Is it the machine or the operator?

October 7, 2015

The days of chalkboard lectures at Robert Morris University are numbered due to the technological advances that have taken place in many of the classrooms across campus.

The old and worn-out chalkboards are gradually being replaced across campus with the new and innovative SMART Board technology. These smart boards are designed to change the old learning style of lecture and note taking with new interactive and engaged learning styles. The concept behind these boards may sound beneficial, but have they truly made a genuine impact in the classroom?

Scott Spangler, a lecturer of communication at RMU, feels that smart board technology has made a positive impact.

“The smart board is a tool,” Spangler said. “It can enhance a professor’s ability to communicate material (to students).”

According to SMART Tech, the developer of SMART Board technology, these boards have a variety of key features that are designed to enhance the learning experience. These features include excellent image quality for in-class presentations, SMART Ink which allows the user to write and draw, multi-touch capabilities that allow multiples users to interact with the board at once, and touch gestures  that allow the user to manipulate objects that are on the board.

John Turchek is the department head of the computer and information systems at RMU and he believes they were a smart investment on the university’s part.

“The faculty members in my department love them,” Turchek said. “In fact, they get mad if they are placed in a room that doesn’t have them.”

Though these smart boards seem to be a sound educational investment based on their capabilities, there is one part of the equation that is being skipped over – the user.

Mark Kassel, director of curriculum and institutional design for both online and off campus programs at RMU, feels that these boards are not being used to their full potential. Kassel defined these smart boards as “large mouse pads” for professors. He argues that most professors only use the boards for PowerPoint presentations.

If that is the case, was it a smart investment by the university to purchase these smart boards?

Based on market research, having smart board technology is not an inexpensive endeavor. The price for a single smart board can range anywhere from $1,000 for a basic board to as much as $28,000 for some of the more advanced and intricate boards.

Keeping that price range in mind, think about how many classrooms on campus have these boards. The university invested a decent amount of money into having this technology on campus and some professors are only using them for their basic functions.

Part of the reason why professors on campus are not using these boards to their full potential is because they are not trained on how to use them. Kassel explained that the university does offer training to its faculty members, but it is not mandatory. Additionally, he talked about how he sat in on a few of the training sessions and saw that only one or two professors would show up out of a group that had signed up for the training.

On the other hand, Kassel also explained that, though the smart boards may not be used to their full potential in the classroom, they are being used by professors who teach online courses.  He talked about how professors, especially in the math department, are making videos that walk students through a problem step-by-step while the professor provides voice-over commentary. Kassel believes that this style of teaching allows students the ability to learn better because they can watch class lectures whenever they want.

Though this idea of video lectures is a great concept for enhanced learning, the technology has not been made available to all majors and professors across campus. Sushil Acharya, a software engineering professor, does not have access to smart board technology for his classes.

“I do not use smart board technology,” Acharya said. “The engineering department classrooms don’t have this technology.”

“Based on what I have heard/read in terms of what they are capable of, it would be nice if the university can invest in smart boards for all their classrooms.”

The bottom line with these smart boards is that they are, by design, advanced learning tools that should enhance both the classroom and the learning experience for students. However, these boards are only effective when the professors using them are trained and willing to incorporate the technology into their teaching style.

Though training sessions are available, they are not mandated. Since they are not mandated, professors are not attending the sessions and learning how to use the boards. Therefore, the boards are not being effectively used in class lectures.

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