Computers and related electronic resources have come to play a central role in education. Whatever your feelings about what some have called the digital revolution, you must accept that many, perhaps most, of your students are fully immersed in it. At the very simplest level, you will rarely receive a paper or other assignment from a student that has not been written with the help of a computer. Most of your students will have considerable experience with the Internet and will, whether you like it or not, make use of it for much of their academic work. Many of them will be accustomed to using e-mail as a normal form of communication. But it is not just students who find electronic resources valuable. Teachers can benefit from these resources as well, by employing a series of useful tools.
We stress the word "useful" because electronic resources complement, but seldom replace, more conventional teaching techniques. Electronic tools can make classes more efficient; lectures more compelling, informative, and varied; reading assignments more extensive, interesting, and accessible; discussions more free ranging and challenging; and students' papers more original and well researched. Only you, however, can judge if these techniques advance your own teaching goals.
Five Promising Uses of New Technology
Of the many electronic teaching techniques that instructors have found useful, we have chosen five that we believe seem particularly likely to help significant numbers of teachers. All of these techniques demand an investment of time if they are to succeed, and your willingness to use them should be balanced carefully against other, perhaps more important, teaching priorities. But for each technique, there are both simple and complex ways of proceeding, and we will try to make clear the respective advantages and disadvantages.
The five ways in which we suggest teachers consider using electronic resources involve tasks that you will usually have to perform in any case. New technologies can help you perform them better and more easily:
- Administration: The routine administration of courses (advertising a class, providing copies of the syllabus, assigning discussion sections, and getting out course news) can be more efficiently handled with a course home page, electronic discussion groups, and e-mail lists. These tools can also dramatically improve the continuity and the community aspects of courses, helping students to engage with and learn from each other and even from people outside the course.
- Readings/sources: The Web and CD-ROMs provide a wider variety of secondary and primary sources (including visual and audio sources) than has previously been available. With your guidance, your students can now gain access to materials that were once accessible only to experts because they were too cumbersome to reproduce for classroom use or too expensive for students to purchase. By taking their own paths through these sources, students can bring their own evidence and arguments into lectures and discussion sections, as well as write on a wider range of research topics.
- Papers/presentations: Rather than performing assignments and taking exams from the teacher alone, students can perform more independent exercises in publishing, exhibit building, or assembling and presenting teaching units and other materials for their peers. A web archive of several terms' work can make the course itself an ongoing and collaborative intellectual construction.
- Lectures: A computer with presentation software can provide a single tool for augmenting lectures with outlines, slides, statistical charts and tables, images, music, and even video clips. In addition to printing them as handouts, you can save in-class presentations in a web-compatible format for later review and discussion.
- Discussion: Electronic discussion tools such as e-mail, conferencing software, and on-line chat services can seed discussion questions before the class meets, draw out your shy students, and follow up on discussions or questions on the reading between classes. For courses without face-to-face discussion sections, these tools can bring the course to life over great distances and help overcome scheduling difficulties.