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What I Learned from...Teaching with Technology

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 years.

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 tm links to most of the electronic materials she uses in her classes.