SJR Column: Classroom Technology, February 2015

Every day at the Springfield campus of the University of Illinois, students and faculty convene in classrooms, laboratories and seminar rooms as well as in online (virtual) spaces and even off-campus locations. Wherever they are and whatever the area of study, the goal is always to maximize learning and faculty, to that end, are constantly developing new and more effective ways to engage students in the educational process .

New technologies have accelerated innovations in learning in ways that were not even imagined a decade ago.

According to Educause (an organization that promotes technology research and professional development), mobile technologies like smartphones, tablets and e-book readers are playing an increasingly important role in college students’ academic lives today. Flexibility, engagement, convenience and interactivity are all factors that make mobile learning more and more attractive to students…. and to their professors.

One such professor is Dr. Layne Morsch, Associate Professor of Chemistry at UIS, who has transformed his Organic Chemistry class using the iPad. The catalyst for this transformation was a provocative question: “What is the hardest thing I ask my students to do each week?” The answer was: “solve difficult chemical problems”, an activity that students traditionally do by themselves between classes with no support or involvement from their professor or from technology.

The outcome of Dr. Morsch’s course transformation is a “flipped classroom,” a pedagogical model with lectures posted online and watched by students before class and valuable class time being used for more engaged learning like problem solving, exercises, projects and discussions. Every student in Dr. Morsch’s class has an iPad (their own or one provided by the university via an affordable lease program) and all resources for the class including lectures, an interactive e-book, electronic lab notebook, links to videos, quizzes, and Chemdraw , the leading chemical drawing software, are loaded on the device.

“The thing with mobile computing in general,” says Dr. Morsch, “is that it’s quick and easy. You open it up and it’s on. The touch interface is great and you can start interacting right away.”

Farokh Eslahi, UIS Associate Provost for Information Technology, and his team of tech support staff have been Dr. Morsch’s enthusiastic partners on the project.

“It’s really not about the technology, but what you do with the technology and the value it adds to the learning experience.” says Farokh. “We’re working with faculty across campus to determine their ideal classroom environment including new technologies (and new ways to use them) to best support active learning for their particular situation.”

Besides convenience, flexibility and engagement, cost savings is also a major advantage. An organic chemistry college textbook costs nearly $400, while access to the e-book version is only about $125. Software is provided at no extra cost as are all other electronic resources. Of course, students can also use their iPads for other classes as well as for email and social media.

Though virtually all college students today have some experience with mobile technologies, a digital divide reflecting students’ own socioeconomic background and pre-college experience sometimes still exists. However, students tend to adapt quickly regardless of their starting point. No matter what the initial skill level, they are gaining valuable technology skills that will contribute to success in a future career.

Feedback from Organic Chemistry students on the flipped high tech class has been mostly positive. Though research on learning outcomes is not yet definitive, students say they appreciate the increased engagement as well as more opportunities to work through problems directly with their professor and with other students. “They’re engaged all the time and that’s what I love about it,” says Dr. Morsch, “… and nobody sleeps in my class.”

Chancellor Susan J. Koch