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Putting Technology in its Place — in the Classroom

USC College historian and writing teacher thoughtfully harness technologies to enhance learning in the humanities.

Putting Technology in its Place — in the Classroom

An hour into a lecture on notions of the origin of species, historian Philippa Levine instructs her students to take out their clickers. As students retrieve from their bags small, remote control-like devices, the following prompt appears on a large digital projection screen at the front of Taper Hall 101: “Given what you know of Linnaeus, do you think he’s: 1.) A monogenist; 2.) A polygenist; or 3.) I’m not sure I can answer that.”

Each student uses a clicker to register a response and within seconds, Professor Levine knows not only how well the 167 students in “The Evolution Debates” have absorbed the day’s material but also how readily they can draw connections between concepts. Given what they’ve learned about Linnaeus, monogenesis and polygenesis, 60 percent of Levine’s students think Linnaeus’ ideas are in keeping with monogenism — in other words, Linnaeus might have believed that human beings are descendants of a single pair of ancestors; 31 percent think his ideas are polygenist — these students find it likely that Linnaeus believed human beings to be descendents of multiple, independent pairs of ancestors; and 9 percent of the students in the course aren’t too sure to which camp the early 18th century botanist and pioneering taxonomist might have belonged had he not predated the theories in question.

Otherwise wary of multiple-choice questions for tests and quizzes in humanities courses, Levine values the ways in which clickers help her informally assess student learning and rescue those who might be falling behind.

“It’s an opportunity to find out really, really fast whether you’re getting through to students,” Levine said of the clicker, or Personal Response System, technology.

“Some students are shy. Clickers give them an opportunity to say what they think without saying it. They give students in big lectures a sort of comfort — and it’s fun for them. It’s almost like being on a game show.”

Levine is one of two College faculty recipients of funds provided by the Technology Enhanced Learning Incentive Program (TELIP) to nine USC faculty members. Through the program, USC’s Center for Scholarly Technology provides the consultation, training and equipment necessary to help faculty enhance student learning through new technologies.

In addition to clickers, Levine plans to implement a wiki in “The Evolution Debates” to help facilitate student collaboration and discussion. She hopes that wiki software — the same technology that powers the popular Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that allows any visitor to add or edit content — will “be a good vehicle for controversial and delicate topics.” Levine plans to create pages for course readings, lectures and relevant controversies so that students may freely discuss their opinions on a given subject.

Kathi Inman Berens, a senior lecturer in the College’s Writing Program and a Fellow of the Center for Excellence in Teaching at USC, also received a TELIP grant this year. Inman Berens envisions technology facilitating online discussion and the presentation of multimedia texts in her sections of “Advanced Writing.”

Excited about the ways in which technology can impact learning, both Levine and Inman Berens are also thoughtful about the difficulties instructors face as they put technology to work for education. Inman Berens believes the student learning outcomes are ultimately worth the effort. She sees the inherent challenges in using technology in writing courses — distinguishing group from individual efforts, for example — as surmountable: “Faculty and students will collaboratively evolve a model of e-writing that meets the twin needs of technology-infused critical thinking and old-fashioned grades.”

Levine — who for a number of years has used Web-based software such as Turn It In, which helps prevent plagiarism by checking student submissions against both Web content and the work of peers — sees a danger in glorifying technology without also understanding the ways in which both faculty and students need to be critical of tools such as Google and Wikipedia that are now widely used in academic settings.

When it comes to research papers, Levine limits her students’ reliance on resources available only on the Web: “I encourage my students to be critical and force them to remember that the book and the peer-reviewed journal are still extant.”

Levine has also discovered some unexpected benefits to implementing technology in her courses. For example, she first began using Turn It In simply to curb the temptation to plagiarize, but soon found that because the software doesn’t distinguish between quoted and plagiarized material, it also can be used to assess just how much original thought went into writing a given paper.

Gene Bickers, professor of physics and the associate vice provost for undergraduate programs, remarked that Levine is among several College faculty members who have served as leaders in the use of innovative technology in classroom settings. “There are technological possibilities out there that faculty just don’t know about,” said Bickers. “One of the goals of TELIP is to provide information to faculty so that they know what software is available to them.”

For Levine, the clickers have proven nothing but useful to her class: the second she knows that 40 percent of her students don’t recognize Linnaeus’ ideas as monogenist, she can quickly review Linnaeus’ key taxonomic theories and see to it that none of her 167 students is left behind.