Shabnam Raayai (MIT 기계공학과)
샤브남 라야이, “교실 속 양날의 검, 기술” (요약: 조승희)
지난 한 세기 동안 기술은 모두의 삶을 크게 바꾸어왔다. 최근 몇십 년 동안의 기술 변화는 유독 빨랐으며, 교실도 예외가 아니었다. 초등학교에는 태블릿 PC가 도입되고, 학생들은 글을 쓰거나 발표를 준비할 때에도 컴퓨터를 꼭 사용하게 되었다. 교실에서 디지털 기기를 사용하는 것이 배움의 과정을 더 낫게 해주고 있는지에 대해서는 논란이 많다. 이 글은 기계공학 강의에 중점을 두어, ‘기술’이 수업 현장에 미치는 영향에 관해 이야기한다. 기계공학 전공 수업은 수학을 포함하거나 그래프를 그리는 과정이 많은데, 이럴 때 전자기기들이 학부생, 대학원생, 조교, 그리고 교수의 학습법 또는 교수법에 미치는 서로 다른 영향에 대해 알아본다. 필자는 기계공학 수업의 조교로서 수업 과정을 관찰한 경험을 토대로 이야기한다.
“전자 교과서(e-textbook)”는 교실에 몇 가지 난관들을 안겨주고 있다. 그 첫 번째 난관은, 전자 교과서가 수업에 과연 더 효과적인지에 대한 근본적인 의문이다. 필자가 조교로 학생들의 수업 태도를 관찰한 결과, 많은 학생은 그날그날 주어진 읽기 숙제를 잘 따라잡지 못하거나, 시험에서 필요한 공식들을 검색하는데 어려움을 많이 겪고 있었다. 수업을 진행하는 교수나 조교들의 경우 오히려 수업 진행이 수월하다고 느꼈다. 그러나 이는 교수와 조교들이 이 교과서 내용에 학생들보다 더 익숙하여서 어려움이 적었다고 필자는 판단하고 있다.
두 번째 난관은 파워포인트 발표의 남용이다. 파워포인트는 넓은 범위의 수업 자료를 학생들에게 전달하기에는 효과가 좋다. 그러나 학생들의 입장에서는 그 방대한 수업 내용을 따라가기 벅찰 수밖에 없다. 칠판에 글씨를 쓰는 이전의 수업 형태에서는, 선생님이 학생들에게 정보를 전달하는 속도가 제한이 있어서, 선생님이 과속하여 진도를 빼기에는 한계가 있었다. 그러나 파워포인트 슬라이드를 넘기는 행위에는 이러한 속도 제한이 없기 때문에, 학생들은 수업 시간에 필기를 아예 포기하거나, 강의가 끝나고 수업 자료를 교수에게 요청하기도 했다.
마지막 난관은 조교 또는 교수, 그리고 학생들 사이의 온라인 포럼이었다. 필자가 참여한 수업에서는 학생들이 온라인 포럼을 이용하여 익명으로 질문을 올리거나, 질문들에 태그를 걸거나, 서로 토론을 하기도 했다. 온라인 포럼의 장점은, 교수가 답변을 달기도 전에 학생들끼리 토론을 진행하여, 스스로 문제를 풀기도 한다는 것이었다. 그러나 조교와 교수의 입장에서는 업무 시간 외에도 온라인포럼에 올라온 글들에 응답을 해야 한다는 압박이 심했다.
전자 교과서는 양날의 검으로 작용하여 교실을 빠르게 변화시켰다. 학생들에게 전자 교과서의 사용을 권장하는 경우도 있었고, 의무화하는 경우도 있었다. 이렇게 빠르게 변화하는 상황에서 최선은 무엇일까? 필자는 강의 첫날 교수와 학생, 그리고 조교들이 이 전자 교과서의 장단점을 함께 고민해보는 것이 필요하다고 주장한다. 이렇게 짧은 (그리고 아날로그적인) 토론도, 학생들이 스스로에게 맞는 학습법을 생각해보고 현명하게 선택하는 데 큰 도움을 줄 수 있다.
Technology has been transforming our lives for the past century. But in the past few decades, we have seen the most rapid changes in our daily lives than before, and our classrooms are not an exception from this trend. From the introduction of tablets in elementary schools and typing homework and essays in high school to using laptops and Power Point presentations in undergraduate and graduate classes, even the educational methods have been changing and are sparking a debate on whether or not these changes are enhancing the process of learning at each of these levels. The arguments on advantages and disadvantages of the changes are constantly being discussed in the literature.
The focus of this piece is on the effect of the use of technology in undergraduate and graduate classes on the students, the teaching assistants (TA), and the professors. The piece focuses on the context of the core mechanical engineering classes where math and accompanying drawings (such as free body diagrams) constitute a sizeable part of the lectures, homework (whether graded or not), and the open or closed book exams. These courses include solving mathematical problems most of the time and the structure of these courses affect the ability to employ different types of gadgets and software packages as easily as in other disciplines and contexts. The observations discussed in this article are from my personal experience of serving as TA for multiple undergraduate and graduate classes at a university in the US and the collective effort of the instructors of the course and the TA team in creating an effective learning environment for the students.
As you have probably noticed, E-textbooks have been changing the libraries of nearly all campuses, the students, and the faculties. E-textbooks are lighter and easier to take everywhere with you. They are easier to search and navigate, and cheaper than the hard copies. Most of the time, purchasing the electronic version of the textbook gives you access to the online companion websites that are developed by the publishers, which gives access to videos and appendices that are not included in the hard copy. To reduce the costs for students, even professors tend to suggest that students buy the electronic version of the books. Also, they have a lower environmental footprint than the hard copies, making them very attractive to use by most of the academics. Even departments of education on various levels of government in the United States are pushing schools (prior to undergraduate) to move toward incorporating more e-textbooks. Numerous universities across the United States have been attempting to increase their use of electronic textbooks over the past decade as well.
The first challenge with using e-textbooks that we observed throughout the class is in the level of effectiveness of the e-books in students’ learning. We noticed that a large number of the students were not following up with the required reading of the class and were not able to locate the correct equations, figures, or charts to be used for their problem sets and in the exams. This was especially frustrating in an engineering class where the time of the lectures did not allow for every part of the material to be covered and we heavily depended on the students to follow the required reading of the course. It is essential for the students to be comfortable with their textbooks and easily find the required material for the lecture, homework problem, the exam, and ultimately in their future engineering careers. However, with e-textbooks, we noticed that most of the students were not comfortable with their books and finding the information they need. Even with searchable pdf of the books (which help us find information within seconds), the context is important for the students to find and choose the correct form of the equation, or the relevant chart to be able to solve the given problem.
Similar discussions have been reported previously; the study reported by Young  also mentions that 40% of the students mentioned agreed that they studied less because e-textbooks made studying difficult. But still, there were students who did well in the class using e-textbooks. In another study students mentioned that using paper “supports reading” by giving flexibility in navigating through the text, cross referencing multiple documents at once, as well as ease of annotations.
On the other hand, within the instructor team, having the e-textbook was convenient for the reasons discussed earlier and we heavily used the e-textbook while planning the lectures. However, it should be noted that we already had experience with the materials and the relevant context in finding the sections we needed. It is debatable whether searching a hard copy would be slower or faster than soft copy for those of us who have studied with hard copies for quite a while and are transitioning to using e-textbooks. In the graduate level courses, use of e-textbooks is definitely more affordable as professors and instructors usually introduce a long list of textbooks that are each good for different sections of the syllabus. Thus, having electronic copies of multiple textbooks is more affordable than purchasing them. However, many of students still printed relevant sections for careful studying and use for homework and exams.
But the use of e-textbook in these classes led to an interesting new issue: how to properly conduct open book quizzes, mid-terms, and finals without allowing electronics in the exam room? (to keep the integrity of the exam and avoid unwanted distractions) Having an open book exam in engineering fields is to allow the students to access the equations, charts, tables, and figures required to solve the problems. So, in addition to examining the understanding of the students, the instructors also evaluate how proficiently the students can identify the correct equation or chart to use for a specific question. While students might not recognize this component of the exam, the instructors are trying their best to prepare the students for the questions that they will encounter in their future classes and engineering jobs. Various ways have been suggested to approach these problems. There were, for example, changing the format of the exam to closed book and handing out printed copies of the needed tables and equation sheets, asking students to bring their own one or two page equation sheets, keeping the exam open book and allowing printed copies of the entire or parts of the e-textbooks, and even offering a few laptop stations for those who did not bring the correct tables and appendices with them to the exam.
Another piece of technology that is both used and abused in classrooms and seminars is Power Point presentation. Power point presentation allows us to present a wide range of information (whether text, equation, table or figure), more than what chalkboard allows in the same lecture time. This changes the pace of an engineering lecture where equations, diagrams, charts, and plots all have their fair share throughout the lecture and the course. Using only Power Point presentations or blackboards alone can limit the ability to convey the full picture of the topic discussed in the lecture. However, a balanced combination of both allows for a more engaged lecture where the professors can discuss the topic from various perspectives. This requires careful preparations before the lecture and can be very time-consuming for the professors.
On the students’ front, the use of Power Point affects their ability to take notes throughout the lecture. Blackboard lectures automatically have a speed limit on how fast the discussion is moving forward, allowing students to take notes, follow the topic, and ask questions throughout the lecture (especially when dealing with math and equations). However, Power Point lectures do not come with this speed limit, and students who want to take notes try their best to copy what they read and those who don’t take notes assume that the lecture slides will be available after class. Both sides have their own pros and cons depending on the students’ preference, and it directly translates to the learning experience.
The introduction of online and off line calculator apps such as Wolfram Alpha, Mathematica and even Google Search’s ability to calculate various mathematical equations, is a new and complicated addition to engineering classrooms. In core engineering courses, while math is not the main focus of the lectures, as instructors and TAs, we trust the students to understand the mathematical background of what is being presented and that they can apply the equations and theorems needed to solve the problems with the help of a simple scientific calculator. In more advanced classes there are always mathematical review sessions allowing the students to get a sense of the level of mathematics they are expected to deal with in the class and if ever a new function is introduced in the lecture, the professor takes the required time to explain the concept behind it.
Figure 1 Screen capture of Wolfram Alpha
It is always fine for the students to use such accompanying applications and calculators to check their math while studying and for homework problems and as a TA, I always encourage them to use these tools as a way of confirming their solutions. However, for a course with a timed exam as its final evaluation of the students’ work, the professors and the TAs expect not to see students struggling and losing points in the exams from mathematical operations. So, while this is highly dependent on the students’ study method, they could benefit from using the mathematical apps as a complementary tool while using their own mathematical knowledge as the main method of solving the equations in their homework problems. Clearly if the course did not include any timed exams, then the case would be completely different.
Lastly, online forums have also changed the interactions between students, TAs, and the professors. Various forms of online forums are widely used for questions and announcements by the students and the instructors. Some allow anonymous posting by students, tagging the questions, and additional capabilities to sort the discussions and questions. These forums allow the students to answer each other’s questions and in the ideal situation, invite additional discussion and debate among the classmates before the instructors answer the questions. However, this also gives rise to the expectation of availability of the TAs or instructors 24/7 for questions (even last minute ones), putting a level of strain on the teaching staff in offering answers in a timely manner.
To sum up, my observations are relative to the objectives of the courses and in the courses that I have had the chance of serving as a TA, technology acted as a double-edged sword and the choice of making them compulsory in the classroom, or just encouraging the students to use them, or being neutral about it is, at this point, completely up to the professors. However, with the fast pace of changes and the advantages that were listed throughout this piece, I believe professors should take the time to gauge the pros and cons of the options available and in their first lecture offer a brief conversation regarding the employment of various technologies in their classroom and how this can or cannot help the students achieve the goals of the course. Such a short discussion can help the students evaluate their options and make a wise and balanced choice regarding their method of study. The ultimate goal of the instructors and TAs are for the students to take the most out of their learning experience in the classes and be well prepared for their future jobs.
“The future of learning: How technology is transforming education” The Economist, July 22nd, 2017.
One of the recent editions of the magazine, The Economist, has a few articles on technology and education.
The Chronicle of Higher Education (website), http://www.chronicle.com/
I recommend the readers to check out the website of the Chronicle of the Higher Education. It has many pieces on various issues in the higher education and I find them interesting to follow.
 Kozma, R. B. (2003), “Technology and Classroom Practices: An International Study,” Journal of Research on Technology in Education, Vol. 36(1), pp.1-14; Young, J. R. (2009), “6 Lessons One Campus Learned about E-Textbooks,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 55(39), http://www.chronicle.com/article/6-lessons-one-campus-learned/44440; Tomassini, J. (2012), “Educators Weigh E-Textbook Cost Comparisons,” Education Week, Vol. 31(30), pp.1-19.
 Tomassini, J. (2012), “Educators Weigh E-Textbook Cost Comparisons,” pp.1-19.
 Young, J. R. (2009), “6 Lessons One Campus Learned about E-Textbooks,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Vol. 55(39).
 Falc, E. O. (2013), “An Assessment of College Students’ Attitudes Towards Using an Online E-Textbook,” Interdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, Vol. 9, pp.1-12.