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Technology and Learning: Perfect Together? How Students Evaluate Websites, Sources, and Online Learning

 

November 18-19, 2011
University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras and University of the Sacred Heart
San Juan Puerto Rico

Jeffrey Gaab, Farmingdale State College

The use of technology in the classroom, and online learning, has become the most important pedagogical instrument of the twenty-first century. According to one report, almost one-in-three American college students are taking, or have taken, online courses. This past year, 6.1 million students took at least one class online, representing a “280 percent increase” since 2002 (Ruiz, 2011b). Furthermore, the report cited by Ruiz noted that the 10% growth rate in the past year suggests that the growth in online learning may now be slowing. Are students using this technology responsibly? Are they able to navigate the vast amount of information in the World Wide Web which this technology enables them to encounter? For this essay, sixty students were surveyed in three history classes at SUNY College Farmingdale. Classes surveyed included one online, conventional face to face class, and one hybrid class (a mixture of both). In addition, students were asked to rate their online class experiences. This study found that most students surveyed are generally hostile to online learning, even though they are totally immersed in technology everyday.

Students and Technology

Our students use technology for almost everything they do in their daily lives. Every one of the students surveyed used a smart phone, and a computer or a laptop. Therefore, it could be assumed that these students would prefer online learning to conventional classroom instruction. The surveys revealed that our students use technology for communication with one another, and for entertainment. Most of our students, not yet fully engaged in the workforce or advanced careers do not use, or have limited experience using, technology for business. Therefore, they fail to recognize that this technology is also an instrument for learning and productivity, and vital for their future careers. Smart technology provides students with a vast amount of information. This huge amount of online information demands careful interpretation, critical evaluation, and independent effort while using the technology they claim to prefer. Online learning, and their future careers, will demand all of these skills. Therefore the online class, form a learning perspective, is essential in today’s learning environment.

However, many of our students do not want to think critically about information. For example, many students start their research projects by searching Google, rather than using library resources or other scholarly databases. Google outranked all other internet resources cited. Further, our students overwhelmingly use internet sources, rather than scholarly books and articles, to complete a research project. Thus, when the technology makes a task easier, students are happy to employ it. In other words, most of our students use technology in learning as the easy way out of hard (book) learning because it seems to demand less effort.

Can Students Critically Evaluate Online Material?

Our survey asked students how they evaluated websites. Are students able to evaluate which internet sites are “trustworthy” and reliable, and which sites should be avoided? When pressed, students listed the following website designations as the ones they trust the most to find accurate information:

  • .edu
  • YouTube
  • MSNBC
  • .org
  • Bing
  • msn.com
  • cnn.com
  • Google
  • .gov
  • Encyclopedia.com
  • “sites with an author”
  • “site with a copyright”
  • JSTOR
  • NYTimes
  • BBC

A significant number of students indicated that they immediately sought out Google when beginning any research project (a similar number indicated that they use Yahoo or some other popular search engine). To be sure, Google and Yahoo are helpful tools in locating information. Almost 10% of students indicated that they refer on YouTube.com when researching a topic and prefer it when instructors incorporate this technology into the classroom. The television generation believes “seeing is believing” and likes to see something rather than read it or imagine it for themselves.

This study demonstrated that our students can be critical if they want to be critical. Unfortunately, they often must be forced by the instructor to be critical and to use serious sites or else they lapse into Wikipedia. Students have different and varied criteria in selecting internet information. How can students trust what they find on the websites they visit? Even though many students know to avoid websites such as Wikipedia, or encyclopedias, many students still use such websites because they are easy to find and can access these sites quicker than more conventional scholarly sites. Instructors should introduce students to scholarly sites and compel students to use the sites listed above only when beginning their research.

Do Students Prefer Online Classes To Conventional Instruction?

Our students are familiar with all kinds of technology and web content. Since students use communication technology in most daily activities, and since our students would agree that the technology makes most tasks easier, do they prefer online classes to regular classroom instruction? No! Most of the students surveyed did not prefer online classes to conventional classroom instruction. Our surveys indicated that 53% of students who had experience with online classes did not like their experience. Only 30% indicated that they preferred online learning to conventional instruction. A significant number of a small amount of students who had taken an online class said they did not like online learning, which relies heavily on internet and communication technology.

Students gave the following reasons for not liking their online courses:

  • Too much work
  • No discussion or interaction
  • Tendency to get lazy
  • “Online classes are ridiculous and real learning does not take place”
  • “I prefer to be in class b/c all the online class consists of [is] reading and extra work.”

The results of our study, and the above statements, are corroborated by evidence from other venues. For example, a significant number of students replying to a New York Times discussion of online learning thought that the face-to-face learning experience was more valuable for them than online instruction. “I have received much better instruction in person and through discussion with classmates . . . in contrast to an online message board where everyone is required to speak” (Ruiz, 2011b).

More mature students, especially those working full-time jobs while trying to complete their education, generally liked online instruction. Here, technology enables working students and the more motivated students to learn at their own pace in their own time. The more serious and motivated students had no problem with either online learning, or face-to-face instruction. Students trying to work full time, or students taking courses at a distance, generally appreciate the learning experience that distance learning provides. However even some of these students noted that “Online learning lacks… the excitement of being in a classroom with my fellow students. The ‘discussion’ is not spontaneous and the whole computer thing is cumbersome” (Ruiz, 2011a).

In our online classes, students are required to read texts on their own, participate in online discussions, answer questions, write essays, and take exams. Our online classes are, in reality, no different from regular classes. Still, the less motivated students did not like online classes because they believed that it consisted of much more work than a regular, face-to-face class.

Does The Technology Mean More Learning?

Our students like to use technology when it makes their life easier. However, when they are required to use that technology to learn or provide results for someone else, or to evaluate, interpret, and report on information critically (as they should do in class or as they will be required to do in their careers) students find technology just as burdensome as conventional methods of obtaining information.

In the classroom, students must be guided to use technology to learn independently, not just play, or communicate. Furthermore, if used correctly, the technology can foster improved student learning. One educator has noted that higher education can be “radically reshaped” if the roots of learning can be regenerated. “The mere assemblage of facts, no matter how great, is of no worth without the habit of reflective inquiry to judge them.” If pedagogy can be made to “animate” students to reflect on what they are learning, to engage the material, they can become “participants in the process of inquiry rather than bystanders” (Deluty, 2012) It can be argued that online learning is ideally structured for this type of pedagogy. Independent projects, learning, (yes even research!) and critical thinking will be a vital skill not only in their future college careers, but in their professions later on in life after graduation. Even though most of our students are immersed in technology and use it regularly for almost everything, our students view online learning and research as a burden because both require them to learn for themselves. Instructors must work hard to overcome this perception which prevents students from engaging more fully the material and the technology.

Technology And Learning: Perfect Together?

Instructors face the same challenges with online learning and the use of technology in the classroom as they face with conventional instruction: getting students to read and think critically about the information with which they are presented. Moreover, instructors will be required to use distance learning technology more and more in the future. Some in politics and higher education are advocating expanding online course offerings, especially at public institutions of higher education, because it can “expand the supply of seats” and the number of students an institution can accept, thereby increasing a university’s tuition revenue. Clearly, if the politicians have their way, online learning will only increase in the future (Ruiz, 2011a).

Online instruction and learning is one of the most important pedagogies of the twenty-first century. Instructors should integrate the use of technology and online sources into all of their instruction so that students see that, whether in a conventional class or an online course, the amount of work is similar and just as important. Demonstrating to students that research and learning is hard work, work that technology can make “easier” if approached properly, will better prepare our students for advanced learning and their professional careers. Instructors must demonstrate to students that work in regular courses is not more arduous than in online courses and that technology and online sources are important components of all learning. Instructors can help students realize that the technology they use must be used for more than mere communication or entertainment—it can be used for learning about the world around them. Above all, instructors must also impress upon students that independent learning will be vital to their professional careers later on. Students should embrace these independent learning skills now, in the classroom, in whatever subject they are studying to be better prepared for the job market upon graduation. Online learning exposes students to the skills they will need long after they have left the campus.

Therefore, all students should be required to take at least one serious online course in their college career in order to learn how to master the process of information gathering and presentation, and to use the technology effectively. There is no easy way out of critical thinking, research, and learning, not even with today’s advanced technology. Instructors can prepare students effectively only when we clearly demonstrate to them the connection between technology and learning, and how vital this connection to their future careers. It is the most important pedagogy of the twenty-first century.

References

Deluty, E. W. (2012). Asking questions: cultivating the habit of inquiry. Thought and Action, 26, 135-138.

Ruiz, R. (2011a, October 6). The debate over online learning. New York Times. Retrieved from http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/10/06/online-ed/

Ruiz, R. (2011b, November 10). Report finds one in three college students has taken an online class. New York Times. Retrieved from http://thechoice.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/10/online-learning/?scp=1&sq=Report%20Finds%20One%20in%20Three%20College%20Students
%20Has%20Taken%20an%20Online%20Class&st=cse

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