Friday, October 3, 2008

Can technology enhance decorum?

I read an interesting article this morning (linked above) about a faculty member at Lewis & Clark College that has had an interesting experience in her courses.  She is hearing impaired and has had a difficult time hearing her students in the past.  It was especially problematic in her seminar courses because they are discussion-based; she couldn't hear what was being said, which prevented her from facilitating meaningful discussions.  After trying a number of different approaches (special rooms, changing the format of the discussions, working with acoustics specialists), she was getting frustrated and decided to try one last thing, a "sound field system".  That term didn't mean anything to me, but from the article it seems that there is somesort of FM system within the classroom that includes 2-3 handheld mics that can be passed around among students.  This faculty member reported that, although she could hear and follow the discussions more effectively, there were some even more important unintended benefits to using the system.  Because the students made all of their comments into microphones (there were only 2 for her class) the discussions were a lot more civil and organized.  The students listened to each other, paused in between comments (as the mic was being passed to the next participant), and articulated their thoughts more clearly because they were "hearing themselves speak".  In the end of semester feedback that was provided by students they mentioned the fact that the microphones helped them be more reflective, more respectful, and ultimately learn more from the course.  They didn't use this term, but it seemed like this particular technology promoted metacognition among the students, which I think was a big reason that their learning was enhanced.

I just thought this was an interesting example of how technology can often open up new avenues or ideas that we wouldn't expect.  In this case, I would imagine that both the students and the faculty member will be more thoughtful about the way they participate in discussions in the future and that their personal learning theories have adapted.  So, in some cases it seems that technology does drive science or theory.  The use of these sound systems will probably lead to an enhanced understanding of metacognitive processes.  Technology isn't always the step-brother of science.

1 comment:

David Lubman said...

Hi, Bryce!

I don't see that the poster ruled out classroom noise as the root cause of the communication problem. For mysterious reasons, most educators don't even consider background noise as an issue, even though it is by far the most ubiquitous barrier to oral communication in today's classrooms. The danger of misdiagnosing the problem is proposing the wrong solution - amplification - an extremely common wrong solution. As I commented to the original post, one can determine this easily by measuring the background noise level using the A-scale of a sound level meter.) It should not exceed 35 dBA (decibels). If the classroom is too noisy, blasting over the noise with an amplifier is a band-aid solution. Quieting the noise is a much better solution. Better for the students and better for the teacher. It is much better for people with hearing disabilities, as you will learn by reading the Acoustical Society of America's statement on classroom amplification .

The benefits identified in the original blog including (implicitly) greater student engagement and courtesy is obtained with lower noise levels as well, but with lower stress levels and less interference in adjacent classrooms. As scientists and technologists we prefer high tech solutions. If the background noise level is too high as I strongly suspect from the reported symptoms, the appropriate high tech solution is noise reduction!

You have excellent people in the physics dept of BYU capable of measuring the noise level and diagnosing its cause.

Best regards,

David Lubman, FASA
Acoustical Consultant