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Brian Nicholson, Deseret Morning News
Tony Spanos shows how he uses technology to record lectures and video presentations as podcasts at his office at WSU. Students are encouraged to download the podcasts and use them to study the language.

Chuck Wight forayed into the tech-savvy world of his University of Utah students several years ago, posting his lecture notes online in hopes of engaging more students in his chemistry discussions.

The plan backfired. One-third of Wight's students stopped coming to class, lost to the enticement of reviewing class notes online in a dorm room instead of trekking to class.

"The students thought they were getting everything because I was putting PowerPoint notes online, but they were missing all the discussion that was happening in the classroom," Wight said. "They were unwittingly fooled into thinking they could get by in the class without ever coming to the classroom."

Wight, a chemistry professor and assistant vice president for academic affairs at the U., found himself facing the technology dilemma of whether electronic teaching tools enhance classroom learning or simply replace it. With tests online, video discussions posted on the Internet and, most recently, class lectures via iPods, professors are grappling to counter the boredom of chalkboard lectures while also encouraging students to come to class, Wight said.

Now, Wight refuses to put his class notes online, revoking the luxury that had become just one more excuse for absenteeism.

"Students are really busy. They're working full time, and if they think they can get a little bit of extra time by not coming to class and still learn the material, that's absolutely what they'll do," he said. "For most of them that stopped coming to class, it was detrimental to their education."

Weber State sociology professor Rob Reynolds decided he wasn't going to give his students that choice. While other professors post lecture videos online, Reynolds tells his students that if they want to learn, they have to be in their seats. Most importantly, he said, students need to be in class to interact with him and other students to get the full effect of the sociology course.

"I'm the come-to-class-to-get-your-notes kind of guy. Sometimes I do PowerPoints, sometimes overheads and sometimes it's just chalk," Reynolds said. "Being there is part of what you're paying for. Having that discussion with the teacher and other students, you're not going to get that online."

But both Wight and Reynolds agree there is a place for technology in the modern university classroom — there just have to be limits.

For Wight, pulling his lectures from the Internet upped his class attendance. But he continues to post quizzes online and requires students to post entries in an online discussion board. Most homework assignments and handouts also are online, Wight said, adding that he has not passed out a paper copy of his syllabus in more than five years.

"Anything you can do to use electronic tools to have students come to class better prepared for face-to-face dialogue and exchange, the better," Wight said.

That online accessibility to classmates, materials and the instructor is becoming more important to Utah students who are trying to juggle families, jobs and an education, said Cory Duclos, a senior at Weber State University. Although Duclos said some students will always find an excuse to skip class, the majority of students take advantage of online access without abusing it.

"It's nice to be able to work in a more relaxed setting at my own convenience," Duclos said. "In class, I don't have to be writing down every single point because I can review the entire presentation later. "

Cutting-edge technology is also making mundane classes more attractive to students, Duclos said, like a Spanish class that is leading WSU instructional technology.

After noticing the iPod earphones hanging around the necks of almost all of his students, professor Tony Spanos decided to use the popular MP3 player to get students listening to Spanish as they walk, exercise and drive. Spanos' students now download global "podcasts" from Spanish-speaking countries, listening to the nuance of each area's accent and discussing the audio broadcasts in class.

"Most professors are a little overwhelmed. I just see this is something that's going to help my students learn a lot better," Spanos said. "Some professors have very big egos. They think, 'I have an expertise and if they want to hear what I have to say, they have to come to my class.' "

Spanos also started putting his own video lectures online in iPod format so students can put his class discussions on their MP3 players and listen to him on the go.

All that out-of-class accessibility hasn't deterred students from also showing up in class, Spanos said. Rather, the technology has made students more involved in the class discussions.

"They want to be able to intermingle and communicate with their colleagues," said Spanos, who noted that he also employs low-tech methods to encourage attendance, like requiring class participation and giving extra information in class that is not on the podcast.

That use of technology to complement rather than replace class time is a fine balance, but it is catching on throughout WSU and other Utah schools, said Gail Niklason, director of online education for Weber State.

More professors are discovering technology can help make better use of class time so students don't have to scribble down copious notes but can participate in the lecture and then review notes online. Most faculty members at WSU have their own class Web site for lecture notes and class blogs that can often elicit comments from even the most shy class members, she said.

"We're getting more of the nontraditional students. It just increases the flexibility and makes higher education more accessible," Niklason said. "Will we ever fully replace the brick and mortar? No."


E-mail: estewart@desnews.com