passive role instead of actively participating in the lecture. Freshmen tended to give higher rankings to “web 2.0” tools like wikis and blogs than did older students, perhaps a sign of digital natives entering the arena of higher education.
Most striking of all, however, was the difference in rankings between students who have used a given technology and those who have not. For nearly all technologies, students who had firsthand experience with tools tended to give them a higher usefulness ranking. This means that students may not know to ask professors to use tools like RSS feeds and podcasts until they have experienced them in another course. This is shown in the graph below.
My favorite part of doing the survey was reading the written responses. Although students expressed concern with digital technologies replacing personal discussions with professors, the vast majority of respondents praised digital tools for making learning more engaging and exciting. The best experiences with digital media where ones in which online content and tools supplemented inspiring lectures and stimulating readings.
Instructors looking to use digital media to improve the learning experience can look to first meet “web 1.0” needs, like easy access of readings and other material, and then incorporate social tools like blogs, wikis and RSS feeds of relevant news.
I encourage anyone who is interested in seeing the details of the study, including many of the open-ended answers, to download the full report at http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/digitalnatives/files/2008/03/instructionaltechnologysurvey.pdf .
– Tony P.