Search the Bulletin

The Digital Wave

New technologies are changing the way students learn.

By Audree Penner
Illustrations by Esther Bunning

Digital WaveIn the not too distant past, students required to create a “visual database” in a course like Assistant Professor of Art History Tomoko Sakomura’s Contemporary Japanese Visual Culture, might well have gone scurrying to the library in search of books or slides on contemporary Japan. Perhaps they would even have ventured to an art museum, newsstand, or bookstore.

Today, although students still use such physical resources, they can find most of what they need with a click of a computer mouse—often without leaving their rooms.

“The visual database [which is a “wiki” site] is created by students for the entire class,” says Fletcher Coleman ’09, who took Sakomura’s course last spring.

Wiki is software from Wikia that allows multiple users to post comments on a shared Web site for use as reference material, similar to an encyclopedia entry on a subject. But it also allows users to edit, expand upon, link to, or even delete each other’s postings. Thus, a wiki is intended to be a sort of collective, self-correcting compilation of information—of which the on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia is the best-known example.

Scrolling down the electronic pages of the Japanese culture database, which are filled with pictures, Coleman explains, “We’re to find images of Japanese contemporary culture and post them on the site.” He stops at a large Food Network advertisement.

“See,” he says. “Someone has posted a picture of an Asian woman picking up the bun of her hamburger with chopsticks.” In the ad, the woman is dressed as a geisha with heavy white makeup and bright red lips. The text underneath the image reads: “Culture Shock. We can help. Food Network.”

Another of Sakomura’s students, Brigette Davis ’10, posted an ad for Playstation 3 (PS3) that, at first glance, appears to be an atomic-bomb mushroom cloud. But this doomsday cloud—which has such powerful meaning in Japan—has been digitally manipulated to look like the face of a clown. Davis posted the following comment:

Once you get over the initial creepiness of the image, you can see how [the advertisers] are comparing the new PS3 with the large, life-changing, colossal impact of the atomic bomb. Perhaps now [World War II] has been long enough ago to take such a shocking and disturbing image and use it for a gaming console ad. It comments on the way that Japan has progressed since the bombing and the sort of things that will provoke a reaction from its audience. I think it’s important to mention that this ad agency is in France and not Japan, but I believe it is used for more than just the French audience.

“It’s been a lot of fun to see what students come up with for the visual database,” Sakomura says.

Another on-line tool used by Sakomura, to which students respond well, is the blog—a portmanteau of the words Web and log. A blog is created by an individual as a personal diary or, in an academic course, as a means to post opinions that can be read by the entire class but which, unlike a wiki, cannot be altered.

Sakomura set up a blog called “First Impressions” for the same course. “I post several images prior to a lecture and ask students to post their first impressions,” she says. “Students usually post one or two paragraphs, but some write longer entries. I believe this assignment helps students think about the works in their own terms before the formal lecture.”

Coleman agrees. A double honors major in Chinese studies and art history, he finds the first impressions database informative.

“It lets me read other peoples’ ideas about the images and expands my own thoughts,” he says. “And it’s a good place to read comments [by people] who may not want to—or have not had time—to speak up in class.”

Sakomura agrees. “Often, students who are hesitant to speak up in class post very insightful blog comments. To encourage their classroom participation, I refer to their comments in class and ask students to expand upon their posts,” she says.

Coleman recently posted this comment after viewing several images of contemporary Japanese industrial design:

I see these objects to some degree as a natural extension of Yanagi’s ideas. [Soetsu Yanagi launched the Mingei (meaning “folk crafts”) Movement in Japan and is founder of the Japan Folk Crafts Museum in Tokyo]. They incorporate some of the traditional elements of simplicity, efface the artist (though perhaps not the designer), are made for everyday use, and harmonize in some sense the use of machine and hand as it is the hand that designed these objects and the machine that produced them.

“When Fletcher mentions Yanagi in his posting, he is referencing information from the previous week’s lecture,” Sakomura says. “Because Mingei was a topic at the beginning of the semester, you can see how the students are building upon the information discussed earlier in class or how they are seeing the objects in a new way in light of the prior weeks’ material.”

In Assistant Professor of Film and Media Studies Bob Rehak’s Animation and Cinema course last fall, contributing wiki comments comprised 20 percent of a student’s grade. (The class’s on-line discussion group also included students from Middlebury College in Vermont.)

Lena Wong ’10, pursuing a film and media studies major with a minor in sociology and anthropology, has taken two of Rehak’s courses, including Animation and Cinema. Her fingers move quickly as she clicks through several sites on her laptop to get to the animation class’s wiki site.

In addition to her Swarthmore classes, Wong does market research for the programming department at MTV, helping the cable music channel create social networking sites that can compete with Facebook and MySpace.

Yet, despite her expertise in new media, Wong believes most students contribute to or read wikis because it’s a course requirement, not because they find them educational.

“I think the wiki is meant for extended engagement with the information we learn through our readings and class discussions as well as exposing our classmates to new, relevant people and topics in animation,” she says. “I posted a biography of Brian Graden, one of the original executive producers of South Park, who is now my boss at MTV,” says Wong. (She initially met Graden, president of MTV Entertainment, during a summer 2007 MTV internship.)

Wong doesn’t think that the wiki for the animation class helped her engage with the subject. “Wikis are supposed to be objective information. Blogs are where people state their opinions. I think the blog is a more effective means for helping to form opinions.”

Sean Varsolona ’09, who has also taken two of Rehak’s courses, agrees.

“My time with the wiki [for the course] was really enjoyable, but it’s not something I would use in my own free time,” says Varsolona, an economics major with a minor in film studies. “Through his teaching methods, [Rehak] has gotten me to a level of excitement about film I never thought I would have. For me, the new technologies and the teacher’s ideas were amazing.”

Wong sees the wikis “as a jumping-off point to find other sources. I don’t rely on Internet sources alone for my work, “because you can’t always know where they originated. I grew up in Silicon Valley. The ‘new’ technology is not really new to me,” says Wong, who has been creating Web pages since elementary school.

Coleman came from a very different background. Raised in rural Ohio, he says he spent very little time on-line before coming to Swarthmore. Now, he checks each of his classes daily through Blackboard, a Web-based course management software that was developed in the late 1990s to facilitate communication and collaboration among professors and students.

Blackboard was introduced at Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, and Haverford in 2001 as a tri-college endeavor, according to Liz Evans, former academic computing coordinator in the College’s Information Technology Services (ITS) department.

Evans reports that throughout the 2008 spring semester, 321 Swarthmore faculty members had Blackboard accounts, 65 percent of which were active; 1,489 students had accounts, 94 percent of which were active; and, of the 406 core academic courses and seminars created automatically by the College’s database system in Blackboard, 73 percent were actively available to students.

Coleman, slender, soft-spoken and bearded, finds Blackboard extremely helpful. “Professors post announcements, readings, the syllabus, and links to interesting articles related to the classes.”

Lin Gyi ’09, a biology major with an art history minor, agrees: “I prefer Blackboard resources over books because it is inexpensive and more comprehensive than traditional books. I can access more documents and important links efficiently.”

Students may also submit completed assignments using Blackboard’s secure Digital Dropbox, although few of the students interviewed said that their professors used that feature. Individual grades may also be accessed through Blackboard, which is password protected.

According to Gayle Barton, director of Information Technology Services, Blackboard is continually improving its software. The newest version allows professors to send messages to students.

Books Move Over But Not Out

It’s ironic that although Fletcher Coleman from rural Ohio prefers to do most of his reading on-line, Lena Wong, who grew up in the high-tech world, says she still prefers the feel of a book in her hand.

“You still have to read the book in order to know what it’s about and write about it. And sometimes the entire book isn’t available on-line. But I’m lucky—I can do this,” she says, spinning her laptop monitor 180 degrees and folding it down backwards so it’s flat like a writing tablet.

“If a professor has put PDFs on-line, I can take notes on here, using Microsoft OneNote while reading the PDF in another program. But then there’s the whole printing thing. I hate to waste paper,” says Wong, speaking at top speed as she sits cross-legged and barefoot in the second-floor conference room of Sproul Alumni House.

“The traditional book doesn’t appear to be going away in favor of electronic books readers,” says College Librarian Peggy Seiden. “I don’t believe students are going to read books exclusively on-line when there’s an extensive amount of information involved. I already hear students say they don’t like it when a book is [only] on reserve electronically. They want to be able to pick it up and move around.”

Coleman says he reads short articles on-line but prints out longer ones so he can make notes on the pages and take them to class—a practice that, if followed by 15 students in a class, uses 15 times the paper.

“The amount of paper students use annually is huge, due to many of the reserve readings being available digitally,” Seiden says.

Paper usage seems to be falling slightly, however. According to an April 2008 Bulletin article, the campus recycled 61 tons of paper in 2007, down from 63.04 tons in 2006 and 67.02 tons in 2005.

“On-line readings provide the same opportunities as traditional books as well as additional ones, like links to other sources. I really do prefer reading on-line to books,” says Coleman, who has a Facebook page only because his friends made it for him.

“Reading on the computer is not one of my strong suits,” Varsalona says. “So I like books for that reason.” He agrees with Coleman that the wikis and blogs allow for discussion outside of the class. “It’s an opportunity to learn things not covered in books,” he says. “I feel that the new technology somehow makes me a more efficient person.”

Although the College’s libraries still maintain full collections of books, films, and music, those resources are being increasingly enhanced with the new technologies.

Lin Gyi says the way she reads and uses the Cornell Science and Engineering Library is different from most. “Since my work is not research intensive or centered on the humanities, I treat the library as a space that isn’t as distracting as my room and a place where I can study with my friends. There’s nothing I use at the library that I can’t find on-line.”

Old Does Not Mean Obsolete

Although new technologies make information more accessible, even tech-savvy professors such as Rehak are unwilling to abandon traditional teaching and learning methods.

“I’m old-fashioned in that I believe the best learning still takes place in the classroom through lectures and discussion, in the students’ writings, and in closely reading and analyzing texts,” Rehak says.

“The big change, I think, is in how these materials are distributed and made available in new contexts, so that students can fit the information into their schedules in creative ways.

“My hope is that if scholarly work can be integrated more flexibly and enjoyably into students’ daily habits, they will be able to make more and better connections between what they’re learning and the world they’re living in.”

With the rapid changes in educational technologies, the College’s ITS staff is not focusing on any specific hardware or software to bring to campus. Barton says one of the roles of ITS is to monitor new technologies and foster strategic innovation.

“We try to identify what will be useful in education and then watch for the point at which the cost, ease of use, and functionality meet the College’s needs. While some people are early adopters of new technologies and are willing to experiment, other faculty members are only interested in technologies that have been proven to enhance student learning and scholarship,” she says. “The faculty sets the pace.”

That pace—and College support for on-line technologies—could be a little deeper, says Richard Valelly ’75, professor of political science.

Since 2003, Valelly has been using a free Web site called VoteView ( in his American Politics and Congress in the American Political System courses. The site displays a continuously changing two-dimensional plotting of ideological locations for members of Congress and Senate since 1789.

“I use the scores that have been derived to display the plots,” Valelly says. “Students find the spatial theory behind the scores very interesting.”

But he’d also like access to other on-line tools.

“I’d love to have a subscription to the Roper Center polls, but that costs a certain amount of money, and it would be nice if the College budgeted a certain lab-like overhead to me and other political scientists,” Valelly says. “There are low-cost tools that I can use like LegSim (, a legislative simulation site at the University of Washington, which only costs $12 per person per semester; and the Iowa Election Futures Markets, which requires only a $10 registration fee. Alas, students have balked in the past at using the Election Futures Market, on the grounds that $10 was too much, and LegSim requires classes of 50, 60 or more–which is never going to happen in a Congress course here.”

Wong says she wouldn’t want to pay extra for access to technology or on-line sources required for a course. “There’s so much on campus already; I would wonder why the College wasn’t supporting it. It would be different if it were an e-book and I had to buy a book for the class anyway, but not for an on-line resource,” she says.

Gyi agrees. “I’d prefer not to do this. The last time I had to use a supplementary software program was for a physics class, and it had far too many glitches to be useful. It just became frustrating as the semester progressed,” she says.

But Coleman says he would be willing to subscribe to an off-campus site if it meant he didn’t have to buy a book for the course. “Books are really expensive,” he says.

Converging Technologies

Robin Jacobsen, manager of client services for ITS, says an emerging technology trend called “convergence” is already having an impact on campus.

“There are three levels to convergence: infrastructure, appliances, and services. All work together via various means: wired Internet Protocol (IP), wireless IP, and mobile cellular devices.”

One example is the Apple iPhone, a device that combines voice, text, e-mail, and Web access through either cellular or wireless IP. Jacobsen says another model of convergence uses voice as a data service but also includes text messaging, video, and pictures.

In terms of voice technology, Jacobsen says that Swarthmore has “a strong IP backbone” and that, in the future, faculty, staff, and students will be able to receive voice messages through their e-mail accounts.

“Convergence will increase mobility and will be a key factor for students who need access to campus technology when abroad or off campus,” Jacobsen says.

ITS is currently exploring collaboration and communication solutions that combine computing and software services including e-mail, instant messaging, calendars, document sharing, and concurrent documents.

Barton says that convergence technology or “mashups”—links between different Web applications such as Google maps and Craig’s List—will enable currently discrete technologies to work together.

According to Jacobsen, another technology that’s growing in popularity is the podcast. A podcast is a digital audio file available on the Internet that can be played on computers or portable media players and is usually distributed through Web-feed formats such as Really Simple Syndication and Atom.

Podcasts are also created by students within the framework of their coursework. In spring 2007, Varsolona created five- to seven-minute podcasts for Rehak’s course From Broadcasting to Podcasting: Television and New Media.

“I made a podcast that looked at how Hillary Clinton’s campaign used Web resources and another on how Saves the Day, which is a band I like, uses the Web to promote its music.

“We then were able to listen to each others’ podcasts via iTunes in class and in our rooms. It was another way to learn information not covered in class. I really enjoyed it,” Varsolona says.

Professor of English Literature Peter Schmidt was a podcast pioneer on the faculty. Beginning in 2004, for some of his classes, Schmidt asked students to choose and read key passages from literature—the authors ranged from John Steinbeck to Jonathan Franzen ’81—and then add five minutes of commentary. The professor and members of the class then listened to podcasts on that week’s reading before class and used these to generate some of that day’s discussion points. “The assignment returns to the foreground both the virtues of reading aloud and doing a close reading of one passage to see how it can give us in microcosm some idea of the larger work,” Schmidt says.

“The new technology also fosters a sense of community,” Sakomura says. “It will never replace a real classroom, but it’s an interactive space that feeds into our classroom discussions.”

Barton foresees students using an ever-increasing number of digital media collaboration tools.

“Grassroots video is a great term for the expansion of video into the collection of tools casual users have for sharing stories and information with each other,” she says. “Colleagues can be on different campuses or in different countries, editing a shared document in a browser window while talking to each other using video chat, and feel like they are in the same room.”

Audree Penner

Audree Penner

A native of Kansas City, Mo., Audree Penner majored in communications at the University of Missouri–Columbia. She has served as an editor and writer for magazines and newspapers in Missouri, Kansas, and Pennsylvania. For the past 17 years, Penner has been a staff member of the College Publications Office, where she serves as the Bulletin’s desktop publishing specialist and Web administrator.

Comments are closed.