What I Learned from...Teaching with Technology
By Meighan Dillon
When I went to work at a college that used scientific calculators in its
core mathematics curriculum in 1992, I bit the bullet and learned my way
around the little machine. I did not particularly like teaching with the
calculator, but thought it better to lead rather than follow in the effort,
lest someone force me, blind, down an unfortunate path. Towards that end, I
became a technology leader in the department. Five years after starting at
the college, I was at the vanguard of the effort to integrate the TI-89, a
calculator with symbol manipulation capability, into our curriculum.
Using the TI-89 was a big change, but students and faculty adjusted. In the
meantime, I embarked on an ambitious program of professional development
that went way beyond calculator techniques. I learned web page design and
built up a collection of devices for classroom demonstrations. I made slide
shows with PowerPoint, exploiting its animation capabilities. I used web
sites in class two or three days some weeks.
My enthusiasm for technology in teaching escalated beyond an approach into a
pair of grant proposals. The first project was a plan to overhaul calculus
and differential equations emphasizing project work and deemphasizing
calculations. It was funded at the state level. The second project was a
plan to retrofit a classroom that would put computers in the students
hands. It was funded at the federal level. Thus was born the Integrated
Classroom for a Blended Approach to Course Delivery.
The year of the grant proposal was also the year I spent at a research
department at an engineering institute of some renown. In the small,
underfunded college, we had classrooms equipped with large-screen computers
and web access for demonstrations. In the big-time engineering institute,
they had classroom hook-ups for laptops that no one seemed to use. The
effect was almost comically low-tech. Visiting speakers with laptop
presentations were anomalous. When folks went all out technically, they used
overhead projectors. They never talked about electronic gadgetry to
facilitate the presentation of mathematical ideas. They did talk a great
deal about mathematics. For their own onerous calculations, they used
software, in private, with proficiency and abandon.
Teaching there was at once ludicrous and revelatory. It seemed absurd to
teach differential equations without an easy way to show slope fields in
class, for instance. As I struggled to learn new mathematics myself in
courses and seminars, though, I felt my own engagement reenergize my
teaching. I started thinking I had spent too much time fussing with toys and
not enough time growing mathematically. My enthusiasm for the integrated
classroom project waned.
Enthusiasm waxed anew when I returned to my home institution and saw my new
classroom: a modern computer with a flatscreen monitor for each student, a
Smart Board for me. Tables and chairs were arranged to foster interaction
among students and a fluid shift of their attention from the Smart Board, to
print, to software, to the blackboard, to the TI-89. After a few weeks of
teaching this way, I went to a conference and reported with proselytizing
zeal about interactive learning, access to the best of what's out there,
students putting their hands on applets under my gimlet gaze.
Sometime in the middle of the next year, I unplugged the computers. The
students quickly realized they had to pounce on the plugs the first time my
back was turned so they could still check email and surf the web in class.
Next, I unplugged the cables connecting monitors to CPUs. The more intrepid
students developed proficiency working plugs and pins behind my back, and
still managed to surf the web in class. That semester ended, and I bolted
the door to my room and the blended approach, tired of vying with the
machines for control of the students' attention, and with the students for
control of the machines.
It was no surprise that the students appreciated internet access in class to
a fault. Maybe it was so exasperating because I was the one supplying them
with electronic dope.
Have I abandoned technology in teaching? That would be neither possible nor
desirable. The TI-89 is still required in all our precalculus and calculus
courses; I use it happily but sparingly. The now-elderly big-screen
computers in our classrooms get a regular workout in my hands for
demonstrations in class. Animated and interactive graphics that depict
derivatives, intersecting cylinders, and the Frenet basis moving along a
space curve, for example, have become invaluable to me over the
My evolving opinion is that technology should occupy a small but important
place in teaching and learning mathematics. The details of its role should
depend on the students and instructors using it. Technology as an aid to
learning mathematics is ineffective with students who are reluctant to
acquire basic computational skills. They lack the firepower for precise
mathematical thinking required to interpret calculations done by machine.
Instructors loathe to familiarize themselves with technology as an aid to
teaching should be encouraged to overcome their aversion, if only because it
is better to make an informed decision. I doubt that the impact of
technology on learning is so dramatic as to warrant forcing the issue,
though, especially with faculty members who are engaged mathematically. The
same could be said of students who dislike using calculators. Is there a
sound pedagogical reason to press the use of calculators on these students?
I doubt it. Make them aware of what technology can do, but let them study
mathematics while they have the chance.
Meighan Dillon's web page at http://math.spsu.edu/dillon/nsf.h
tm links to most of the electronic materials she uses in her