At Dartmouth, technology and times change in tandem

by Gigi Grigorian | 5/18/18 3:45am

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Students are allowed the use of their laptops during a lecture.

Source: Natalie Dameron

Thirty years ago, the Internet was just arriving at the College. Not too long ago, desktop computers lined the main hallway of the first floor of Berry Library. Now, it is a common sight to see a Dartmouth student strolling this same hallway while looking down at their smartphone, perhaps checking their Blitz or Canvas.

In the past few decades, technology has transformed communication and the spread of information. As technology has evolved, it has become increasingly prominent in classrooms at the College.

One benefit of the rise of technology is its potential to improve classroom education. For example, in her Chemistry 6, “General Chemistry” class, professor Katherine Mirica uses technology to gauge students’ grasp of new material. Specifically, she uses clicker software to ask students conceptual questions about recently covered material. The software is available on computers and can be downloaded as a smartphone application.

Mirica explained that the clicker questions allow her to step back and identify concepts that students have not yet grasped.

“It helps me see where the entire class is, not just the few students who vocally answer,” she said.

Mirica also joked that the clicker questions “keep people awake” during her class, which meets during the 9L schedule period.

She also uses technology to help incorporate active learning in her 94-student class. Mirica has her students work together in small groups during class to solve problems that apply new material. These collaborative problems are “meant to engage the students beyond just being passive listeners and to encourage active participation, which is hard to achieve in a large class,” she explained. “They break up lecture content into student-centered problem solving.”

When groups finish each problem, they upload pictures of their work, done on white boards, to Canvas. Mirica can then review students’ work, identify common issues, and address them in class. This problem-solving method also helps her design future problems, as she can see how students approach the problems and how far they get on each problem in the allotted time.

English professor Thomas Luxon also uses Canvas in innovative ways in his classes. For example, he utilizes Canvas’ peer review function, in which students upload their writing to Canvas and get feedback from two other randomly-assigned students. Each student can use the feedback to revise and resubmit their essays. While he acknowledges that peer review would be possible without the online component, Luxon said that Canvas facilitates the editing process among students.

Luxon also uses Canvas as a discussion forum for his students to reflect on each reading assignment before coming to class. Every night, Luxon’s students submit an analysis and questions about the reading. After students upload their reflections to Canvas, they can view what other students have written in response to the reading.

Because students can read each other’s work, and because Luxon offers feedback to the reflections, he said that “the discussion [of the reading] is already well underway before we even sit down [in class].”

Luxon also noted that he structures his class based on the observations and questions that students raise in their submitted writing assignments. Thus, Luxon uses Canvas as a resource to engage students and improve the quality discussions of texts in his classes.

While technology has produced new ways of teaching at the College, it has also impacted how students work outside of the classroom, most significantly in how they conduct research.

Dartmouth students have access to 363 online databases through the College, librarian Wendel Cox said. Students can search these databases from anywhere in the world, ranging from their favorite library nook to another country during a foreign study program. For this reason, Cox noted that the College library now “has no walls.”

Technological advancements have also facilitated the programs BorrowDirect and DartDoc, which allow students to obtain printed materials from non-Dartmouth libraries.

“We used to live with a scarcity of information or challenges for access to information,” Cox said. “Now, we live with so much information and such a range of different possibilities for it that it’s overwhelming. You need a guide, and that’s what [librarians] do.”

Luxon echoed this idea, saying that students can now do “authentic scholarly work” due to the wealth of information available online.

With so much information at students’ disposal, Luxon explained that professors now organize their classes to have students perform scholarly work and interact with broader academia.

“It’s possible for us to design courses in such a way that students are actually apprentices to professional work in the discipline,” Luxon said.

The rise of online resources has also led to the emergence of digital humanities, a field which Luxon defines as “the practice of using various affordances of the digital to support projects in the humanities.”

In addition to teaching English classes, Luxon is working on a digital humanities-related project that involves creating an online collection of the poetry and prose of writer John Milton. With his online collection, called “The John Milton Reading Room,” Luxon intends to help students become less intimidated by Milton’s works, which he noted can be dense and rich with allusions to other works.

On the website, Milton texts contain footnotes that appear when readers click on the applicable line or word in the text. Sometimes, the footnotes contain hyperlinks to other websites, such as online Bible editions or other Milton works. Such accessible information would not be possible in a physical book, where the bottoms of pages are often crowded with dense text explaining Milton’s writing.

In the future, Dartmouth will continue to evolve, as technology presents new possibilities for learning and access to information. For example, in conjunction with the rising popularity of mobile devices, the College’s Information, Technology and Consulting department is moving toward “mobile-first” web design, according to ITC vice president and chief information officer Mitchel Davis. With a mobile-first design approach, new software is being developed with a priority on mobile interfaces. He added that the recently-released Darthub update was designed with a mobile-first approach.

Davis also discussed the possibility of standardizing technology across campus by requiring all members of the institution to have the same device, whether it is an Apple computer, an iPad or a Chromebook. He noted that other universities, such as the University of Oregon and Stanford Law School, are attempting to implement programs with this model.

If the College were to pursue this strategy in the future, Davis said that there would have to be a campus-wide vote to choose the device that the most students and faculty wanted to use. When a specific device is chosen, the College would help provide computers to students who could not afford them. Thus, all students could have access to the same tools both for independent work and for in-class learning.

“Everybody would know they had that tool no matter where, no matter when,” Davis said. “[Professors] could start incorporating that into the classroom and into overall teaching.”

Davis thinks that this standardization strategy could realistically be implemented if enough faculty and students thought it would be worthwhile and if the value of such a program could be proved.

“I’ve never seen the faculty or the students resistant to change that is made beneficial to them,” he said.