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The Pros and Cons of Technology in Higher Education

By McGraw-Hill Education 2 years agoNo Comments
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Sherry Fukuzawa and Cleo Boyd introduce their study with the claim, “Student engagement is a key factor in successful learning.” Most of us would agree that students learn best when they are actively engaged. But, there are a variety of factors at play in student engagement, including motivation, which we recently discussed in the blog “How Can Student Motivation Enhance Performance?” As complex as the many factors make student engagement, we are still seeking to engage students in our classes. Many point to technology as a tool for encouraging and enhancing student engagement.

Sherry Fukuzawa and Cleo Boyd are professors at the University of Toronto Mississauga and they began a study to increase student engagement in their large first year courses through technology. Their study adds to educational technology research by exploring the use of technology in a large course section and through specific engagement methods.

They present their findings in an article titled, “Student Engagement in a Large Classroom: Using Technology to Generate a Hybridized Problem-based Learning Experience in a Large First Year Undergraduate Class.” Their study explains the parameters of the class and how they created technology enhanced learning in order to increase student engagement and successful learning. They also explain how they added a control group in the spring 2014 semester. Their discussion helps to illuminate some of the pros and cons of technology in education.


The Study

Fukuzawa and Boyd begin by explaining the research on interactive classroom technology. The first obstacle they discuss is the size of their classes. Adding interactive classroom technology in this setting is often accomplished through clickers, online discussion boards, and blogs, because these methods don’t create a large added burden of cost and instructor time.

Rather than adopting clickers or simple reading response blogs, Fukuzawa and Boyd chose to integrate technology through a problem-based learning approach. They felt they could add to educational research both about problem-based learning and about technology.

A quick word on problem-based learning (or PBL): We discussed problem-based learning a few months ago as an approach to collaboration. In that blog, we said, “Problem-based learning asks students to tackle large, open-ended problems, usually in their specific discipline.” Fukuzawa and Boyd explain further that in asking students to tackle the open-ended question, problem-based learning requires them to apply theoretical knowledge to practical situations. In addition, it is a tool for critical thinking and self-directed learning.

Fukuzawa and Boyd implemented their study in a first year undergraduate course at the University of Toronto Mississauga called the “Introduction to Biological Anthropology and Archaeology.” Because this is an introductory course, they have a wide range of first year students from all backgrounds and majors enroll. The course has a maximum number of 800 seats. The full class meets for one hour twice per week, and then students are broken up into smaller groups for a 50 minute lab once per week.

To incorporate interactive technology into their large first-year course, Fukuzawa and Boyd created a “Monthly Virtual Mystery,” that they operated through Blackboard discussion boards. Each Monthly Virtual Mystery creates the problem in the problem-based learning approach. The mysteries are case scenarios that are presented through Blackboard which allows the scenario to incorporate media like photographs. The use of the Blackboard discussion board allowed the class of around 800 students to be broken into groups of 50 so that more collaboration could occur. The technology also allowed students to ask questions and collaborate with each other as they worked to solve the mystery. The instructor and head TA worked as facilitators, helping to guide the students and to answer the questions they posed.

Fukuzawa and Boyd provide an example of the January Monthly Virtual Mystery: A “specimen was discovered on an isolated sandy beach in Tobermory, Ontario by two local cottagers… [You are] a biological anthropologist … called in to identify the specimen, and determine if it is of forensic interest.” Students are then asked what questions they would like to address first. As they work to solve the mystery, students must determine if the specimen is human, if there was possible trauma, and what were the circumstances of the death.  As they worked on this problem over the course of the month, the educational technology allowed a deployment of new information each week that lead students further into the job of a biological anthropologist.


Pros and Cons of Technology in Education

The results of Fukuzawa and Boyd’s study illuminate some of the pros and cons of incorporating technology in education.

The Pros and Cons of Technology in Higher Education


Many of the pros to the integration of technology and PBLs concern the adaptability and function of the technology:

Technology allowed the mysteries to be adaptively released, and set up was only required at the beginning of the course. This slightly lowered the burden on the facilitator. The facilitator can delete comments that are not related to the mystery, and can post questions to guide students. Blackboard technology automatically saved students’ comments and graded them once the facilitator approved them.

Each group of 50 students worked on their own mystery, and students only saw the comments of others in their group after they posted their own comment. They were required to think for themselves rather than repeating their classmates. Online discussions may encourage introverts to participate, and the convenience of online discussions may encourage participation from all students. As a result, the majority of students successfully completed the tasks (although that does not mean they accurately solved the mystery).

Many students evaluated the virtual mysteries positively, with comments like: It was a fun exercise, they learned to think like an anthropologist, and understand what an anthropologist does.

As a final result, Fukuzawa and Boyd claim: Technology allows PBL to be incorporated into a large classroom setting. This increased student motivation and engagement. It was also implemented with no extra costs.


Although the mysteries were evaluated positively by both the students and the researchers, Fukuzawa and Boyd point to some of the problems with integrating interactive technology.

The biggest drawback came from the group size, which was too large to run efficiently. This led to some other problems, like: Students repeated the same comments without getting feedback from the facilitator. Online discussions did not allow students to effectively collaborate because of delayed postings and the lack of personal connections because of the large group size. Considerable hours were put into monitoring and facilitating the groups, because a facilitator was required to monitor the discussion boards.

Negative student evaluations commented that the mysteries took too much time on information not required to pass the course, and were too difficult.

Many of the cons could be ameliorated with funding. With funding the facilitators could create a larger mystery data bank so that more mysteries could be run at one time and the group sizes could be smaller. Smaller group sizes would also require more facilitators which would also require funding.


Comparing Active and Passive Technology-Enhanced Learning

To create a control group, Fukuzawa and Boyd offered a second activity that was designed as a passive learning option. Students who chose this second option were required to watch 5-minute online videos from a course reader and take a quiz on each video.

Completion of the online video assignments was approximately 12% higher than the completion rate for the virtual mysteries.

No significant difference was shown between the final grades of students who completed the mysteries and those who completed the online videos. Likewise there was not a significant difference in the distribution of grades.

Student evaluations commented that they liked working on their own schedule and having textbook material reinforced. The negative evaluations were very similar to the active virtual mystery evaluations. Students said the online videos took too much time, there were too many, and they were boring.


Recommendations for Instructors

Fukuzawa and Boyd show the value of technology and problem-based learning in fostering student engagement and successful learning. They would recommend that instructors focus on incorporating active technology-enhanced learning experiences because of the long term benefits for students with critical thinking and problem solving. They also recommend that problem-based learning have scaffolding to explain the importance of collaboration and learning along the way rather than simply rushing to solve the problem. They also recommend that instructors use technological methods and find funding to decrease the burden of facilitating such large groups.

This study shows us a new and meaningful way to incorporate active technology into higher education classrooms to increase student engagement.

  Ed-Tech, Higher Education, Learning Science
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