Ferris professors use technology to accelerate student learning

COMPUTER LAB: A student in one of Assistant Professor Brian Brady’s mechanical engineering classes creates a model on a computer. Brady wants his students to practice using technology they’ll need in their careers, so the class uses computers every day to more easily model and make adjustments on their projects. (Pioneer photo/Lauren Fitch)

When a computer program can turn a list of data into a graph in a split second, why should students waste their time taking exponentially longer to do the same thing?

That’s how Brian Brady, assistant professor of mechanical engineering technology at Ferris State University, approaches the use of technology in his classes.

“I try to use tools that myself as an engineer had to use. They’ll use a lot of Excel and a word processor,” he said. “They should have a good grasp of that – knowing the tools and how you can integrate images, integrate spreadsheets, integrate clips from other places that you can add into your documents or presentations that you’re going to make to a boss or a customer. I have them use those as well as what other people are doing right now in engineering. … It gets them ready. They can hit the ground running when they get to their internship and they’re not afraid to use the technology.”

Brady also updated his own use of technology this school year, transferring all of his notes and Powerpoint presentations into files on an iPad that he uses while teaching class.

“Instead of me trying to make sock puppets and hand gestures, it’s much easier to … save that link and pull it up to show the students something they may not have done a search for,” said Brady, who has been teaching at Ferris for six years. “I can bring those examples to them and they can go and look.”

Classroom technology is a good way to keep students more engaged in lessons, he said, and help them reach higher levels of learning more quickly, because they can focus on learning concepts rather than completing calculations.

A faculty-wide initiative at Ferris has focused on how to effectively use new technology in the classroom, and each department has found its own solution.

“Every discipline defines for itself what role technology has in both learning the discipline and advancing the discipline. It’s not always fair to compare two disciplines. Some disciplines it’s just part of what it means to be a professional in that program,” said Todd Stanislav, director of the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning. “Any strategy that doesn’t achieve the kinds of learning that you’re aiming for is a reason to rethink the strategy. That’s true with technology. The point at which it becomes not productive in helping you or the students reach the outcome is the time to ask, ‘Is there a better way or a different way to do it?’”

The Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning helps train faculty members on how to use new technology and advises them on ways to incorporate it into their lessons.

All students and professors have access to Blackboard, an online system that allows teacher to post grades, outlines and notes from class, assignments or podcasts. Students also can e-mail each other and the professor through Blackboard or respond to message boards.

Ferris looks for opportunities to upgrade technology in its classrooms on an annual basis. About 200 of its classrooms are considered “smart classrooms,” meaning they are equipped with a computer, smart sympodium (similar to a smartboard), a document camera, VCR or DVD player and speakers; some smart classrooms also have a webcam and a microphone.

All the technology in a fully-equipped smart classroom can cost $20,000, said John Urbanick, chief technology officer. There is no university-wide technology budget at Ferris, instead each college sets priorities in how it spends its funds.

“Each college decides which classrooms they would either like to put new technology in or update existing technology,” Urbanick said.

IT staff checks the status of all equipment on campus at the beginning of every school year, which becomes a more demanding task as more professors start incorporating technology into their teaching styles.

“The real issue is student engagement. … If the students (are) engaged in class, then they don’t get distracted. But student engagement tactics are difficult. … Not only do you want to engage them, but you have to meet your learning outcomes too,” said Jackie Hughes, instructional technology coordinator at Ferris, who works with faculty on teaching strategies.

Charles Doaty, 31, a junior earning a Bachelor of Integrative Studies degree, enjoyed using computer programs, like Pearson’s Learning Lab, for his math classes.

DOCUMENT CAMERA: Associate Professor Jon Taylor uses a document camera to show the students in his English class some notes. Taylor teaches in one of Ferris’ 200 “smart classrooms,” which come equipped with a wide range of technology. (Pioneer photo/Lauren Fitch)

“I do better in those math classes with the computer than in traditional classes,” Doaty said. “It’s interactive. If I have questions, I can click and preview a problem.”

Faculty also take advantage of the fact that most students come to class with laptops, iPads or smart phones. Those devices can be used to add more information to a class discussion, or there are programs that allow students to text in their answers to a multiple choice question during an in-class quiz.

“Students are coming to school with the devices. So we ask, ‘What are they using that is a part of their lives right now that we might be able to leverage for the purposes of developing and helping them to learn?’” Stanislav said.

Danielle Bouwman, a senior majoring in Music Industry Management, said the use of Classroom Performance Systems remotes – which allow students to electronically send in answers – helped her learn by giving her immediate feedback on in-class quizzes.

Other professors have relied on a computer program for the majority of a class, which Bouwman said is not helpful.

“(Professors) can become too dependent (on technology) when they rely on it for us to teach ourselves instead of teaching us during class,” she said.

There are some downsides to using so much technology during class, Hughes said, such as distraction and an increased chance for plagiarism.

Professors can utilize Safe Assign to check a student’s work for plagiarism, and Respondis Lockdown Browser allows professors to assign an online test while guaranteeing students can’t open other websites to search for answers during the test.

“With technology comes responsibility,” Hughes said. “When you’re given to technology, you have to know when to use it and when not to use it. … One of the things that I would like to stress with students is responsibility. … It’s a tool to use to help you grow and get more information.”

Brady would like to see his students increase their knowledge about technology as it relates to their future careers, rather than spending more time on Facebook.

“As much of a high-tech youth that we have … they know a lot less about technology than I did coming out of high school,” he said. “They know a couple of things – they can tweet, they can Facebook and they know how to do a rudimentary Google search. But beyond that, they don’t know computers. They don’t know technology, and they really have no idea where it could lead them. They really need us looking at it, investigating it, investing in it so that they can then learn really what they can do it. I think it’s limitless once they know.”

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