Jan Costenbader

Too much Technology?

Let me begin by saying that I have been a geek and technology freak for more years than I care to remember. In 1967, I wrote an undergraduate paper for a History of Mathematics class that dealt with computer generated music compositions. In the 80’s, I wrote for Nibble magazine (Apple II). I worked for Apple for 11 years. I always have the latest beta and bleeding edge software on my phone, watch and computer. My work involves helping faculty develop and deploy courses using technology. All that said, I worry about our students and if they are relying far too much on technology and less on critical thinking skills and the ability to estimate and solve problems.

I teach a hybrid section of a liberal studies course for freshmen (although I frequently get Seniors in the class that have put off taking the one required math course until the last minute). The course catalog describes the course: “This course provides a mathematical foundation for students to become confident and critical users of quantitative information of all kinds: numerical, graphical, and verbal.” The course is entirely based on the use of technology, namely Excel. Frequently, however, I would see students arrive at answers that don’t make any sense. For example, using a linear trend line, they would be asked to calculate when there were zero cell phones in use. Answers would range from the reasonable to dates like 1880.

Rather than thinking about the reasonableness of the answer, the students sometimes just accept the answer that Excel computes for them (with the incorrect formula).  Are they simply accepting the answer because it is what the technology gives them? Are they looking at the answer with any kind of estimation of what they would practically expect the answer to be? This led me to another question, are they too reliant on technology for their answers? I decided to try a little experiment in my LSP 120 class. I created a simple three question quiz with the following questions (The number of correct responses out of 19 students follows each question):

  1. Express 0.0023 as a percentage (17)
  2. There are 90 cats and dogs in the animal shelter. There are 36 cats. What percentage of the animals are dogs? (4)
  3. Your bill at a restaurant is $36. You decide to add a 15% tip. What is your total bill. (5)

Simple enough, but I added a slight twist—only paper and pencil was permitted, no calculators, no phone, no computers. They were given 8 minutes to complete the quiz. Nineteen students took the quiz and only two answered all three questions correctly. While the majority of the students showed that they understood how to set up the calculations, they were unable to complete the problems without using a calculator. 

I talked with the students afterwards and asked them about their reactions to being left without access to technology. One student remarked that they haven’t done any math without a calculator since middle school. Another said they will always have access to technology, even if the power goes out because they have batteries.

I am wondering how this reliance on technologies is affecting the students’ overall comprehension of concepts and how it affects their ability to think creatively and actually solve problems. I think about our developmental math courses and the heavy emphasis on MyMathLab as well as using a multiple choice final exam. I find I spend time teaching students how to enter answers in MyMathLab so that the computer will accept the answer. Moreover, does the multiple choice final exam really measure their comprehension of the material?

This was only a small sample and perhaps not a well-constructed analysis of the root cause, but I think our students come to us with this reliance on technology which may get in the way of real understanding and comprehension of the material. There is something to be said for the use of pencil and paper and working through the problem the old-fashioned way, and submitting that to the professor so he/she can look at the process the student used to arrive at the answer. MyMathLab and a Scantron final exam cut down on the workload for the professor, but does it really help our students? 

I wish I had a simple answer to this dilemma. As one of my colleagues (who is older than I am!) said:

“We need to strike a judicious balance between learning the concepts and using the relevant technologies to enhance our understanding of the concepts. I leave the resolution of this most serious issue to my young colleagues to hopefully come up with many fruitful iterations to a solution. Technology should be viewed as a helpmate, not as an enemy. The rub is to strike the right balance.”

 I would love to have a further dialog on whether or how we can make changes so we can better prepare our students. I would also call your attention to an interesting article in the Chicago Tribune.

Jan Costenbader

About Jan Costenbader

Jan came to DePaul from California State University, Chico in November of 2010. There, he taught Mathematics and developed an online hybrid Mathematics course for General Education Mathematics. He also assisted faculty in course design as an instructional designer. Currently, he provides instructional design consultation to the College of Science and Health, the Quantitative Reasoning program and several departments within the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. In addition, he teaches fully online developmental Mathematics and blended Quantitive Reasoning courses.

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