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Bigger classes and active learning: technology's impact on UNC classrooms this decade

Computer science professor Kris Jordan testifies to the ways in which classroom technology that has been implemented over the past decade has changed the ways students are taught and engage in learning on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019.

Over the past decade, UNC’s classroom environments have majorly shifted to align with the advancement of technology — namely moving away from traditional lectures and instead incorporating technology. 

“One of the biggest changes we’re seeing is a move toward an active learning environment as well as classrooms which involve a flipped component,” Kris Jordan, a teaching assistant professor in the department of computer science, said. “Students are spending more time in lecture actively engaging with the material as opposed to passively ingesting it.”

Jordan, who graduated from UNC in 2007 and later returned as a faculty member, said students have been able to better master material and feel more engaged with course content through the use of technological advances such as clickers and digital response systems like Poll Everywhere.

“What essentially technology has done is make it so the classroom is a time of focus rather than the only time of education and content delivery,” said Michael Barker, UNC’s interim vice chancellor for information technology and chief information officer. “There’s such enormous opportunity for students and faculty to interact outside of the classroom space.”

Barker said that in tandem with making classrooms into more flexible learning spaces, technological advancements have brought increased use of outside guest speakers, mobile applications and the ability to solve most tech issues remotely.

“There is an enormous ad hoc demand for connecting remote participants with live classroom sessions,” Barker said.

Chairperson of the computer science department Kevin Jeffay said his department’s rapid growth has forced it to redefine learning. He said roughly 10 years ago, there were only about 200 computer science majors. Now, he said the number is near 1,800.

“We have invested quite heavily in instructional technology — a good chunk of it we have developed ourself,” Jeffay said. “We went all in on active learning.”

Jeffay also said the recent streamlining of grading through Gradescope has made the increases in classroom sizes more manageable.

“It dramatically makes the grading process more efficient because so much of it can happen electronically, so that when I give an exam with 100 to 150 students, there’s not a line of people outside my door wanting to talk about question two,” Jeffay said. “They now can do this online and I can respond 24 hours a day. It’s been a huge win for grading.”

However, Jeffay said he is not sure if students’ education has improved through this process.

“I don’t know if there’s any good data that says our students are getting a better educational experience,” Jeffay said. “They’re probably not getting as good an experience as they may have gotten 10 years ago, simply because there’s a fundamental difference between teaching a class of 25 students versus 150 – the size clearly does not work in their favor.”

Jordan said considering the number of students he teaches, it would be more environmentally friendly to slowly transition from paper-based exams to online.

“I don’t feel great printing off as much paper as I do,” Jordan said. “I can imagine in 10 years a CCI (Carolina Computing Initiative) requirement that has a tablet that can be written on with software that makes it possible to administer exams in a way that prevents cheating.”

Jordan also said he hopes future innovation will help instructors better students’ academic experiences.

“Data about how students are performing in class is scattered in many different systems – from Sakai to email inboxes to Piazza,” Jordan said. “It’s hard to get a complete picture of where every student is at, especially in large courses. I’m excited to see technology bring together the data about where they are standing or what content they need help with and to help better manage the class itself to more effectively reach out to students.”

Jeffay said he thinks the classroom will continue to become much more hands-on and less lecture-based in the future. 

“We are going to see more automation to get rid of a lot of the rout aspects of pedagogy,” Jeffay said. “That will hopefully free up more time and resources to enrich the experience.”

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