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The Cloud over Higher Education

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by , 06-09-2012 at 07:39 AM (3516 Views)
Here is a recent essay of mine in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, which I suppose might resonate with some here. The link is here.


June 3, 2012
A Technological Cloud Hangs Over Higher Education
By Keith A. Williams

I was there when it happened. And for the record: I did object. I was but a teaching assistant; the decision was not mine. The decision was to replace the pendulums and other demonstration gizmos in the undergraduate physics teaching laboratory with computers and software.

To be sure, the change would be convenient: no more time-consuming preparation of experiments, no more lectures on how to make demonstrations work, no more disinclined planes or springs sprung too far. This was cutting-edge. The students would love it. Students like computers. And aren't computers the future? Don't we need to get with the times and prepare students for the information age?

With great reluctance, I packed up the pendulums one last time, helped install the computers, and then stood witness as another three-dimensional classroom was replaced with a computer lab. The students would now be greeted by glowing screens and a printer for their data.

I didn't return to the demonstration lab the following semester; probably a good thing, as I was busy with my own experiments. To be fair, the students probably did enjoy the computers. They could press a button and make a pendulum swing across their screen. With a few keystrokes, they could change the hanging mass and the length of the string supporting it. They could even change the strength of the gravitational field. The software did everything, and there would be no more experimental complications, such as higher-order friction and drag. If students wanted to observe what Foucault observed, I suppose they could rotate their screens. Best of all, the students now recorded all quantities with perfect accuracy, so they wouldn't need to learn how to account for errors. There were no more experimental errors.

Countless other exciting innovations have ensued since that day in 1993 when one teaching laboratory shed one of its dimensions. Long gone are the overhead projectors—the noisy appliances with which we showcased our patiently handwritten transparencies. I confess that I miss those; we physicists tend to have innovative symbols. It seems unlikely we would have if PowerPoint had been around in the 18th century.

To its credit, PowerPoint did relieve us of hot projectors, smelly pens, and staticky transparencies spread out to dry, and students have certainly benefited from more-legible typefaces. Many students don't even need to labor on their own handwritten notes; they can simply download a scanned lecture or PowerPoint file and view it at their leisure on a laptop, iPad, or iPhone. It is all so irresistibly convenient and ... cool.

The tasks of asking and answering questions in the classroom, and the taking of the attendance, were solved by placing a clever new technology in the hands of each student: This "clicker" sends signals to a computer, somewhat like a television remote control. Colleagues informed me that clickers would solve the problems of low attendance and lack of student engagement. The added benefit is that instructors can take attendance without learning any names, and they can administer a quiz without subjecting students to the embarrassment of direct inquiry. (Predictably, the improvement in attendance was short-lived: It seems that some mischievous students are capable of wielding more than one clicker at a time and might even find financial incentive for doing so, particularly in the case of early-morning lectures.) I do wonder whether the clicker is designed to confirm the attendance of the student or the absence of a teacher.

Textbooks are rapidly becoming a thing of the past. We'll spare many trees that way. Old knowledge can be scanned. Instructors and students can annotate their PDF's. Unfortunately, the few textbooks that are still written tend to be horribly expensive by the time they reach the bookstore. With fewer instructors requiring books, and fewer students buying them, publishers say they need to set a higher price.

It has been a long while since I have beheld an innovative new textbook. With the incentive to write them virtually gone, what does appear is usually rehashed and cluttered with "Web resources." On an accompanying disc, one typically finds lectures and exercises that can be done on a computer. The instructor needn't invent questions—there is a bank full of them.

Busy professors certainly appreciate the time that these innovations have saved them. One can now summon a lecture from the bank, project it on a screen, and simply narrate it, if he or she wishes. There is far less risk of actually interacting with the students, who can ask troublesome questions if given the opportunity. And for homework crises, Cramster is only a few clicks away.

The Internet certainly channels a great deal of wonderful, fresh information into the classroom. During one recent lecture, I couldn't recall the year that Tycho Brahe observed the supernova, but I was saved by a student with a smartphone, who then narrated the whole tale from Wikipedia. I am actually rather fond of the Internet's capabilities; I use Twitter to disseminate hints and links. Some instructors don't permit laptops—too much distraction from the compelling PowerPoint lectures—but members of a generation that had keyboards beside their cradles are far more comfortable with the technology than we ever will be, we who remember fingers blistered from typing out a manuscript on a manual typewriter, long before floppy disks or even the Selectric.

Students of today are adept at taking notes on laptops and tablets and phones, should they choose to do so. Unfortunately for those students whose instructors haven't found a way to format test questions compatible with bubble sheets, test-taking remains arduous. Students must write with an analog pencil or pen, relying on the trained dexterity of the whole hand, not merely the opposable thumbs so adept at texting.

It is virtually miraculous how much information the laptops, tablets, and phones can bring into the classroom, almost free of cost. A steady torrent of fresh information has transformed the classroom. Gone or concealed in dust are most periodic tables, encyclopedias, and globes. All of that can now be called up on a screen.

The whole apparatus of instruction has moved into the cloud. (And at my institution, the cloud is present most of the time; only foul weather or an occasional IT glitch decouples us from it.) Whether we need the YouTube video of the astronaut dropping a hammer and feather on the moon or Newton's Principia translated, narrated, or lectured, we delight in using Google to retrieve it quickly from the cloud.

And so the instructor is the multimedia rainmaker who summons from the cloud everything that the modern American scholar must learn. The student is spared the necessity of a library; the library is in the cloud. Lecture demonstrations are also in the cloud, in the form of flashlets and applets sanitized of any complicating realities, non-idealities, and inefficiencies. And if a student should miss a lecture, the cloud will oblige: The student need no longer request notes from an instructor or colleague. Everything is in the cloud—even some of the most popular instructors. And that cloud hangs over all of America's institutions of higher education.


  1. Arkasha's Avatar
    Your essay resonates strongly with me. I work in a physics department, and my job is to invent, repair, and set up demonstrations for the undergraduate courses. I'm very surprised that any physics department would think that apps actually replace watching rocket whiz past or pulling up hundreds of pounds with a rope and few pulleys. Every semester the students always report the demos make a real difference. They enjoy them. They like being surprised by them.

    We've also kept the old-fashioned lab equipment. Students struggle with decades-old force-vector tables, resistor boxes, and the like. While we do buy new equipment, it's actual equipment, not some app boolsheet. Students may not like to use spectroscopes in the dark, but they damned well will.

    About the only concession we've made to modernity is to use i-clickers. We do find them useful, since it gives students an incentive to show up. We long ago gave up knowing the students personally, since we typically have 100+ in every section of every class. We just can't do anything about that.

    So why did your university go for this app nonsense?
  2. jnanian's Avatar
    hi keith

    i feel like a caveman to think that i used a pen and pencil and paper to take notes
    and from time to time i pull out a college textbook and look at notes i took in the books
    as i try to explain to my kids what a soffit is, or what the temple of athena nike looks like
    or what chiaroscuro is .
    i am waiting to read your next installment to hear that you and your colleagues were replaced by max headroom.
  3. keithwms's Avatar
    Thanks for the comments!

    I have to say, it's funny to me that some people, particularly from one segment of academia that considers itself the ultimate authority on education, have given me all manner of guff for this commentary, which I considered to be rather light and gentle. Somehow I, as a guy who's spent a lot of time designing new kinds of transistors and such, am painted as anti-technology. What would I know. It's all very amusing.

    Arkasha, the university (not my current one, by the way) went for the computers for one and only one reason: convenience. As I have said in various places, one has to look at the computer- and online-based approaches and ask, are they improving the teaching? Or are they simply saving money by cutting back on real faculty resources... Anyway what would I know, I am just a person who hires young scientists and engineers...

    About the problem of numbers, what I find to be very effective is to divide the students up into groups of 10 or fewer. They will then self organize in a way that ensures everyone keeps up with material and I can then solve many issues by speaking to the group and save a lot of time that way. The saved time can then be spent with the students who really need it most. It's a compromise... but one that many of us must make, just because of the boost in enrollment and simultaneous loss of skilled faculty.
  4. silveror0's Avatar
    As I was reading your essay, I immediately recalled a recent experience. Waiting for my wife to get ready, I turned on the tube (a rare event) and on came this teacher at a whiteboard demonstrating long-hand division, followed by long-hand square roots, as I'd learned long ago. It was fascinating. But I suppose the abacus is long gone. Anyway I couldn't help thinking if his efforts were being wasted on students who can no longer balance a checkbook and would be rendered helpless when the AC power goes out or the batteries die.
  5. dslater's Avatar
    No more experimental errors huh? Seems like a serious disservice to the students to me. Accounting for and propagating experimental errors is is probably one of the harder parts of experimental design and analysis. What exactly do they expect these students to do when they try to break new ground and experiment in areas that haven't been discovered yet?
  6. vpwphoto's Avatar
    Wow took balls to write it.
    I have heard similar comments at a university near me.
    "Kids today have an education a mile wide and 3" deep."
    I try to give my son some blue collar skills (he is 16 now). How to change oil etc.. then someone says, why, he'll never do it. I just found out that in some countries it is illegal to change your own oil due to environmental issues (Germany I think)... those folks that pour it in the sewers I guess spoil it for all.
    Anyway... I learned to program a TRS-80... people say "my kid is good at computers"... but they have never programmed.
    I wonder what would happen if the power went out... (I know there is some movie about this).
    I helped a PhD student jump start here Lexus, she didn't seem to understand polarity, and said something about a/c current. SHe had a PhD in Engineering and really didn't seem to understand how to jump start a car, and understand that while "lights came on" there was not enough "punch" in the battery to spin the starter.



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