OU Professor Adapts To Digital Classroom

Nov 19, 2014

Credit John Morgan / flikr

When they are not in class, college students always seem to be typing a text on their smart phones as they walk around the University of Oklahoma campus.

Certainly, technology has become an integral part of people’s daily lives with so many platforms --Twitter, Facebook and website and blogs – so many new ways of expression through social networking and the Internet.

This change affects everything, from social situations to business transactions, and for many, if you are not using digital devises, then you are in the dark ages.

University of Oklahoma Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry and Executive Director of the Center for Teaching Excellence, Mark Morvant, tackles this divide head on. He incorporates technology like YouTube, podcasts and iPads into the classroom in order to bridge the gap and provide his students with the opportunity to succeed.

Mark Morvant: I think the nice thing about technology is that it gives us tools to enhance the experience in those large lectures but also to enhance the engagement outside of the 3 hours we have in the class with even students in small classes. Life is a lot about communication and stories and there is some aspects looking back things that happened, good and bad, about chemistry that’s related to their lives. I can find something they’re passionate about, maybe it’s cheese, maybe it’s making pickles, there’s chemistry in that. And there’s chemistry I can teach about the fundamental elements of chemistry by making that connection.

Hayley Thornton: So this is obviously something you’re really passionate about. I just want to know what made you think about the best way to teach your students?

Mark Morvant: Not being able to reach all my students. When I started I thought that would be able to teach all of them and they would all learn and life would be great and they would all learn and life would be great and we would all dance across the fields like sound of music. That didn’t happen, right so it took a lot of self-reflection, what can I do more? And that’s when I started using technology. It started by putting my own website out. I just built a website so I could get documents to my students and give them more information then is in the textbooks to them. And then as technology improved I started doing podcasts, and then I got the idea: why don’t I give the students the podcasts and just do the assignments in class and lets do that. We did action centers and we were always looking for a way to make sure that every student has the possibility to succeed.

Hayley Thornton: Can you think of any moments where you thought, okay, my style of teaching needs to change so I can get through to my students?

Mark Morvant: A big one was, it was at a previous institution, a small 4 year college and I was teaching general chemistry and it was a standard general chemistry curriculum, and at the end of teaching that year I went to some mentors and I said I hated this. One of them asked me a really good question. He said well it should be fun why do you hate it. And I realized it didn’t meet the goals, which was success for the students and it was meant for an audience that I wasn’t teaching, so it was putting them right off the bad within the first two weeks for non-success. And the nice thing is we went from a success rate from about 60 percent to about 85, 90. That’s really whenever you find it, that’s one of those once in a lifetime opportunities.

Hayley Thornton: What would you say to the professors that think that incorporating a lot of technology into the classroom gets rid of the, you know, face-to-face connection that you have when you’re teaching?

Mark Morvant: That’s an important thing to develop but I think where my generation sees the digital life and the physical life as separate entities I question whether the generations that’s following us sees them as the same, integrated. You always see these pictures of students at parties where they’re tweeting to each other or whatever, they have their phones right. But whenever I see them around campus, I also see them go directly from that to the face-to-face interaction seamlessly.  That’s just part of the environment and in that aspect using technology to expand what’s going on in class, so if I have a discussion in class about a controversial topic, how many students in class are going to be able to talk. Versus if I take that out, lets say into something like Janux where you have this social platform or twitter or some other platform, now they can give feedback. Doesn’t that do what we want, which is increase that learning and increase that dialogue?

You can witness OU Chemistry and Biochemistry Professor Mark Morvant illustrate this dialogue incorporated with use of technology through his open online course Chemistry of Beer.