Technology is changing the way institutions approach traditional disciplines

From anatomy to English, possibilities abound to transform learning with digital tools

Tech tools and applications are increasingly ubiquitous in higher ed classrooms throughout the country. More students are drawn to distance learning, as well as certification courses in areas like cybersecurity that help students develop specific skills that further their professional careers. Beyond that, new forms of tech are also changing how educators can approach traditional disciplines, from the study of anatomy to the most traditional humanities courses.

For example, instead of depending solely on human cadavers to offer students first-hand anatomy knowledge, anatomy educators can utilize holographic imaging to bring the body to life, while an English professor can use visualizations and mapping to approach oft-assigned classic texts in new ways. As higher ed institutions, and particularly liberal arts colleges, struggle to redefine themselves in a period of intense disruption and declining enrollment, tech tools are one way to reinvent tradition.

Tech adoption can provide more accessible forms of interactive learning

Dr. Michael Miller, the director of anatomy at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York, said the initial impetus behind using computer-aided holographic models in anatomy education came out of a lack of cadavers.

The school’s original campus was based in Harlem, but a Middletown, NY campus opened in 2014, and the new space did not have the facilities to accommodate enough cadavers to fulfill the standard need–approximately one cadaver for dissection for every four to six medical students. The school used plastinated specimens and computer-aided anatomy software, as well as the appropriate hardware to support the course and try to fill the void.

“It’s not a perfect answer, but it is a system that allows for supplementary learning with the cadaver as the gold standard,” he said. He notes that students were able to not only replicate what was visible during cadaver dissection via holographic imaging, but could also visualize body anatomy by parts (for example, isolating an arm to be viewed only as bone, or as muscle).

Miller published findings of his approach in Clinical Anatomy last year. First-year med students were taught anatomy utilizing cadaver dissection, 3-D holographic renderings and examining plastinated specimens. According to Miller, students in the top quintile of the class were able to perform strongly using all tools, while students in the bottom quintile of the class scored best when using the holographic imaging. He said classes of students were made up of heterogeneous learners, and the multitude of approaches, from traditional dissection to tech exploration, was beneficial.

“Some are particularly good at learning oratorically, some are good visual learners, some can see things abstractly, and some need it very graphically,” he said about the class. “By using the multiple approaches, it’s my interpretation you maximize the ability to capitalize as many [learning styles] as possible.”

Miller said he was intending to conduct follow-up research that would examine how students could best be prepared prior to their arrival for an anatomy education.

“We want to see what we can do in our admissions process to prepare ourselves for the teaching we need and how to best maximize their learning experience,” he said.

Tech tools can bring excitement and add depth to traditional materials

“Digital humanities,” which refers to the incorporation of digital tools and methodologies into disciplines like English, philosophy and history, is a burgeoning field that is still in formulation.

Matthew Gold, an associate professor of English and Digital Humanities at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, has been working on building institutional frameworks to support DH development for the past several years. By working in graduate programs, he wanted to prepare the next generation of professors to naturally integrate digital tools. He described a “Digital Practice Program” established four years ago to introduce students to DH concepts and tools.

“We don’t want them just using these measures and tools because they’re cool or nice. But we want them to use these tools to contextualize their research,” he said. “We want them to be thinking through how the use of some of these methods can enhance or change questions the field has been considering in other ways.”

There are a multitude of innovative examples of DH classes, including  “Digital Tools for the 21st Century: Sherlock Holmes’s London,” taught by Joanna Swafford, a SUNY New Paltz professor. She established a class in 2015 to introduce students to the digital humanities by using Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s short stories on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a template.

“With this structure, students learn some of the most important digital humanities methodologies, analyze the Holmes stories from multiple perspectives, and use the character of Holmes as a model for both humanistic and scientific inquiry,” she wrote in a July 2016 article for The Journal of Interactive Technology and Pedagogy.

“The stories also facilitate an interdisciplinary approach: they touch on issues of gender, class, race, the arts, politics, empire, and law. This ensures that students from almost any field can find something relevant to their major.”

For example, students examined “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in which Holmes matches wits with Irene Adler, the only woman from Doyle’s sagas who manages to defeat Holmes. Swafford’s class applied a word cloud to the story, finding that masculine words like “men,” “man,” and “gentleman appeared significantly more than words like “woman” or “lady.”

Students also created a word tree, finding the character of Holmes was more often associated with active verbs than the character of Adler. The teacher saw that visualizations could alter an initial idea a student may have of a particular piece of literature, increasing the potential for learning opportunities.

So, how can universities effectively integrate such technologies into traditional disciplines?

As classes become increasingly interdisciplinary, colleges and institutions could benefit from popularizing the examples set by innovative professors and administrators, who saw opportunity to expand the breadth of the traditional approach to disciplines via tech tools. Department chairs in the humanities can expand the breadth of their classes, while presidents of liberal arts institutions can view it as a way to entice potential applicants.

In applying new tech to traditional disciplines, students engage material with tools that could uncover new revelations, but it offers students based in the humanities an opportunity to garner experience with digital tools and data visualization.

Recent studies indicate that new programs will emerge that will be able to successfully prepare the next generation of employees. Gold said he had recently seen a movement back towards approaching teaching as discipline-focused. Instead of students viewing DH in isolation, for example, they are using DH tools and concepts in their humanities classes, signaling a gradual evolution and integration of tech into all aspects of higher education.

“I think a lot of people resist the encroachment of digital methods, but to me it’s like another analytical lens we could use to investigate a subject,” he said. “There is something to be gained by having those scholars together in an interdisciplinary space at times…but this shows these two areas of conversation can exist simultaneously and in collaboration.”


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