Professors work to keep pace with tech-savvy college students

Published: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 19, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
At 49, Pat Firmat became aware that one of the most prominent changes in campus life since 1978 when she earned her first degree at the University of Florida was the replacement of the typewriter with a relatively new novelty called the computer.
Computers "were really just coming into use," Firmat said. "It was something where not everyone had one."
Today, the Gainesville resident is busy comparing laptop computer features for when her 17-year-old daughter, Lauren, heads off to UF in the fall.
In this current age of iPods, souped-up cell phones and interactive video games, educators are trying to keep up with the tech-savvy student by digitizing the college classroom.
"There's a great field of people asking questions about using technology in the classroom - what works and what doesn't," said Christopher Sessums, the director of distance learning for the Office of Distance, Continuing and Executive Education at UF.
Typically, however, there is very little technology specifically designed for the classroom, Sessums said, and his office is in charge of investigating and introducing new, adaptable technology and methods to educators.
One form of "social software" Sessums might be considering in the near future is the downloadable lecture.
Pick-A-Prof, an online service commonly known for student-posted ratings of college professors, launched its own version of the feature, "CourseCasting," this week.
Using the CourseCasting program, professors can record audio from their lectures and post clips on the Internet for students to download onto their computer or MP3 player.
The service comes in handy when students want to review for an exam or catch up on lectures they were unable to attend in person, said Karen Bragg, Pick-A-Prof director of university relations.
"The idea of students sharing notes - that's not a completely new thing," Bragg said. "This just takes it to a whole new level; instead of getting info from a secondhand source, students can get it directly from a professor."
For most university students and professors, including those at UF, the service is free.
As MP3 players with video viewing capabilities become more prevalent, the company hopes to offer downloadable video feed in the future as well, Bragg said.
Although downloadable lectures have yet to become widely available at UF, some professors have been providing online versions of their classes for years.
Professor Maurice Marshall began posting online PowerPoint notes from his "Man's Food" course about five years ago when his position as southern director of a USDA project required him to miss class. Soon afterward, he discovered attendance for the popular nutrition and food science class had plummeted as some students preferred to learn from home. Rather than remove the notes, however, Marshall used a grant from the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences to develop a second section of the course for online.
Marshall said there was no significant difference in the exam scores of the two sections, a fact that helped him decide to start offering only the online version of the class this spring. The estimated 1,200 students currently enrolled in the class are encouraged to watch one or two of Marshall's annotated presentations each week of the semester - he answers 20 to 30 student queries each day via e-mail. Exams for the class take place in person, and are arranged by each student using an online exam scheduler.
Other professors use the Internet to communicate with students living in different states.
Kara Dawson, assistant professor of educational technology at UF, is conducting a new online graduate course this semester. Her students, teachers living in states like Texas, Oregon and Pennsylvania, stay connected through a network of class blogs in which they compare teaching practices and resources, as well as post questions.
Although she teaches in-person courses as well, Dawson said she is often able to communicate on a more one-on-one basis with her online students because they are forced to stay connected through blog postings.
But there is at least one aspect of the traditional classroom that the cyberspace version can't match: face-to-face interaction.
"It's funny now," Marshall said. "You'll go into a restaurant, and someone will say, 'Dr. Marshall, I had you for Man's Food. It's great to see your face now.'"

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