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Students, Faculty Connect With Technology

9/9/2008 —

DuBois – Recent Penn State studies show that instructors who are in tune with digital technology may have a better chance at connecting with students.  

Penn State’s Senior Director of Teaching and Learning with Technology, John Harwood recently spoke to the Penn State DuBois Faculty Congress about this subject.  His program, “When Web 2.0 Students Meet Web 1.0 Faculty: Challenges and Opportunities” delves into the separation between faculty and students with regards to their use of technology.

Harwood separates students from many of their instructors by categorizing them in two different groups; “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants”.  Digital Natives are young people who have grown up in the age of the internet and cell phones, and Digital Immigrants are those people at least a few years older who have seen these technologies develop, and are attempting to adopt them.

“In some ways we’re living in parallel universes,” explains Harwood.  “We need to find areas of convergence.” 

To bring technology that students regularly use into the classroom would open up a greater understanding between professor and student, according to Harwood.  “Penn State faculty want to get students more engaged, and students are very engaged in technology that we’re unaware of,” he said. 

Harwood said things like Social Networking Services (SNS) are a major vehicle for communication among young college students.  These include internet sites like Facebook, where users create an online profile, and can share pictures, interests and even communicate with other people through the site.  According to Harwood, more than 80% of students at Penn State maintain a Facebook account.  Those students, he said, are more likely to stay in touch with friends through such SNS sites than they are to communicate through even email or telephone. 

Many Penn State instructors currently use the ANGEL course management system, where exams can be taken, or papers submitted online.  Its technology like this that Harwood says can help bridge the gap between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.  At least, he says, it’s a start. 

These findings, however, raise a level of concern with some.  Associate Professor of English, James May asked, “Is a university cheapening itself by getting into this?”

Harwood said no.  With so many digital distractions he said, “today’s students are in a continuous state of partial attention”.   He believes communicating with them through means they are comfortable with is the most effective way to educate them.

Some faculty members who attended the presentation said just knowing more about the technologies students use will help them reach out to their classes more effectively, and devise new ways to bring technology into their courses.   

“I’ve used web-based tools and electronic workbooks for years,” said Spanish Professor Deborah Gill.  “We have to try to keep up with what our students are doing.” 

Penn State DuBois Information Sciences and Technologies Program Leader, Jason Long, said technology can allow students and faculty to be better connected than ever before.

We see students using their computers to watch and post videos on YouTube, to check a friend’s emotional state by logging into Facebook and sometimes doing homework.  As a professor, I use many internet tools to stay connected with my students,” Long said.   “With the tools now available over the internet, staying connected is a non-issue.”

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