Using Computers and the Internet to Promote Student-Centered Learning

Walt Schafer, Sociology (photo KM)
As the Task Force on Student-Centered Learning recently reminded us, the highest priority of Chico State's Strategic Plan for the Future is "to create and enhance innovative, high quality, and student-centered learning environments." I have recently developed several ways to implement this institutional priority in my own classes with computers and the Internet. Perhaps something here will stimulate others to try new approaches along the same lines.

Building on lessons from others and from my own thirty-five years of college teaching, I have developed several teaching/learning principles in seeking to create effective student-centered learning environments for my students. I assume each student will learn most effectively if she/he

• attends class regularly

• remains current in reading assignments

• receives guidance in reading

• receives frequent feedback on mastery of readings and new skills

• reads, sees, hears, and discusses course content

• relates course content to personal experience

• relates course content to current news events

• thinks critically about course content

• actively practices hypothesis formulation, data analysis, and interpretation of findings

• actively searches for course-related information in the library and on the Internet

• works cooperatively with other students, and

• is expected to accomplish high-level work.

I tell my students that about 80 percent of our time will be based on the "guide-by-the-side," student-centered model of teaching/learning and about 20 percent will be based on the "sage-on-the-stage," teacher-centered approach.

Student-centered learning opportunities have been considerably enhanced by recent infrastructure improvements on this campus resulting in broad access to student computer labs and the Internet. Recent innovations in textbooks and workbooks have added further opportunities.

Last fall my students in Principles of Sociology purchased a brief text along with a computer-based workbook. The text included a short section at the end of each chapter called "Sociology and the Internet," which presented two topics from that chapter to investigate further through given Internet sites. My syllabus encouraged students to gain points by writing brief papers on several of these exercises, creating an opportunity for self-generated inquiry.

Throughout the semester we read, discussed, applied, and critically analyzed text chapters (often in small groups) while working together on exercises from the workbook, making connections between the two explicit along the way. The workbook corresponded nicely with text chapters. The floppy disk provided with the workbook included a simple statistics program and files of selected U.S. Census data from 1950 to 1990.

Using these resources, student teams were assigned the task of producing eleven group reports on questions such as these: For 1990, describe the proportion of households that were families, male non-families, and female non-families in each race/ethnic group. How might these differences be explained? How did the life expectancy of men and women change between 1950 and 1990, and how did these trends vary among ethnic groups? How might you explain these differences? Each report consisted of four such questions.

To produce its report, each team located the correct data file; then for each question they identified the independent, dependent, and control variables. Next, they generated statistical tables, translated those figures into graphs, and wrote a narrative description and interpretation of the graphs. Some class time was provided for this teamwork in computer labs. My assistance was available as needed in computer labs and in my office. When graphs or interpretations were deficient, teams were given the opportunity to gain full credit by resubmitting the assignment with corrections.

Through these steps, students learned new computer and data analysis skills, as well as basic sociological concepts. They also learned teamwork skills. Because they were stretched, students understandably were sometimes frustrated. Yet they generated remarkable group reports by the end of the semester—products well beyond what I would normally expect for an introductory course.

This semester I switched to another computer-based workbook in this class because it takes students a step further by having them read a brief theory, derive their own hypotheses from that theory, generate tables and graphs to test the hypotheses, and interpret the data by referring back to the theory and hypotheses. Here, too, students are doing sociology rather than just reading summaries of others' research.

In my Population class (Sociology 110) this semester, students also are doing computer- and Internet-based projects in small groups, in addition to reading and being quizzed on basic demographic tools and information. The computer-based workbook projects are similar to those in Principles of Sociology 001, though at a more advanced level.

Another Population project, "A World of Contrasts: Comparing Developed and Developing Nations," requires extensive research on the Internet. Each group prepares a 20-40 page report with appropriate tables and graphs to compare and contrast one Sub-Saharan nation with one European nation on such dimensions as past and present birth, death, migration, and growth rates; geographic distribution of the population; population composition (e.g., age, sex, religion, marital status); relationship of population to the economy and the environment; population projections; and current and recommended population policies. Students are provided with a list of several Internet sites, with Web connections to a vast array of world demographic information. Again, some class time is devoted to group work on these assignments.

Students in this class also complete another of my favorite assignments: submitting a news story from a current newspaper or Internet site along with a one-page paper summarizing the article, showing its relevance to the course, and discussing issues or questions they would like to know more about.

In conclusion, these projects help students develop technology-based, information-gathering skills and practical teamwork skills. After graduating, most students eventually will work in teams, not in isolation, often gathering and analyzing technology-based information. We ought to foster both computer and teamwork skills at every opportunity—through both curricular and extra-curricular means. By using computers and the Internet in small group projects, we can simultaneously emphasize "high-touch" and "high-tech" learning.

Walt Schafer, Sociology


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