Multimedia, Computers and the Internet Take Teaching Into the 21st Century

Michel Achard, assistant professor of romance languages and literatures, is standing in the new Foreign Languages Computer Lab. Students will have access to 30 IBM Pentium computers which eventually will help them learn how to write and communicate more effectively in a particular foreign language.

In the past, the only resources a student had were pencils, paper and textbooks. Teachers explained difficult concepts using a piece of chalk and a blackboard. If students had questions, they could meet with the professor during scheduled office hours. And homework assignments were done by hand. Sound familiar?

Well, if you found yourself on a college campus today, things might be a little different, perhaps a little more technical. Sure, pencils, paper and textbooks are still around. But now teachers are using multimedia technology to teach everything from chemistry to political science. If students can't make it to their professor's scheduled office hours, they can simply e-mail questions or comments and receive feedback on-line. Many homework assignments are done in front of a computer screen, not at a desk.

While this may sound a little far-out and futuristic, it's a reality for professors and students in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who are using the latest electronic communication technology on a daily basis. Faculty have access to 16 multimedia lecture halls and four multimedia carts that can be used in virtually any classroom on campus. Sue Legg, director of the Office of Instructional Resources, believes the university's commitment to providing teachers with up-to-date resources will improve the quality of teaching at UF.

"In some cases, faculty are using video clips and three dimensional visuals to illustrate concepts that are difficult to understand solely from the printed page," she said. "Other faculty use video conferencing with external experts as part of a lecture."

While this equipment is not intended to replace conventional teaching methods, Legg explained that it can enhance what teachers are already doing.

"While instruction using traditional lectures and small-group discussion is effective teaching techniques, faculty find that the use of media enhances their ability to present many complex ideas," she said. "Also, as the infrastructure for the delivery of distance education improves, extending education and training to offices and homes will become viable."

High-Tech Teaching in the Sciences

A chemistry graduate student adjusts the microscope as it magnifies a computer chip. The image is then shown on two computer screens so students can see the scanning process as it occurs. Randy Duran, assistant professor of chemistry, regularly incorporates multimedia into his lectures and has guest speakers via telephone, who his students can hear through special microphone equipment.

Imagine doing a chemistry experiment incorrectly. The compound you're working with eplodes, yet there's no damage and nobody gets hurt. Sound impossible? Not with the new chemistry software available to UF students, and to UF students only.

Because of the enthusiasm and forward thinking of Randy Duran, associate professor of chemistry, UF is the beta (second) testing site for the software "Active Chemistry," which allows students to perform experiments on-line.

"They can do experiments that they could never do in a laboratory," he said. "And it's not costing the university or the students a dime."

The software allows students to apply what they learn in class in a virtual environment. It is not intended, however, to replace traditional laboratory experiments.

"The future of this product is not to replace what we teach in laboratories," he said. "It will prevent us from wasting time in laboratories teaching things that can be taught just as well in a virtual kind of setting."

This is just one example of how new technology is changing how general chemistry students are learning and how their professors are teaching.

Another example is the multidisciplinary World Wide Web page Duran created by incorporating images and concepts from mathematics, physics and biology in order to better illustrate scientific concepts. He realized that professors must give students access to information they don't already get from a textbook, from lectures or from their homework assignments.

"We have support from four different publishers who are supplying us with art and animation from their texts," he said. "Because students have access to all these different images, they don't have to buy the texts. We've been able to combine all of this on one Web page and get a difficult point across using a graphic from physics, artwork from chemistry, etc."

Although Duran is certainly making use of multimedia resources, he cautions that new technology shouldn't replace face-to-face interactions between students and professors. In fact, he believes it can actually help professors spend more quality time with students, thereby giving students in large classes the kind of attention students receive in smaller classes.

"The point is not to automate classes, but to increase the value of being at the University of Florida," he said. "For example, some people perceive that one of the differences between Harvard and UF is that Harvard has smaller classes. Well, if we can make a large class at UF have the same kind of value to the student as a smaller class, then we're doing a lot of good."

By creating informative Web pages, by posting grades on-line with easy access for students and by listing practice problems, Duran has more one-on-one time with his students.

"As the univesity grows and class sizes become larger, the administrative chores associated with freshman courses can easily displace teaching time," he said. "I think that some of the new technologies will allow us to add a lot of value to the way we interact with students." (Professor Duran's Web site address for his chemistry class: http://chem.ufl.edu/~chm2040)

Humanities use Computers, Too

Michael Martinez, assistant professor of political scienc e, has designed Web pages for each of his entry-level courses. His favorite site is the one for his Canadian government class which has links to Canadian newspapers and periodicals as well as the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto.

Learning a foreign language is simply listening to a cassett and repeating what you've heard. Or practicing communication with your teacher, right? Well, that's true for learning how to speak a foreign language. But what about learning how to write in a foreign language, a skill that's becoming more and more necessary in many professions?

The department of romance languages and literatures, together with CLAS, has already discovered the solution to such a problem.

New this spring is the Foreign Language Lab with 30 IBM Pentium computers. The facility in Little Hall will be used as a classroom and as a computer lab for foreign language students.

"In the field of foreign languages right now, there is booming interest in new technologies," said Michel Achard, assistant professor of romance languages and literatures. "Yet no one has really found a way to integrate them into the regular curriculum."

Achard, who is interested in developing the software for foreign language instruction, acknowledges the immense challenge he and his colleagues face. Yet he is optimistic that eventually computers will be an effective way to teach students foreign languages.

"My hope for the technology in the area of writing is that it will provide us with some of the theoretical tools that we have been lacking," he said. "For instance, it's very easy for us to teach oral communication. Teaching students how to write in a foreign language, however, is very difficult."

One of the advantages the computer and new technology offer foreign language students is the opportunity to communicate with anyone in the world. Say, for example you're learning Spanish. It's possible you could establish a pen pal in Spain with whom you could practice your writing.

"Basically what a computer does is erase borders and time, in a sense," he said. "You can be on a chatline and have direct feedback."

Achard also believes it's important for him and his colleagues to keep their field up-to-date to show students how foreign languages are relevant to today's society. Computers, the Internet and e-mail help faculty reach today's students.

"Our teaching has to reflect students' lives," he said. "We don't want to portray our discipline in a way that students don't relate to. Computers are part of their daily life and what they know. So if we portray foreign languages as something totally divorced from that, we basically lose touch."

WWW and the Social Sciences

Would your political science courses have been any more interesting if the professors showed official portraits of the president they were lecturing on? Or if your homework assignment included listening to a Canadian radio news broadcast from your computer terminal? Or if you were required to make a virtual visit to the University of Texas to view some maps?

These are just some of the ways Michael Martinez, associate professor of political science, is helping his students learn. Like Duran, he uses multimedia technology, e-mail and the Internet to supplement his teaching. And because one of his courses has 300 students, these tools help him communicate his material more effectively.

"Multimedia technology enables me to bring in other kinds of material that relate to the topic I'm lecturing on," he said. "I can draw pictures and produce charts more quickly on my computer. These images then appear on a big screen which essentially helps in presenting."

When Martinez lectured about Reaganomics, he simply downloaded Ronald Reagan's official portrait off the Internet and then projected it onto the screen in his classroom.

"It clarifies and cements in their minds who I'm talking about and what era I'm discussing," he said. "Then I can print the screens I use and make handouts for test review."

Martinez uses e-mail to post assignments so if students miss a class, they still can get the information. They can ask him questions as well as organize study groups among themselves. He also used it to connect his Canadian government students with American government students in Canada.

"I actually hooked up with a U.S. politics class taught at the University of Calgary, so the students who were learning about U.S. politics and the UF students who were learning about Canadian politics were talking to one another," he said. "The Canadian professor and I would take turns posting questions to the list and then ask students to respond."

Besides the innovative lectures and the helpful e-mail lists, Martinez is perhaps most proud of his personally created Web pages.

"I've got Web pages for each of the entry-level classes I teach," he said. "They all have links to various news media so students don't have an excuse for not staying up-to-date with current events."

To stay abreast of Canadian current events, his students simply go to the class Web page and click on the media links. They can even listen to live radio broadcasts from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. in Toronto.

"When we're comparing the U.S. Constitution and Canadian Constitution in terms of religion, I can provide a link to a newspaper which has an article on that same topic," Martinez said. "You can make a Web page with other links that you want your students to see. It's like you've created you own on-line textbook."

But does this signal the end of teaching as we know it today? Not according to Martinez, who believes that despite the advantages of technology, face-to-face classroom interaction is still necessary to give students perspective on what they learn.

"Classes are important for allowing students to discuss what they've learned and to process information," he said. "Students can go exploring on the Web but then they need to talk about the significance of what they found. And that's what professors are paid to do: help students realize the importance of what they learn." (Professor Martinez's Web site address for his political science class: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/users/martinez/martinez.htm)