The Impact of Technology on In-Person Instruction at Colleges and Universities

By Michael Dennin, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning an Dean, Division of Undergraduate Education, UC Irvine

Michael Dennin, Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Vice Provost of Teaching and Learning an Dean, Division of Undergraduate Education, UC Irvine

The combination of in-person instruction and technology in these three areas can improve student learning outcomes and ultimately provide a better college experience

I’m a big fan of sci-fi, and I have to be honest, at points during 2020, I felt like we were all in some alternate universe where everything we knew was not applicable anymore. None of us ever anticipated being in a global pandemic, but the new normal is here. In higher education, this new normal has introduced unprecedented challenges, but it has also pushed us towards unprecedented advancements. 

At colleges and universities across the country, instruction is now primarily in a remote setting. Faculty are now thinking more critically about their teaching and, more specifically, how technology interfaces with their in-person instruction. 

Adopting various technologies is essential to ensure the continuation of students’ educational journeys. As other faculty and I become more familiar with the opportunities that technology offers, this raises an exciting question—what will the combination of in-person instruction and technology look like as we emerge from the pandemic?

While we can consider this from several different perspectives, an important lens for thinking through this question are the three core structures of the educational experience:

• Student-faculty interactions

• Student-student interactions

• Student-material interactions

Technology is a powerful conduit that facilitates these interactions, and recreating a college experience in a remote setting proves as much. Looking forward to the return of in-person instruction, it’s critical that we examine how and which technologies can improve student learning outcomes and provide a better college experience.

Student-Faculty Interactions

Let’s consider how technology plays a role in how students and faculty interact in two real-world situations

Many faculty have experienced that moment after class, where student questions make them realize an even better example or way to explain a concept. In a purely traditional course, they would need to make a choice—do they take time away from the next lecture to cover the concept again or save this explanation for next year? As we improve our confidence with technology, creating and distributing a five-minute video offers a clear solution. It ensures that all students have the benefit of the improved explanation with minimal stress to the instructor. 

“The development of today’s educational technology is no different in spirit than that of the printing press.”

Now imagine a large lecture hall where the equivalent of a live Zoom chat is available to students and appears on the instructor’s monitor. This would provide an avenue for feedback and engagement for students who may not feel comfortable voicing their questions in front of everyone. 

Student-Student Interactions

For student interactions with each other, technology makes it easier and more convenient to connect when schedules and distance present a core challenge. 

Take, for example, how technology can play a transformative role in group projects. While in-person meetings may still be essential for the project’s progress, using technology to conduct synchronous online meetings and perform asynchronous work ensures that the project is no longer limited by each student’s ability to get to the same physical space at the same time. Collaborating through these various means not only helps students learn more effectively but also provides fundamental skills that they will need as they enter the 21st-century workforce.

Student-Material Interactions 

Finally, technology is improving the very way in which students interact with learning materials. 

Using software to administer short quizzes throughout a course requires students to interact with course content, to apply new skills or competencies and to recognize where they are doing well and where they need to improve. This helps students optimize their study time outside of class.

Additionally, I’ve received feedback from some of my students that new software allowing for the annotation of electronic sources (such as e-books, powerpoints, or videos) has enabled them to apply traditional studying strategies to a range of modern course materials. This, in turn, has allowed them to interact with electronic course materials in more active and meaningful ways.

Looking to the Future

The development of today’s educational technology is no different in spirit than that of the printing press. Its introduction posed interesting challenges and questions about how increased access to books could improve education. Hundreds of years later, we recognize that the printing press revolutionized access to information across geographic and socioeconomic boundaries, eventually raising the denominator for fundamental knowledge. 

Similarly, the question now is not whether the technologies that made remote instruction possible have a place alongside in-person instruction, but rather which ones will be most effective for a given task or goal. Embracing technology in the classroom will undeniably enhance student interactions beyond traditional in-person experiences—shying away from it would only be a disservice to our students.

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