Technology morphs campus classroom

While the geology and geophysics course “Natural Hazards” was in years past filled with note-taking, the scene is a bit different this semester.

“Imagine seeing 250 neon wands waving in the air,” Patrick Hayden ’08 said. “It’s frantic but exciting.”

“Natural Hazards” is one of many Yale courses bringing technology into University classrooms — everything from touch-screen-controlled digital projectors to the answering remotes commonly called “clickers.” But while Yale officials and professors alike have expressed their excitement about the new tools, they caution that instructors, not technology, make for a stimulating and effective class.



Perhaps the most recognizable example of classroom technology is the infamous clicker, the two-way remote unit part of the “classroom response system,” as the manufacturer, H-ITT, calls it. Physics professor Meg Urry said the clickers have been a fixture of her lecture course “Advanced General Physics” since 2003 to help students learn and understand the material better.

“Lecturing is a very ineffective way of transmitting material,” she said. “The students frantically try to write notes when it’s really just a regurgitation of the book anyways.”

Throughout the lecture, Urry stops and poses questions to the class. Using the remote, students are able to select what they think the answer is from several options. The answer is transmitted to a central unit via infrared signals, allowing Urry to see how well the class understands the problem.

But Urry does not rely on the technology alone. Rather than telling the class the correct answer, she puts students in groups to discuss their responses.



“Making them explain it to someone clarifies their own understanding,” Urry said. “I ask them to defend their views, the way scientists do.”

Urry said she unsuccessfully tried having students interact with each other to answer questions without the clickers in 2002, using colored pieces of paper to represent each answer. But she said the problem with this system was that students would wait to hold up the colored piece of paper corresponding to the answer they chose until they saw everyone else’s choices. She said the clicker system provides students with the sense of anonymity they need to respond honestly.

“The reason the technology helps a lot is that, especially at an elite school like Yale, people are afraid to be wrong,” Urry said.

Even the clickers, already several years old, are receiving a fresh look. Peggy McCready, director of media services for Academic Media & Technology, said her office is looking at a newer type of polling-response clicker that uses radio-frequency waves instead of infrared signals and has portable receivers. Currently, the infrared receivers are only installed in room 59 of Sloane Physics Laboratory, Davies Auditorium and SSS 114, but the RF system would allow professors all over campus to use the clickers.

The technology is slowly starting to spread; “Natural Hazards” obtained an infrared clicker system this fall. Professor David Bercovici, who co-teaches the class, said the impetus for having the system installed was growing class sizes. Last year, “Natural Hazards” enrolled about 400 students. Bercovici said he noticed the same problem Urry did — that a fear of embarrassment was holding his students back from answering questions.

Bercovici said the status of “Natural Hazards” as a class for non-science majors was not considered when deciding to install the clicker system. He said he has been able to pose harder questions to his students since bringing the clickers into the classroom.

While Bercovici and professor Mark Brandon, who also teaches “Natural Hazards,” keep the users of the clickers anonymous at all times, Urry takes a different approach and uses them to take attendance, a move that has been criticized by some students.

Rob Martinez ’09 said students could subvert the attendance-taking system by giving their clickers to friends who plan on attending the class.

“There’s no way to prove you’re actually there,” Martinez said.

Other students said they think the clickers slow the class down.

“I really don’t like it,” Patrick Heaney ’09 said. “I feel class time would be much better spent with her explaining the problems.”

But others thought the slower pace was beneficial. Michael Alpert ’07, who recently switched into Physics 180 from the more-traditionally taught Physics 200, said the focus on solving problems during class makes it more interesting.

“I like the fact that we get to interact,” he said. “It’s fun.”

While only two classes use the clicker system so far, others are finding their own way to use technology. McCready said 100 classrooms now include digital projectors that can show slides, videos or lecture notes during class. And a few classrooms have had rear-projection SmartBoards installed, allowing instructors to display images and video and write notes on the board with special markers. These notes, as well as the unedited lecture notes, can be posted to the Classes*v2 server, allowing students view them after a lecture.

McCready said one of the main objectives of her office is to keep professors informed about new technology available to them. Some students said they think not every professor is aware of how to use technology effectively, but McCready said her office works one-on-one with faculty and holds orientation sessions to help them.

Every new classroom being built on campus will be equipped with digital projection and a remote monitoring system, which will help support staff diagnose problems and turn off projectors from a central location, McCready said.

While it is mostly science classes that have adopted the technology so far, foreign-language classes are not far behind. The Center for Language Study boasts six classrooms and multiple language labs that hold multi-region DVD players, multi-standard VCRs, digital projectors and video cameras to record classes or events. Regina DeAngelo, technology services manager for CLS, said the support staff has been working on projects at faculty request, such as a picture dictionary so foreign language instructors have a ready-made base of pictures to use when teaching.

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