Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age
May 31, 2011 |  by Brian Shields
Illustration: Wesley Bedrosian

Illustration: Wesley Bedrosian

Johns Hopkins University’s first website, JHUniverse, debuted in 1994. That’s the year most of this fall’s incoming freshmen were born. Those students may search “the catalog” online, but it’s unlikely that many of them have actually thumbed through a card catalog looking for a call number. They probably remember the launch of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, which were all founded within the last seven years, but today’s freshmen were only about 7 years old when Wikipedia went live, and 4 years old when the rest of us started Googling. For Johns Hopkins undergraduates today, social media, handheld computing, and high-powered search engines are as much a part of the university experience as a cappella groups, all-night study sessions, and lacrosse games.

And it’s not just students. Digital communication technology has had an undeniable impact on everything we do at the university, from researchers sharing data across disciplines to faculty using technology in the classroom. “Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age” was one of the topics discussed at last fall’s Volunteer Summit, a gathering of more than 350 Johns Hopkins University leaders, faculty, alumni, parents, students, and friends. Of particular interest were the challenges of data management and using technology to enhance traditional classroom learning.

“One of the things we are seeing across campus is the desire—from faculty and students alike—to leverage students’ facility with technology to create what we’re calling ‘authentic learning experiences,’” says Mike Reese, assistant director of the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins and a Volunteer Summit participant. Reese says he shares concerns expressed by many faculty about students’ ability to focus while swimming in a stream of texts, Tweets, and status updates. But he also suggests that the kind of hybrid model already employed in many classrooms around Johns Hopkins—where students and faculty capitalize on the best of both the virtual and the actual world—may be the most appropriate response to so much of the hand-wringing that takes place among the punditocracy about “kids these days” and how they learn.

A class like Writing Central Baltimore, for example, would not be possible without digital technology, says session participant Tristan Davies, A&S ’87 (MA), senior lecturer in the Writing Seminars. The class, offered in partnership with the University of Baltimore’s School of Communications Design, aimed to create a literary database via wiki application of the neighborhoods to the south of the Homewood campus. Students used photography, essays, and fiction to explore the neighborhoods and their histories. “Young, creative people will put any medium to good use to express and explore ideas,” says Davies. “And they don’t think or worry about the things we often worry about with so-called new technology. They’ve been using it for most, if not all, of their lives.”

Another example is the Interactive Map Tool, a Johns Hopkins–developed program that supports “digital field assignments,” or course activities in which students collect and analyze data from the field using digital technologies such as cameras and audio recorders. Originally designed for large lecture courses in general biology, the software has since been adapted for course work in the humanities, with Museum Studies students curating virtual exhibits using floor plans from venerable institutions like the Louvre. Reese believes this is just the kind of tool that foretells the future of digital technology in education: “Basically, we are using technologies our students are already familiar with to promote critical thinking, help facilitate research-infused education, and increase student-faculty and student-student interaction.”

As faculty deal with how to use technology in the classroom, they also grapple with how to use it in their research. Data collected and stored electronically has made life easier for everyone—few are the hardy souls who would rather comb through medical journals by hand than search using a database like PubMed—but issues of storage, retrievability, and integrity have only gotten more challenging. Massive amounts of data created by researchers need to be preserved and curated so they can be accessed and built on with confidence by future generations. For example, when in 2000 the Sloan Digital Sky Survey began gathering and analyzing images of the universe, it collected more data in its first few weeks than had been amassed in the entire history of astronomy.

To complicate matters, researchers are beginning to see how those huge datasets can be used across disciplines. “Data from one discipline may be incredibly useful for researchers in an entirely different field,” says session participant Sayeed Choudhury, Engr ’88, ’90 (MS), director of the Digital Research and Curation Center at the Sheridan Libraries. Choudhury is the principal investigator on the $20 million National Science Foundation DataNet project and is leading an effort to safeguard the long-term integrity of data and encourage data sharing and collaboration. Over the next few years, Choudhury’s team, which includes researchers from the Whiting School of Engineering, the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, and the School of Medicine, will be developing a data-management infrastructure that should make interdisciplinary research easier.

Clearly, digital technology has fundamentally changed the education landscape for faculty and students alike. Those changes must be engaged and wrestled with—at Volunteer Summit sessions and beyond—in the Johns Hopkins tradition of taking the world’s problems into labs and classrooms and figuring out solutions. Interestingly, students participating in the session were eager to point out the limits of the virtual world, at least insofar as it relates to getting a college education. Digital media is an integral part of student life, they said, but they bristled at the suggestion that online education could replace the traditional, hands-on model of learning. The social interactions, the lessons learned around the seminar table, and the bonds forged through shared experiences remain to them central to the larger idea of getting an education.