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 Statistics lecturer Ani Adhikari eschews webcasts and podcasts of her class presentations, saying that it's her job to make lectures useful. "If you don't find it useful," she tells her students, "you don't come." (Deborah Stalford photo)

Tackling technological truancy
Faculty start to wonder why so many students aren't coming to class

| 01 November 2006

When the attendance in her Sociology 5 class declined last semester to the point where more than half of the 250 students were regularly absent, Kristin Luker sought a reality check. She posted a query to Teachnet, an online forum where Berkeley faculty discuss issues related to teaching and learning.

"I handed out a study guide for the midterm, which may be part of the problem," wrote Luker, "but some of my students tell me that no class has most of its students show up. Is it me? Is it a new trend? Any thoughts?"

Continuing the conversation
Many resources are available to help faculty explore the integration of instruction and technology, and to improve teaching:

To join the Teachnet e-mail forum, visit teaching.berkeley.edu/teach-net.

The Office of Educational Development provides links to teaching resources at teaching.berkeley.edu/resources. Via its home page (teaching.berkeley.edu) OED also offers a consultation service in which faculty can confer with OED staff on any teaching issue, from designing a new course or revising a syllabus to classroom and lecturing issues. OED will also observe classes on request and can arrange to have classes videotaped to help faculty view and improve their classroom performance.

Educational Technology Services offers workshops on a variety of subjects, including using PowerPoint, teaching in bSpace, and integrating wikis. Most workshops start at the beginning of each semester.

The biannual Teaching, Learning, and Technology symposium will be held May 2, 2007, at the Clark Kerr Campus. To be added to the invitation list, contact Cynthia Schrager (schrager@berkeley.edu) in the office of the vice provost for undergraduate education.

Luker's post sparked a wide-ranging conversation on Teachnet among faculty eager to relate their own experiences in this area. Yet no one could pinpoint a single explanation for the supposed upsurge in student absenteeism.

Conversation on the topic isn't limited to Berkeley. This past July a New York Times article, "To Cut or Not to Cut," spotlighted a trend at some institutions that have empowered profs to fail chronically absent students. While students have skipped class since time immemorial, some present-day faculty charge that more undergrads than ever are not showing up, with empty seats increasing as the semester progresses.

The campus doesn't gather data on the topic, so it's impossible to say whether student absenteeism at Berkeley is on the rise. Last week, in the spirit of academic inquiry, the Office of Educational Development (OED), which supports, enhances, and publicizes the teaching efforts of Berkeley faculty, sponsored a forum, "Where Have All the Students Gone?," to examine the topic.

At the forum, Americ Azevedo, a lecturer in interdisciplinary studies, openly discussed his experience with disappearing students. An early adopter of classroom technology - online discussion forums, webcasting, podcasting, and class weblogs - Azevedo began noticing radical declines in attendance back in 2002. "I had started putting every possible networking technology into the class," he says, and saw a drop-off in attendance by mid-semester. "I just felt awful, because I thought it was all my fault," says Azevedo, who, ironically, implemented those technologies to increase opportunities for students to interact with him and each other.

For Azevedo, who embraces technical innovation, eliminating webcasting and podcasting wasn't an option. When he asked his students what it would take for them to come to class, they told him they'd attend for a reward. So now Azevedo offers lecture-participation credits. This semester, typically 100 of the 170 students enrolled in IDS 110 (Introduction to Computers) show up to make sure they get a chance to participate - and get that extra credit.

Voting with their feet

Another forum participant, Ani Adhikari, a lecturer in statistics, uses an old-school technology: chalk. Adhikari, who received the Distinguished Teaching Award this past spring, says attendance in her classes typically hovers around 80 percent - save for weeks 5, 8, and 10, when other professors hold midterm exams. Adhikari neither webcasts nor podcasts her courses, nor does she post lecture notes online. "My students expect to get their pencils and calculators out and work. They are not coming to my lectures to listen." For Adhikari, math classes are about students getting their hands dirty.

If students can access the same material via webcasts or podcasts that they can in lecture, Adhikari says, she sees no real reason for them to come to class: "It is possible that if students feel that what they're doing in lecture is listening to someone speak, they might as well listen on podcast." For Adhikari, who "jumps up and down and makes a lot of noise in the front of the room," the obligation to keep her students engaged is clear. "I tell my students that it's my job to make lecture useful. If you don't find it useful, you don't come."

Is eschewing technology the answer to keeping undergrad butts in the seats? Another forum participant, Vince Resh, a professor of environmental science, policy, and management, answers affirmatively: "Once we started webcasting, students had the choice of coming to lectures or watching them on computer. I suspect if they didn't have that option, more of them would show up." Resh, who team-teaches Biology 1B, in which 800 students are enrolled, has seen attendance numbers drop by at least 50 percent.

"The problem is that you've got the technology people on campus wagging the dog," charges Resh. "Every year they add new technology that separates students from the classroom and each other. I think that's a really bad trend."

Victor Edmonds, director of Educational Technology Services, the campus unit that supports and promotes the effective use of technology in teaching and learning, sees his group's role differently: "I wouldn't say we're pro-webcast. We're pro-teaching and learning, and see webcast as a tool" in their service. Edmonds notes that the introduction of classroom technologies has accelerated in the past six years, and that now the challenge is for faculty to re-examine the role lectures serve in their courses. Putting lectures online frees up faculty to devote more time to other aspects of a course, especially those that make class time more interactive and help students better engage, says Edmonds.

Rules of engagement

Maggie Sokolik, coordinator of the College of Engineering's Technical Communications Program, is an early adopter of educational technology but has found that many instructors use technology ineffectively. Some put their lectures on PowerPoint slides and read them aloud to the class at a rapid pace, says Sokolik, who researches how students perceive their instructors' use of technology. "If instructors are going into class and relying on PowerPoint slides, that's just bad pedagogy," she asserts. "Over and over I hear from students, 'Please, no more lectures that are nothing but PowerPoint. I came to hear you talk, not to watch slides.'" Faculty, she says, need better training in how to use instructional technologies, because many of them use course websites and PowerPoint as ways to shovel more information to students, not the best use of the tools.

Timothy Yiu, a junior majoring in molecular and cell biology, another forum participant, agrees with Sokolik that technology used poorly can keep students away. One of his professors put the same material on his PowerPoint slides that the students could access online or in the course reader, so "you knew it wasn't as crucial to go to class," explains Yiu. Even with webcast courses, "if the professor is engaging and he just doesn't reiterate some slides but asks a lot of questions and has his own way to captivate" students, class attendance will reflect that effort.

"Berkeley's a pretty tough place," and students have a lot of commitments, explains Yiu. "You have to allocate your time efficiently. If you don't need to go to class to get the same amount of education and can do the work on your own" to do well on the exam, "then why would you go to that class?"

Martha Olney, a professor of economics and a Distinguished Teaching Award recipient in 2003, concurs with Yiu's analysis. Olney, who hasn't experienced attendance problems in either her introductory economics course of 700 or her undergraduate research seminars of 15 to 30 students, queried her Economics 113 class on what factors make them more likely to attend class. Olney's students reported that if an instructor provides additional material that's not available online or in their textbook, offers opportunities for interaction in class, or makes the material more engaging, exciting, or interesting, they'll be more likely to attend.

Her students' cost-benefit analysis makes perfect sense, says Olney. "Any time you decide to engage in an activity, there's something else that you're giving up. They're being shrewd time managers," she says. "They're doing absolutely what I think they should do."