Here’s how the college classroom has evolved over the years

As a college professor, I have spent a fair amount of time trying to find the ideal working system for my own research as well as for my students. And I know that so many of my colleagues have done the same.

Change is a constant in the world of learning technology. First there was the rock and chisel method of notetaking. That was tiresome. And how many rocks can you really carry around? Then there were innovations like the ballpoint pen. Typewriters with onionskin or carbon paper for multiple copies. The electronic typewriter, so you could make quick edits! All of these changed the process of writing and learning long before we became digital.

Now we’re online all day and night, and our phones have more computing capability than a roomful of punchcards. But old technologies persist. And in the many thinkpieces, hot takes, and public scholarship on the topic, there’s the constant refrain: At least for note-taking, pen and paper beat all technology. So why do so many professors search for digital methods of course management and instruction? Students need it, we need it, and technology is cool.

First of all, just because pen and paper note-taking forces the brain to slow down and synthesize information so the hand can record it, that doesn’t work for everyone. Particularly for students with a variety of accommodations, this method just isn’t accessible. And banning laptops from class either alienates students with disabilities, or outs them as different if you make exceptions in your course policy on laptops.

Next, as professors, we are often teaching more students in more classes while asked to give more feedback more quickly than ever before. Plus, carrying around 200 8-10 page papers gets tiresome pretty quickly. At first, course management tools feel revolutionary: I can post videos and see who’s watched them, have students upload papers (which ends coffee stains, misplaced work, and any “I put it in your mailbox” sob stories, true or otherwise). No one has to pay for printing. We’re better able to comment and collaborate. Digital methods save time and energy, and ultimately benefit our students as much as ourselves.

But just as pen and paper don’t actually work the way research says they should, neither do digital methods for course management. Whatever software your college or university uses, chances are you hate it. Often, the interface is wonky, you can’t change privacy settings, your carefully-curated media links suddenly won’t connect — and there’s almost nothing you can do about it, because it’s your university course management software.


Some of us try all the options: Google documents are free and easy. A psychology colleague at a small liberal arts college hipped me to the many uses of Google docs: You can make self-grading quizzes! You can have students submit papers and tests so there are no more “but I uploaded it” excuses. Still, comments come through in real time, so some students get feedback earlier than others.

A sociologist friend at a different small liberal arts college says, “I’m currently regretting my decision to have students turn in things with Google drive.” He has to download, then re-upload papers with comments to get around that feedback timeline lag, “which is super annoying even with my tiny class size,” and not an option if you teach large lectures or at a research university.

Throughout my time teaching, I’ve worked to modernize my classroom, for better and for worse. I’ve made YouTube playlists with video and audio clips connected to course topics. I’ve had students share examples through Twitter or use Storify. I’m not saying these methods don’t work — but they’re not a quick fix for long-term content management.

Pearson’s trying to help professors sidestep wonky campus systems and provide more student feedback with Revel MyLab™ and Mastering.

Revel helps professors teach and students learn through “reducing extraneous cognitive load, boosting active and constructive engagement,” and “providing immediate feedback.” So students are less likely to be overwhelmed, but more likely to think constructively and apply their new knowledge. Students can set notifications to remind them of deadlines, take practice quizzes with immediate feedback, and make connections between core concepts and practical applications. Unlike many institutional packages, students can access content on multiple devices, including cell phones.

MyLab™ and Mastering provide homework, assessment, and interactive content developed by leading authors in their fields to challenge students to engage deeply and think critically. Personalized learning features help ensure every student gets the support they need — when and where they need it — to be successful.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between Pearson and Studio@Gizmodo. It was originally published on November 21st, 2017, and it was re-posted here with permission.

About the Author

Carolyn Chernoff

Carolyn Chernoff is an American sociologist of inequality and everyday culture. She earned her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. In addition to public-facing outlets, such as the Huffington Post, Chernoff has published work on democratic process, community-based arts, and media representation in journals including Visual Arts Research, Michigan Sociological Review, and Perspectives on Urban Education. Chernoff has also published work on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and various theories of education.


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