Smart classrooms, smarter students

By: Sandford BorinsBack in January, I wrote about how IT is transforming university-based research, and promised my next post would be about the impact of IT on teaching and learning.Many things worth discussing happened in the last few months – frequent twists and turns in the online election campaign south of the border, Naftagate, the Lukiwski story – so it's taken me a while to deliver on the promise.In retrospect, I'm glad it's taken this long, because the experience of another semester shows even more clearly the importance of technology in the classroom.I taught two courses, an undergraduate public management course in a smart classroom in the new management building at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, and a graduate seminar in a traditional seminar room in the basement of historic University College on the St. George campus.The smart classroom made it easy to combine a Powerpoint deck for my lecture notes with visits to government Web sites and the latest political YouTubes (for example a great riff on Hillary Clinton's flawed recollection of arriving under fire in Bosnia) as well as DVDs, such as an occasional 'Yes Prime Minister' episode.I could readily toggle back and forth among these different sources to give the students a multi-media picture of what is happening now in politics and government.The basement seminar room had no equipment and was in a wireless dead zone. I did show one 'Yes Prime Minister' episode on my lap top, encouraging the five students in the seminar to sit closely together in a “bonding experience.”Most of the seminar involved presentations about and discussions of readings, which didn't really need advanced technology. But in the last session the students said that, if the technology were available, they would have used it at the very least to refer to Web sites that illustrated points made in the discussion.This presents a dilemma for many universities, my own included, much of whose physical plant predates the IT age. To have up-to-date pedagogy, we want to have online access to the Internet and multi-media capability. Retrofitting, however, is expensive.My second story concerns a simulation exercise in the undergraduate public management course. I had the students simulate a cabinet decision-making process at the federal level, with the objective of allocating a fiscal windfall of $3 billion among competing operating departments.The focal point of the exercise was an in-class cabinet meeting in which students acting as ministers presented their departments' proposals to one another as well as the prime minister and president of the Treasury Board.In the run-up to the exercise, I made the students' e-mail addresses available, and asked them to copy me. It turned out that the prime minister and Treasury Board president used e-mail to their cabinet colleagues before the meeting to establish procedures and make clear their expectations.It would have been unrealistic to attempt to resolve the allocations in a two-hour meeting. The prime minister and Treasury Board president gave their ministers two more days to submit supplementary arguments before they made a final allocation, and there were quite a few last minute submissions.My conclusion from the simulation is that using e-mail made the process run more smoothly by enabling interactions both before and after the meeting. This balance of activity is a reasonable approximation of the way things work in the real world.My overall conclusion is that IT, as embodied in the smart classroom, e-mail among students, and many other tools, is essential to effective pedagogy. Increasingly, the students expect their instructors to use it, and the onus is on instructors, and the universities providing the infrastructure, to deliver.

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