We are evolving into techno sapiens.
Take a look around campus and it’s easy to see: students immersing themselves in virtual worlds the size of their palm, and faculty carrying years of research in a tablet thinner than any book they’ve ever read.
We have everything we need at our fingertips — or do we? The electronic tools we use today are as world-changing as the wheel, the printing press and the light bulb, but unlike those inventions, modern technology is evolving at an exponential pace. How it’s harnessed will determine how students learn and faculty teach in coming decades.
Whenever people text during a lecture, search for academic sources online, or make a PowerPoint presentation, they are deciding what role they want technology to play in education. Everyone on campus is a stakeholder.
An increasingly technological classroom will have an immense impact not only on students, but faculty as well, says Victoria Bhavsar, director of the Faculty Center for Professional Development and eLearning.
Cloud storage services and online teaching tools such as Blackboard are gaining popularity, which Bhavsar says can be good or bad.
“The review team I work with uses Dropbox and Google Drive and collaborative tools,” Bhavsar says. “Five years ago, I would have had to make copies. Projects have gotten much easier.”
But the constant influx of emails, advertisements and social media updates can be overwhelming.
“Information overload is a barrier to collaboration and communication,” she says. “Sorting through it to discover what’s important to you, and what you want to respond to, and what you need to respond to, is a challenge for faculty, just as it is for students.”
What it comes down to is the user, she says.
“Mobile technology is very powerful, and having data from the cloud with you at all times can be very helpful — with the caveat being how you choose to use it.”
In the end, technology may influence instruction, but it will still exist to serve the professor’s needs and the demands of the course.
“The decisions about curriculum are still going to be driven by the content,” Bhavsar says. “Faculty greatly value the freedom to choose how best to teach the content they are expert in. I think that will continue for the foreseeable future.”
Technology can bail you out in a crunch, but it’s also the ultimate time-waster. When social media and streaming video are more appealing than working on a term paper, or grading one, the battle to stay focused can be fierce.
But John McGuthry, chief information officer for the university, says that’s an old challenge in a new wrapper.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that good work isn’t being done here. You can always find a reason not to do your work, but you can always find good reasons to do your work. I think that those choices are always there, regardless of whether or not they are electronic.”
McGuthry has big plans for future members of the campus community to stay connected. In the next decade, students will be able to walk from the residence halls or parking lots to the Bronco Student Center and on to class without losing the university’s Wi-Fi network.
He remembers walking to class as a student with textbook and notes in hand, cramming as much information as he could before a test. Today, he sees how technology’s power could make that experience faster, more efficient and lead to fewer errors.
“Most students are always trying their best to learn more information,” he says. “With technology, you can be connected to whatever information you need to help you be more successful.”
Most important, McGuthry thinks the university needs to take advantage of the devices that students already have.
“People are walking around with high-powered computers in their pockets,” he says. “One of the things we may want to think more deeply about is how we can use that in education.”
Like their users, libraries have evolved dramatically in recent years. Books and journals are now digitized, and students can write their research papers without leaving their rooms.
Students are still coming — about 10,000 a day — says Ray Wang, the dean of the library. But they’re not coming just to read books.
A space once reserved for research has emerged as a social setting. Students who come to the University Library to study do so for much the same reason people go to a gym to work out, Wang says.
“People can run anywhere, but they go to the gym because everybody is working out there. Even if you come to the library just to take a nap, if everybody else is reading or doing some kind of project, there’s a certain kind of pressure. People are competitive. We are pack animals. We are gregarious by nature. We come in, we see other people doing something and we think, ‘I don’t want to be left behind.’”
Wang says technology such as JSTOR, an online digital library, makes research much easier. But, he asks, at what cost?
“Before, if I wanted to write a research paper, I had to bury myself in the book stacks and borrow books I couldn’t find and read and make cards and go back when I wanted to cite. Now, you cut and paste and there you go. There’s a view that technology makes doing a research paper easier, and therefore you have more being produced, but they’re sloppier. It’s definitely easier, but the jury’s still out in regards to quality.”
Easy access to almost limitless sources leads to what Wang calls “informational obesity.” Students are taking in tremendous amounts of information without developing the skills to distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources. He believes that this will shape the library of the future.
“Libraries will be a repository for quality printed publications, and library professionals will become a totally different type of professional. They’ll be there to teach people how to use a printed reference book. They’ll be trying to help students wade through these labyrinths of information, this information maze, and helping them cut down this bad habit of informational obesity. Consume information wisely, consume information with measure, consume information with discipline.”
Sometimes it’s the most basic technology that has the most profound effect. The academic calendar, for example, will shape the direction of the university in coming years, as Cal Poly Pomona switches from the quarter to semester system.
Marten denBoer, the university’s provost, believes that the quarter-to-semester conversion, scheduled for fall 2018, will reap numerous rewards.
First, it buys time. In a semester, projects can be handed in and graded with more time for revision.
“The process of revision is really a very important learning experience,” he says. “We know that the more you engage with the material and work with it in a hands-on kind of way, the better you learn.”
DenBoer, who oversees the planning and coordination of academic programs and initiatives, says students have greater success in the semester system. He envisions more time for collaborative projects, better opportunities for internships and service learning, and a continued emphasis on general education.
“I expect that general education will still be the foundation of a college degree. It’s certainly important that students have a particular specialization and master that, but it’s also important that they still have a broad exposure to a variety of disciplines.”
It’s clear that the future Cal Poly Pomona will embrace the electronic world.
Regardless of how technology will affect the campus, one sentiment still rings true: Learn-by-doing, an integral part of the university’s philosophy, will not change.
“I think learn-by-doing will be even more relevant in 10 years,” Bhavsar says. “The way our global and national economy is going makes the learn-by-doing experience even more important. What you can do for an employer right off the bat is going to continue to be important.”
Wang concurs: Advancing technology will make a student’s experience even more fulfilling.
“When we talk about learn-by-doing, I think a lot of people are thinking of engineering and architecture. But with technology, learn-by-doing is for everybody. By utilizing digital content and simulations, everyone can have that experience.
“It’s an exciting time.”
This story was written by Abi Inman and Zoe Lance.