So Long Scantrons!

By Kelsey SmartEducation, Cycle 1, 2010



Technology has undoubtedly affected the higher education system in many ways over the past decade. The extent of its impact varies in the degree of technological programs universities have implemented, but many universities like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have made it a priority to incorporate technology into the education of their students. This article highlights the ways in which wireless networking technology has influenced the higher education system of classroom learning. A great deal of research has been done focusing on the benefits of wireless networking for learning. While access to technology has changed, in many instances teaching has not. This article points out the flaw in integrating technology into a learning system when the traditional pedagogical way of teaching does not lend itself to openly accepting all the benefits technology has to offer.


Imagine a college where there are no students cramming mounds of textbook facts into their heads the night before an exam. Imagine a college environment that is free from scantrons and written exams. Imagine instead a college where the assessment of knowing a subject came in the form of students engaging real-time problems with other people. Laptops would be their primary study tool, and they would use them to work with other students to find solutions and collaborate actively on assignments. While this imaginary utopian society of education and technology harmoniously blended together to facilitate the best learning possible does not exist yet, we have many parts of the technological infrastructure in place to support this kind of learning. The main problem preventing us from transforming education to harness the power of these technologies is the traditional means of assessment and teaching, which have not changed to lend themselves to integration.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is one step closer to becoming part of the idealized college described above. UNC has decided to create a program to keep its students up to date in this advancing technological society. The Carolina Computing Initiative (CCI) was put into effect in 2000 and required all 3,400 incoming first year students to own laptops so they could engage in online research activities inside and outside of the classroom. In recent years, with the advancement of wireless technology, CCI has extended wireless Internet access to all classrooms, buildings, dorms, and common places around the university. Expanding and integrating wireless Internet throughout campus has helped the CCI program fulfill what it was designed to do, which is to enhance the learning, teaching, and research at the university and to equip its graduates with the high-tech skills required to achieve professional success in the 21st century (“Carolina freshman class largest nationwide to begin laptop computer requirement”). The CCI program has also had a tremendous influence on transforming the ways students learn and interact with one another and their professors, and the program has proven to be of great benefit in extending the learning possibilities for UNC undergraduates.

While UNC is among one of the first universities to implement a campus-wide wireless networking and laptop requirement, it is certainly not the only university with these types of programs. Many other universities have adopted similar programs or are currently looking into adopting them (Lu et al. 533). As reported in the 2004 Campus Computing Survey, 81% of the 516 two and four year private and public colleges and universities participating in the survey reported having a wireless networking system throughout campus, which is a 51% increase from the 2000 survey (Lu et al. 530). The increase in popularity and growth of wireless networking is likely a direct result of the benefits it has to offer a college campus, including mobility of installation, flexibility, and scalability, reduced cost of ownership and simplicity (Lu et al. 532).

In response to the growing use of wireless networking on college campuses, a great deal of research has gone into discerning the actual benefits of wireless technology within a college setting. Numerous reports and studies have been conducted to observe the relationship between students and wireless technology. Many positive aspects of using wireless networking have been observed including the expansion of student-centered learning and equipping college students with the technological skills that are a necessity in today’s society (Lu et al. 533). Wireless internet has also had an impact on teaching in the classroom. Studies have shown that wireless internet has increased “greater collaboration and communication, greater access to resources, changes to pedagogy, and distraction in the classroom” (Lu et al. 533).

Learning and Digital Media in the 21st Century

Over the last two decades, methods of learning have changed significantly; from the sources where we obtain our information to the ways we exchange and interact with information to how information informs and shapes us. The invention of the World Wide Web has opened up infinite learning possibilities and continuous technological advancements increase the many modes of learning with each passing day. Now, one can basically access any type of information he or she wants anytime, anywhere in most Western higher educational settings. Yet, while learning has changed so drastically, learning institutions have not. According to Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg, “our institutions of learning have changed far more slowly than the modes of inventive, collaborative, participatory learning offered by the Internet and an array of contemporary mobile technologies” (9). There is an urgent need for change within traditional institutions so they can catch up with today’s rapid development of digital media.

The MacArthur Foundation has been on the leading edge of catalyzing the understanding of digital media and the potential it has to transform learning and civic participation in the 21st century. Through their extensive research and analysis, they have identified some key shifts that are necessary to transform the current education paradigm to one that integrates the new learning modes of the digital age.

The first is a shift from education to learning. They describe education as being what institutions do, and learning as what people do. Digital media enables the proliferation of learning modes in all educational settings, particularly within the university setting. The second shift that is necessary is one from consumption of information to participatory learning (MacArthur Foundation).

Participatory learning, as defined in by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg, “includes the many ways that learners (of any age) use new technologies to participate in virtual communities where they share ideas, comment on one another’s projects, and plan, design, implement, advance, or simply discuss their practices, goals, and ideas together” (12). This method of learning has been encouraged both by the Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. The premise that new technologies are changing how people of all ages learn and interact with one another is the basis of the concept of participatory learning.

In order to create a system that is participatory, a new system of learning must be peer based and organized around learners’ interests, enabling them to create as well as consume information. A prime example of this type of setting is often defined as a Student-Centered Learning Environment (SCLE). Student-centered learning is an approach to education that focuses on the needs of the students, rather than those of teachers or educators, by structuring learning around the student’s needs, abilities, interests, and learning styles with the teacher as a facilitator of learning rather than an authority figure (Motschnig-Pitrik and Holzinger 160). Traditionally, learning is controlled by the instructor to meet certain goals established by an institution or the instructor herself. SCLEs are designed to give students the information they need in the most efficient way possible. SCLEs can empower students to set and meet their own learning goals. When comparing the two different methods of learning, instructor-centered learning puts an organization or a function at the center, where students ‘‘must move from place to place or person to person’’ while SCLEs provide ‘‘more flexible access to people and information’’ (Lu et al. 533). Students become active responsible participants in their own learning process.

Eric Lu and his colleagues from Ohio University explain that “student-centered learning environments (SCLE) are designed to provide students with opportunities to take a more active role in their learning by shifting the responsibilities of organizing, analyzing, and synthesizing content from the teacher to the learner” (Lu et al. 533). These types of environments allow students to look at a problem using a wide variety of resources, develop their own approaches and solutions for addressing a problem, and present and negotiate their solutions in a collaborative manner with the rest of their fellow students (Lu et al. 533). SCLEs also foster collaborative consensus among students and set up a foundation for social learning. In today’s digital age, communities in which knowledge is forged by consensus or the “wisdom of crowds” are rapidly growing because they are facilitated by digital media’s collaborative, networked capacities. Clay Shirky, professor in NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program and accredited new media technology consultant, states, the new tools of digital media “create unprecedented opportunities to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action,” in the learning process. The challenge facing us now is adapting current pedagogical standards to facilitate the immense learning possibilities available through digital media (Weigel, James and Gardner 12).

Composition Courses as a Model for Successful Integration

Turning to the composition courses taught at UNC, we find a prime model for how one discipline has successfully faced the challenges outlined above. As with many other disciplines, the teaching and learning of college composition in higher education have been strongly affected by changes in advancing technology, such as the availability of wireless internet and access to digital media. The structure and content of UNC’s composition courses position them as excellent models for the implementation of using digital media within a student-centered learning environment.

Technological innovations have been used to communicate educational information for decades, from film to radio to television; all of which have influenced instructional design in many ways (Smith at al. 59). This reflects a general point of view that the type and characteristics of technology used to convey knowledge strongly influence how knowledge is perceived. Marshall McLuhan, a well-known Canadian scholar and philosopher, famously proposed in his study of media in communication, “the medium is the message” (qtd. in Smith et al. 59). That is, technology is inseparable from the educational content it is delivering and therefore the technology itself should be one of the focal points of research when assessing educational performance (Smith et al. 59). Composition courses open up a wide range of opportunities for incorporating technology, not just by using wireless technology to focus and shift the learning environment between peers, but also to open up access for the study of composition in digital media. In my own experience with my composition courses at UNC, digital media and wireless technology have drastically changed the way composition is taught and my research indicates this is the case at many other universities as well

Let us take up the Writing Program at UNC-Chapel Hill as an extended example of an institution where wireless networking and access to digital media, have become an essential component to most, if not all, first year composition classes. The program believes that writing is a process and subscribes to the notion of a social interaction theory of composing (Anderson et al.). Accordingly, all composition instructors at UNC are asked to implement group work and draft workshops in their classrooms. In doing so, composition classes at UNC place a strong emphasis on trust between students to share their work with others and also to provide helpful feedback on the works of others. The Writing Program supports environments in which students form strong bonds with one another and their instructors (Anderson et al.). Thus, the central tenets of SCLEs of fostering collaborative consensus among students and establishing a foundation for social learning are likewise central to the technology integrated composition model at UNC.

From the surveys filled out by UNC instructors in the study conducted by Dan Anderson, Professor of English at UNC, wireless technology was shown to have a very positive impact on the composition learning environment at UNC. Instructors reported that laptops in class created increased student enthusiasm and better commenting on drafts. Instructors, overall, really appreciated the research and drafting tools available on the computers, but some offered caution about the possibility of students using the computers to “goof off” (Anderson et al.). However, in most cases, instructors reported that as long policies for class behavior were very firmly established and as long as the students remained busy throughout class, distractions were minimal. From this we can see that while the potential for distraction may be increased with the integration of technology, this can be easily mitigated allowing the class to achieve higher levels of success overall.

As further evidence of the positive impact wireless technology and digital media have had on the composition courses at UNC, the instructors provided a wide range of feedback explaining the areas technology has improved in the classroom setting. In terms of the atmosphere of classroom interaction, “one of the instructors commented that ‘many students who were previously disengaged with technology because they saw themselves as computer people, not English people, became more involved. Overall, the atmosphere improved’ ” (Anderson et al.). A similar comment was made by another instructor who explained, “the students get excited about the technology, and it has overcome apathy to a certain extent” (Anderson et al.). Both of these comments point to greater student involvement in what goes on in the classroom, a necessary component for student investment and increased enthusiasm for participation. One instructor described a classroom that seemed to be brimming with student enthusiasm stating the amount of interaction electronically has helped students feel more comfortable consulting the instructor and fellow classmates (Anderson et al.).

The instructor responses also highlighted the integral role wireless Internet access played in facilitating better responses to drafts during peer review workshops. “Not only did they feel students responded more fully to one anothers’ drafts, but instructors also felt compelled to give students better feedback in their own responses” (Anderson et al.). One instructor had this to say about the way their students were responding to drafts:

Using the computers in class absolutely improved student comments on each others’ drafts. They were more likely to comment extensively on each others’ drafts. I think this was partly because it was easier to write longer comments and also partly because it simply LOOKED like a draft to them–on the computer, it looked like a work in progress. Also, I think that being able to edit the essays in class reduced the artificiality of writing a paper, stopping in the middle of the process to print it out and taking it to class, and then reconciling the paper and computer versions–editing directly in class made the class sessions a more direct part of the writing process. (Anderson et al.)

I can offer my own personal testament to this as well, as I am actively engaged and familiar with this process in my own English class. I know my responses are much better on the computer because I can add my opinions and comments directly on the document, allowing me more freedom in my thought process. Previously, in former peer reviews I have participated in, the general procedure is that you look at a persons hard copy paper, write on it, then have to wait until they make changes the next time you meet to discuss any further action you think they should take. While the process did involve collaborating, it was much more drawn out and restraining. With laptops the exchange in drafts through email and online in real time, is much more efficient and beneficial in terms of collaborating with peers.

This kind of collaboration and negotiation between community members is ideal for a class focused on the importance of draft workshops. If wireless networking and digital media can help foster the ideal of group cooperation to build knowledge, then they can certainly be powerful pedagogical tools for other situations/classes/settings. This increased interaction fosters learning that does not come from memorization of an English manual; it comes from actively engaging in the context of writing with one’s peers and collectively building that knowledge together. In this manner, the information is no longer preached by the instructor; the students themselves are conducting the class and in actuality taking more out of what they’re actively doing than simply writing a paper to turn in to the instructor to assess if the course material was mastered. For example, the knowledge and writing techniques I have learned from the discussions with my groupmates have been extremely helpful in terms of writing papers for other classes. I was able to take the concepts I had learned through experience and apply them to more than just my composition class.

As evident in the examples above, wireless technology and digital media have the potential to completely transform the way we learn certain subjects, like composition, in higher education. From my own personal experience and from those of my peers in different composition classes at UNC, we agree that we are in fact learning a great deal about writing and that our writing has progressed significantly in these classes. If wireless Internet and digital media have the potential of creating such a learning environment in a small composition classroom, can they not transform the way we learn in other classrooms as well?

Integrating Digital Media in Other Disciplines

Some fundamental differences between the first year composition courses at UNC and other general education courses at UNC include how the courses are structured and the different learning goals to be achieved. Overlooking the obvious differences in content, the approaches to meeting the course goals for a UNC first year composition class are drastically different from the approaches of meeting the goals for, let’s say, a UNC Biology 101 class. The differences in approach all relate back to the concept of participatory learning. The composition model has made the shift from not just consumption of composition goals and learning objectives, but to participatory learning within the content of composition course goals. Within the UNC composition course model, meeting the goals of the course is not necessarily a final product, it’s more of a continuous learning process shaped through interaction with peers and various resources. The trick to integrating biology courses with modern ways of learning will involve shifting the foundation of goals for the course to more than just memorizing material from lectures and a textbook, to actually making the learning of biology an ongoing and interactive process.

The first step to achieving this may be reducing the 400-student lecture classes to smaller classroom settings that are more conducive to interaction and discussion. However, due to limited financial resources of most universities, finding the teachers and classrooms needed to accommodate 400 students in class sizes of 25, would be rather difficult. However, as cultural anthropologist professor Mike Wesch demonstrates with his Anthropology 204 class at Kansas State, perhaps it’s not the size of classes that needs to change, but the structure of the classroom itself. Wanting to teach students more than the correct answers to a multiple-choice exam, Professor Wesch pushed his students to inquire more about the world and the content of class. In order to foster a more interactive and engaging course, he created an “environment where students can expand their capacity for empathizing with and loving those who are different from them” (Khadaroo). He took his class of 400 students to a rodeo arena where they collaboratively worked in groups of 20 students on the World Sim project to understand and discover how different societies function with one another around the world. We could similarly change the structure and organization of a Biology class to foster more interactive learning through technology and changing the typical lecture setup of the classroom. Student’s have the potential for learning so much more than what is normally preached to them by a professor for 50 minutes.

Rather than changing the physical structure of a classroom, eliminating a physical classroom altogether may be another possible solution. Instead of a physical classroom, there could be a virtual classroom, created with an interactive network where students can engage with one another to solve problems relating to biology concepts. Engaging with other students in this manner would not require a physical classroom. Instead, the professor could engage with students online, answering questions and so on. This technology-inspired biology classroom would be different, though, than the “Instructional Technology” (IT) that many courses use to supplement traditional learning of textbook material (Davidson and Goldberg). This virtual biology classroom would be an extension of participatory learning in combination with new media, not IT, which is considered by some, a means of using new media to traditionally learn course material. IT is basically what “technology enhanced” textbooks and resources are doing right now, which is simply regurgitating textbook information in an administrative fashion just like a professor giving a lecture. This is not the way to incorporate media to conform to the new modes of learning in a classroom. Integrating new media in this IT way would be equivalent to reproducing the same set of problems that already exist in the current learning system which would be completely at odds with the participatory student-centered model that needs to be created.

Another discipline that could benefit greatly from digital media integration is math. Contrasted with many physical and social sciences, like biology, where much of the course is centered around the memorization of facts and regurgitating that information later on an exam, math courses generally require less memorizing and more procedural knowledge. However, a great deal of students, unless they’re math majors, usually forget the formulas and processes of math that they’ve learned after the course is over. In most math classes, there is manipulation of the information being taught, but many of the methods and procedures taught are often forgotten because no active engagement was ever performed with them. Following the UNC composition model and using participatory learning concepts to create pertinent problems for students to collaborate on and solve together would be a much more effective way for a student to learn and understand math concepts. A setup like this would involve letting students figure out the steps together. Students learn best when they have to figure out the answers and the ways in which something has to be done. Instead of traditional lecture/example methods used in many math classes, professors could give students real-life problems and let them collaborate together in groups to share and extend their knowledge, finally arriving at their own solutions. The important thing would be engaging students to explore problems relevant to the to the student’s interests and experiences and relevant to the real world beyond the math classroom. This could be done through collaborating in groups face-to-face, with laptops over a network, or both. For example, virtual simulations could help students visualize the problems and interactive software facilitating communication with their peers could help them figure out the solutions in a SCLE approach.

Learning in New Ways, Testing in Old Ways

The way we learn the material for a class may be changed with digital media, but the traditional ways of assessment are still there, which, in many instances, still require regurgitation of facts from a textbook on a multiple choice exam. Many articles and research studies state that more technology needs to be integrated into the learning system because of all the benefits it has to offer students. However, within this research, there is gap in how educators want students to learn with technology and the assessment of knowledge in the form of traditional written or multiple choice exams. I have already discussed some ways in which digital new media can provide an essential part of transforming the acquisition of knowledge and now I will briefly address some related changes to assessment that would be required in the model I have proposed.

In today’s higher education environment, there is this “efficient” way that universities can continue to teach and provide their students with an education. This typically comes in the form of large lectures, followed by students proving knowledge by regurgitating facts on multiple-choice scantron exams that are graded by a machine. But this would not be an example of integrating technology in the SCLE way I am suggesting. When students are tested in this way, more often than not, they are not synthesizing the knowledge in front of them, for in reality, there is no need. A set of good memorization techniques along with high reading efficiency are the simple skill sets most students need to succeed in this traditional learning environment. But, if we assume that the goal of universities is not to necessarily pump out graduates in the most “efficient” way possible, but rather to have graduates who could actually become “thinkers” in society after leaving their institution, this would completely redefine the pedagogical paradigm that exists today (Hall). Instead of higher education simply being the most efficient means to a successful job, higher education would become a way of producing “thinkers” who actually contribute their own knowledge and solutions to society’s problems using the skills and training they have developed in technology integrated SCLEs across the curriculum. The implication here is that universities would need to rethink testing to find a more accurate measure of assessing what students are learning. What I am discussing here is more than a technology integration issue and rather proposes a more in-depth look at the whole higher education tradition that has existed for so many years.


What I have outlined above merely suggests some possibilities for how we might begin incorporating digital new media into other course disciplines. Integrating new media and shifting the traditional institutional setup is certainly not going to be easy. In many ways, it is going to be a learning process in itself. I in no way am suggesting the hypothetical examples I am giving are the definite or only answers to the problems other disciplines would face if they moved to SCLE, technology integrated approaches. I am simply suggesting ways in which it might be done to show that it is possible to create more participatory learning environments in courses beyond the UNC composition program. UNC is already well-positioned to expand SCLEs to more courses because of the extensive technological infrastructure it has through the CCI program. Again, I do not have all the answers to integration. Changing the system will be difficult, but it is necessary for us to begin thinking about these problems if universities wish to educate their students in a manner more conducive to the changing society around them. HASTAC and the MacArthur Foundation have launched a Digital Media and Learning Competition that challenges designers, entrepreneurs, practitioners, researchers, and young people to put participatory learning to work on behalf of science, technology, engineering, and math. Contestants with great ideas submit video footage of their plans and the winners are given money to fund their ideas. Even the submission model itself is a prime example of integrating digital media and collaborative knowledge building into education. We can learn from this when we seek to understand how to do this on our own campus.

(Here is the link to access submissions to the Digital Media and Learning Competitions: )

Furthermore, I also recognize the numerous constraints of such an undertaking. But learning in the world is changing around us, and digital media is a part of that shift. Incorporating this into our formal educational institutions is something that largely needs to be considered. I am also not suggesting technology holds all and the only answers. I realize problems exist with technology just like the problems that exist with any other entity. Facing those problems and finding ways around them are learning experiences in themselves, and we should embrace any challenges that should arise with this type of mentality.

In this digital age, so many aspects of our daily lives have undergone significant changes, including the way we learn, connect, and interact with the people and environment around us. With the rapid changes occurring outside of colleges, it only seems fitting to ask why aren’t changes occurring as quickly in the educational setting? Today’s higher education system is not meeting the expectations of this new changing digital world. In a day and age when a college degree is so imperative to success in the world, how successful is that college degree at preparing students if it is not providing them with the skills needed to face the world they are entering? MIT professor and digital learning pioneer Henry Jenkins emphasizes the “convergence resulting from networking a culture of new models and forms and contributions with older models” (Davidson and Goldberg). This convergence is not just the new working and building from the old, but thoroughly blending the two, transforming them to provide the most benefits in today’s society. This is the challenge to the immediate future of learning institutions: to take advantage of the current digital media technologies around them and conform them to the new learning that is taking place in today’s world. There is an urgent need for the transformation of traditional pedagogy to incorporate and match learning modes already in place outside the academy. Digital media can help foster the creation and learning of knowledge in ways that have never happened before. All we have to do is let the learning in.



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Kelsey Smart