Tools of the Trade

By Martha Hunter Shepard ’66
Photography by Baxter Buck


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Technology is a pretty handy tool. Think cell phones, computers, cars that phone home. Technology is defined as the practical application of knowledge. If you have the knowledge to use it, it can help you. The trick is not to let it use you.

That’s the balance Rhodes strives to achieve. Knowledge at Rhodes is what students attain in small classroom discussions and labs led by full-time faculty to whom they have remarkably open access. Today’s professors, though, are using technology in useful, innovative ways that complement the curriculum. It’s the best of both worlds. And it’s almost enough to make you want to do those four years all over again.

All Rhodes faculty use technology in one form or another. They keep class rolls and their students’ grades on a computer, and that’s as far as some care to go. Many others use WebCT or Moodle on the college’s intranet to post a syllabus, assignment, quiz, PowerPoint presentation, all of which are covered in class. It’s also a give and take—students can access a professor’s folder, drop their papers into it, even engage in an online class discussion similar to a chat room. More magic occurs in the classroom.

German—Projecting the Right Image

Michelle Mattson, associate professor of German and chair of the Department of Modern Language and Literatures, teaches courses in German language, film, fairy tales and the Holocaust. Visual presentation is the key to all four, and Mattson uses technology to make the courses come to life for her students.

For a take-home quiz in her film class, she went to the Media Library and with the help of Joe Wack ’01, Information Technology media technician, she created clips of the films she had shown her students and uploaded them to her WebCT folder. Her students then used the clips as the basis for the analytical section of the quiz.

She uses one of 27 “smart” classrooms on campus to teach her sections on fairy tales and the Holocaust. These are the rooms that allow faculty to download and project images and information live from the Internet. They’re also wireless—no electrical outlets necessary—allowing students to take notes on their laptop computers if they wish.

With that setup, Mattson can project information along with book illustrations from Grimm’s fairy tales. It works equally well for students in her Holocaust class who learn about German art leading up to the Nazi seizure of power, expressionist and Nazi-sanctioned art and finally, the work that was produced by artists in concentration camps on whatever they could find to create it. Those images also go to her WebCT folder.

“I’m learning new things about technology all the time,” says Mattson, who has a special appreciation of the Rhodes Information Technology staff. Charlie Lemond ’69, director of Information Technology Services, says, “Technology has gotten a lot simpler and less costly to implement than in the past. As far as campus usage, it’s a matter of people getting on board and a desire to use it. We’re certainly not held back by the technology or lack thereof.”

As for “smart” classrooms, Bob Johnson, vice president of Information Services, says that more than one-third of Rhodes’ 70 classrooms are of the “smart” variety. There are currently three prototypes, and eventually all classrooms will have a “minimal level of ‘smartness.’”

 

Spanish—Theater of the Imagination

Eric Henager ’89, associate professor of Spanish, thinks of the “smart” classroom where he teaches as a “classroom of multiple space activity.” The idea, he says, is “to transform the space into something other than a classroom. The teaching objective is to widen the types of communication contexts in which the student gets to practice during the class.”

Members of Henager’s Spanish 101 class had no idea they’d have to fasten their seatbelts before entering 403 Clough one day. There, projected on the wall, was a life-sized image of an airplane interior. Standing before it was their professor posing as a flight attendant. En español, Henager conversed with the “passengers,” giving them standard safety instructions, such as how to stow their backpacks under their seats, and answering any questions about the flight.

“Other scenarios are more student-centered, with students playing specific roles,” he says. For his advanced literature class, Henager says he “does all sorts of things” pertaining to the readings, such as playing the “corpse” in a funeral scene projected on the wall. His students then discuss the circumstances surrounding the death in the story.

He’s also shown something as commonplace as a street corner in a Latin American city.

“There seems to be a lot of street-level reference in some of the texts,” he says. “For example, in the literature of the Southern Cone (southernmost South America), it can become important to the further understanding of a literary text to know something about Buenos Aires or Santiago or Montevideo. If students haven’t visited those places and there’s some episode you want to look at that takes place at a specific spot in one of those cities, interacting with a large projected image allows you to start some kind of theater of the imagination. If the technique works as it should, students are more likely to begin to understand how spatial and environmental factors might be significant in certain readings of the text.”

Henager also uses WebCT for his literature courses with good results. “I ask one student to post a question on the online bulletin board and the others to comment on it by the next class. By the next meeting, it’s clear that they’ve struggled and dealt with some of the textual elements and language obstacles with their peers. It has a significantly positive effect on the way the class meeting goes. The students are more ready to go and more confident in their expression. I find that there is less need for working with reading obstacles in the classroom and that more time can be dedicated to the kind of rereading activities that should be taking place at the advanced level.”

He enjoys using technology as long as it’s used “to facilitate or enhance some specific learning/teaching objective. You don’t want to use technology just to use it. There has to be some real learning outcome that you can see. If I can’t see that, then that’s where I jump off. Students know when you’ve done something just to play with a new application, and they don’t like it very much.”

Physics—Getting the Right Answer

“After a lecture, I like to ask students questions,” says Shubho Banerjee, assistant professor of physics. “If I ask a question to the class as a whole and only one student answers, it’s hard to know whether or not everyone knows the answer.”

His solution was to borrow physics professor Brent Hoffmeister’s technique of using a PRS—Personal Response System—to get all the answers. Here’s how it works: Banerjee’s students pick up their PRS remotes when they enter class. He projects two or three questions of the day on the wall. Example: A charged rod is brought near a neutral metal ball. Will it be attracted to the rod, repelled by the rod or feel no force from the rod? His students can register their answers by punching 1, 2 or 3 on their remotes. They have two minutes to respond. A computer records their answers, which are then projected in percentages on the screen.

“The class then defends and discusses their answers,” says Banerjee. “I like to have an experiment connected with the question afterward. I can explain how something will happen, but seeing is believing—we get to see the reason behind it. The correct answer (1, in this case) is given after the experiment, and students who get it right often take the lead in explaining it to the class. Sometimes, if more than 70 percent of the class get the right answer I’ll give a bonus point on the test.”

The advantage of using PRS, says Banerjee, is that “it gives me an idea of whether students are getting the material or not. It’s instant feedback.”

While Banerjee uses PRS only for classroom quizzes, it has enjoyed nonacademic use as well. The Rhodes chapter of Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership fraternity, asked to borrow it for their election tally. Members trooped to Banerjee’s classroom, voted, then left with results in hand shortly afterward.

Chemistry—A Model System

“I like to do molecular modeling,” says assistant professor of chemistry Mauricio Cafiero, and he has special software for his general chemistry and senior level classes to do just that.

Several programs are installed on all the computers in the chemistry library, plus Cafiero has a “little supercomputer cluster of 16 processors” in his lab, on which students in his physical chemistry class run calculations related to their lab experiments. His general chemistry class does modeling to determine, for example, why acetaminophen is better than aspirin for people who are prone to heartburn.

“They’re able to look at the molecules, calculate some of their properties and see that aspirin is more acidic than acetaminophen,” Cafiero explains.

“We also study such things as greenhouse gases to show how the properties of molecules like carbon dioxide allow them to trap heat on the earth. It’s in the textbook, and I could draw it on the board, but this brings it down to a molecular level. The trick of teaching chemistry effectively is to bridge from the macroscopic level that everyone understands to the microscopic level where things actually happen. That’s one of the great things about doing molecular modeling.

“In the molecular modeling we do, we actually take two molecules on the computer, let them come together and see what the physics tells you. If you watch the movie on the CD that comes with the textbook, it’s set up to do what it’s supposed to do. But if a student sets it up, it may be off center and the results may be radically different from what they should be. You can actually see the repercussions of your initial conditions, whereas the CD movie simulation is no more than a pretty picture in a book. Doing it yourself and being responsible for making sure it all works right—that’s where you really learn what’s going on.”

For students working on their own outside his classroom, Cafiero likes the amount of file-sharing done at Rhodes.

“Everyone can access everyone else’s shared online folder. That’s not feasible at large universities, at least with the ease with which we do it here,” he says. “When I do demonstrations in class, I’ll build a molecule that everyone has to do some work on later. I save the molecular structure in my folder and they can go in and grab the same structure and start from there. It’s also really good for computational assignments. If students were to print the output of one of these things—a large picture, data—that would be 20 pages. My students do it, save it to a Word file, drop it in my inbox and I can grade it from there.” Don’t get him wrong, though. Cafiero is a chalk and chalkboard man, sometimes spending entire class periods doing equations on the board, then applying them in the lab.

“Where technology can help you, I believe in using it as much as possible. I used PowerPoint with my lectures last year, but felt that I was tied to what I had written, that I couldn’t go outside of it. I didn’t like the way it made me teach, so after a month I said ‘goodbye’ and haven’t done it since then.”

Psychology—Future Trends

Associate professor of psychology Natalie Person uses PowerPoint and WebCT in her undergraduate classes at Rhodes. In her research and with her graduate students at the University of Memphis, it’s live videoteleconferencing (VTC) with researchers and students at universities around the world.

“I use technology in my research more than in my teaching at Rhodes because I don’t have to,” she explains. However, she foresees the value of using VTC in her undergraduate classes someday.

“If I attend an out-of-town conference, rather than having someone teach for me, I could simply do it live from my laptop from anywhere in the world with a very simple camera that costs less than $100. I could then teach my class in real time as long as I had an Internet connection. If my students had the same equipment, I could see them.

“I don’t know how receptive our students would be to that degree of separation, though. Rhodes students report that they like face-to-face interaction. I suppose they would be receptive occasionally to having professors at remote locations where they could see them, as opposed to a videotaped lecture—no one likes that.”

Person thinks we are at an exciting time with integrating technology into all that we do and that Rhodes is just scratching the surface. With VTC “we could team-teach courses with someone in New Zealand or Europe,” she says.

“That to me is very exciting—having another classroom of students coupled with our students here, with two instructors at two institutions. It could provide a richness to our curriculum that we don’t have right now.”

Currently, Person says technology “is forcing our students in a lot of ways to be more independent learners. It used to be that when we assigned readings, we—the professors—did all the work. We photocopied them, passed them out in class. Now we tell our students that the information is on this Web site and it’s their responsibility to go get it. We don’t have to coddle them through the whole process. It allows them to be in control of their own learning.”

Like all Rhodes faculty, Person is careful to instruct her students in finding good sources online. “The Internet is anarchy,” she says. “Nobody regulates anything that’s on there. We all have conversations with our students about what constitutes a credible source. I tell them that if a source is questionable in their minds, just run it by me. Send me the link and I will tell you what I think. They must know who posted it, plus that person’s credentials, background and previous work, and know the difference between commercial and academic sites. For our students, though, it hasn’t been much of a problem. I think they have a trained eye.”

Music—The Producers

Instructor Brandon Goff’s music technology lab on second floor Hassell boasts nine DAWs—digital audio workstations. Each has a PowerMac G5, keyboard, monitor, earphones—state-of-the-art music production equipment found in all major professional studios. Here, students learn how to produce pop music in Goff’s music technology course.

“This is not just technology in teaching,” says Goff, who designed the lab. “While I use heavy math and technology while I teach, I’m also teaching the technology itself. There’s a teaching station in the center of the room with a laptop, projector and screen that pops up from the floor so that everyone can watch what I and the rest of the class are doing. It allows me to monitor their progress and give them pointers as they move along.”

Goff says the course, which attracts students from all disciplines, is “musical, mechanical, scientific, mathematical.” He teaches them “the technical aspect of how to get sound into the computer. We also spend a lot of our time on how to make that sound good. They don’t just put random sound in there to see how it’s done. The object is to teach people who aren’t musicians to engineer a relatively listenable work of art.

“We begin with the absolute basic building blocks,” explains Goff. “In fact, we start off with the basics of the Macintosh, since most of the students have PCs.”

The Macs are not on the college network, and Goff maintains each workstation. After mastering the one-click mouse, his students proceed to learning the basics of the workstations, then eventually move on to streaming sound into various tracks, thus making music.

“For their midterm project, I brought in just the vocal track to a pop song I wrote and produced five years ago. The students produced a musical track with drums, guitars—all the things you would do in the production of a pop song. Three different students realized the music track in completely different ways, and quite differently from the way I had produced it, which was a very soft, intimate ballad. I was impressed that the students wanted to push it forward in a kind of Kelly Clarkson/Avril Lavigne kind of modern rock. I wasn’t positive it could be done, but they did it very well.”

For another project, Goff gave his students some 45 seconds of random sounds he had recorded around his house—keys dropping on a table, the lid of the washing machine closing, doors shutting—and asked them to make a two-minute piece using the sounds.

“By this time, we had studied cutting up sounds, bending them, putting them on a timeline, dropping them here, here and here and playing them back in a sequence. It was interesting how each person made intelligent musical pieces out of the sounds. They made drums out of everything—they’re very clever. They’d take the dropping of something metal, drop it down two octaves, and all of a sudden they’d have a drum kit.

“Almost invariably, students who finish the course feel they’re just grasping it and ask for a second layer of this. There’s not one yet, but I’d like to see it happen the future,” says Goff, who is planning a collaborative course with film studies professor Tom Cohen, perhaps for spring ’07. “The film students would make three-minute videos and my students would provide sound and sound effects.”

For his students, says Goff, “everything’s different after taking the music technology course. They learn new ways to think and how to analyze what they hear.”

Art—Transformational Teaching

“The Art Department just might be the place where new technology is most tightly woven into our curriculum,” declares department chair Victor Coonin. “It has transformed the way we teach, from art history and art criticism, to our studio program, even the gallery.

“In art history, 50 years ago art images would have been on lantern slides projected on a screen. Later, there were carousel slide projectors. Today, of course, we deal with digital images of works of art that might be in the Louvre, the Hermitage or the National Gallery in Washington.”

The Web, says Coonin, provides “amazing resources for images, especially kinds that didn’t exist a generation ago. One example that has to do with sculpture is run by Stanford University—the Digital Michelangelo Project. You’d like to see a sculpture 360 degrees in the round, but if you’re using a traditional slide, you can’t do that. With this project, they’ve taken cameras and gone 360 degrees around the object. You can spin the object around, look at it from a bird’s eye view, from a mouse’s eye view, from any direction you want.

“Also, in architecture—there’s no substitute for walking through a building, but we can simulate that experience virtually. A good example is the Westminster Abbey Web site where there are panoramic views of the interior, including the magnificent Lady Chapel. Today, we’re able to change the lesson plan more spontaneously by navigating different museums and collections or piecing together certain works and even better understanding why they’re written about in certain ways. If you want to talk about Venetian landscape painting or the topography of Egypt, you can visit those landscapes through software like Google Earth and see what they really look like.”

Coonin says that students are required to give their own presentations, usually with PowerPoint, though there are other software packages they’ve used as well.

“Sometimes, student presentations are much more elaborate than my own, and I have incorporated parts of their presentations into mine, giving due credit. Occasionally they’ll find things on the Web I didn’t know existed. For example, a student once found a scholarly article on floor patterns in the Laurentian Library in Florence designed by Michelangelo, which I later incorporated into one of my seminar presentations.”

Like all Rhodes faculty, Coonin warns his students about the variability of what they find on the Web.

“They have to be careful about what they use as a source. Our students get better as time goes on, recognizing what is scholarly and what’s not.”

In the studio, things are changing rapidly, he says.

“One of the biggest changes has to do with the manipulation of imagery. Particularly in photography, more colleges and universities are emphasizing digital arts, digital imaging and photography—not at the expense of traditional chemical photography, but as a way of pushing forward to where some of the most exciting cutting-edge ideas are happening. This year for the first time we offered a course in digital video.”

Technology has entered Clough-Hanson Gallery as well. “Years ago, objects were shown in the gallery in a fairly traditional way. Now almost every exhibit is incorporating digital technology in some form or another, either as an aid in making those objects, or as part of the artwork itself,” he says.

“I can’t think of an area in the Art Department where we’re not affected fundamentally and positively by the new media. These are exciting times. It’s invigorating as a teacher to know that things will only get more interesting regarding how and what I can teach and how the students can learn.”