US & World

From Chalk To Bytes: The Digital Classroom

More and more professors use technology called learning management systems to distribute course material, issue grades and enhance communication with students. And it has the potential to make the classroom more interactive.

The sound of chalk on a blackboard is something you rarely hear on many campuses these days.

That's because more and more professors use technology to distribute course materials, issue grades and enhance communication with students.

For centuries, teachers have lectured to students and taught by writing things down. But software used by many schools, colleges and universities is making the dialogue between teachers and students more wired than ever.

Philip Wirtz, a professor of decision sciences and psychology at The George Washington University (GWU), presents some complicated material during his statistical modeling and analysis class. To help students follow along, he uses a software program called Blackboard to share slides, which students download before class.

"It's really just sort of a mechanism for coordinating what would otherwise be paper in the course," Wirtz says.

But it's not just about saving trees.

"It's a one-stop shop where students can come and get absolutely any access to me, any access to the teaching assistants," Wirtz adds.

Experimentation On Campus

Colleges and universities are experimenting with different ways to connect students and teachers. More than 200 institutions, including Stanford and the University of Michigan, are using open-source software created by Sakai or Moodle. These classroom management systems are becoming increasingly popular because they allow schools to adapt the software to meet their needs.

Blackboard, however, is the largest commercial player in the higher education market with over 2,000 clients in the U.S.

As students at GWU pack up their laptops after class, MBA candidate Brianna Lux says this software is making life easier for busy students, because they can listen to classes on demand.

Lux likes being able to access all of Wirtz's lectures, which he makes available on iTunes U, through Blackboard.

"And so if ever you're doing your lab homework [and you wonder], 'What did he say in class?' So, you can go back and access it that way," Lux says.

Transforming The Classroom Experience

Eric Klopfer, the director of the teacher education program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the software can also make the classroom experience more interactive.

"That potentially changes fundamentally what's going on inside the university classroom, where instead of listening to the lecture and taking notes, maybe you listen to the lecture from your dorm room, and then you actually use the class time to do other things," Klopfer says.

So, what would some of those other things be?

"They could be hands-on activities, they could be labs [or] they could be discussions with other students," Klopfer says.

Google's Role On Campus

Even though Blackboard continues to grow through acquisitions, Klopfer says the company could face competition from Google in the collegiate market. That's if the focus of learning management systems shifts because of demand for more online collaboration.

"If that transition happens, a company like Google stands to gain from that because they have a lot of those collaborative tools," he says.

Many college students already use Google's suite of applications, including Gmail, Google Docs, Notebook and Book Search. Google has also set up a Web site for educators complete with apps for the classroom.

When Parents Know 'Too Much'

Blackboard CEO Michael Chasen says his company has plans to expand into the elementary and secondary school market. Chasen says it holds a lot of growth potential, but some aggravating downsides, too.

"Schools are making an active effort to keep the parents more involved by using the Blackboard software," Chasen says. "The students have expressed concerns that now their parents know too much: They know all the homework that's due; they know how they're doing in class. We've somehow interfered with their social lives within the high school."

He's even received his fair share of angry letters and e-mail from students upset about how they were able to continue to do schoolwork despite last month's blizzards.

The technology melted the snow days away. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit