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Students at Hamilton's McMaster University can hear the first lecture of the year for introductory psychology this week without going anywhere near a classroom.

In a break with tradition, the course's main lectures will be prerecorded and posted on the Web, available for students to watch when they have a free half hour and an Internet connection.

The online lectures, on topics such as colour perception and sexual motivation, are available only to students and, to ward off procrastination, are posted for a limited time. They include interactive slides, practice quizzes and a search function.

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Students can pause or rewind, join chat groups or e-mail questions.

"I want them to think psychology is cool," says the course's creator, Professor Joe Kim.

"The old lecture model, that is what we are used to, but in a large hall it is not the most satisfying experience."

Prof. Kim, 35, has spent long hours this summer redesigning a course which, with upward of 3,000 students, is easily the largest on campus. He's already recorded all 13 of his fall lectures in a studio, with the help of a homemade teleprompter and a sizable support crew.

Such online, on-demand instruction is a far cry from the standard lecture format, and it's the latest development in a long line of changes in the classroom.

Higher education is becoming increasingly high-tech as professors look for ways to engage a generation raised on the Internet and video games.

The burgeoning use of technology also raises questions about the nature of university education, as schools use it to cope with growing class sizes and limited resources.

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The only required face-to-face contact at the McMaster course, for instance, are tutorial groups of 40 to 45 students led by third- or fourth-year undergraduates that meet twice a week.

Is the tech wave a way to enhance education, or simply to make do with less?

"This generation of students, they expect teachers to be more than a talking head," says Veselin Jungic, a math professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby.

Prof. Jungic says he has overhauled his teaching style since he came to Canada from his native Bosnia. Along the way, he also has created a superhero - Math Girl - and two animated short films to help explain difficult concepts to his first-year calculus class.

The early morning introductory course is likely the hardest thing his students will face during their fall term, so he created the cartoons - available on YouTube by searching Math Girl - as an unthreatening way to introduce difficult topics, he says.

"At 8:30, you make 500 people laugh. That is a good start. That creates a chance for a teacher to reach those students," he explains.

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After showing the cartoon, he spends his lecture discussing the concept and then finishes by playing the cartoon again.

Preliminary studies show that students who watch the cartoons - inspired by a former top student - have a better grasp on the material. "There is something, I call it magic, in that pop culture. It really reaches young people," Prof. Jungic says.

He is working on his third instalment with local artist Lou Crockett, which will focus on pi.

Across the country, professors are experimenting with other approaches to get their messages across.

Many are putting lectures on podcasts for students to listen to at their leisure. A handful have gone one step further than Prof. Kim at McMaster and are using video podcasting, offering all their lectures and course material online without any face-to-face meetings.

Others have introduced "clickers" in the classroom that allow them to poll students as a way of increasing interaction in large lecture halls. At the University of British Columbia, technology is being used to increase student feedback, with the rollout of online professor-evaluation forms.

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Julia Christensen Hughes, head of the business department at the University of Guelph and a long-time champion of improving teaching practices, applauds these attempts to enrich the old lecture model.

"The classroom should be a value-added experience. It should not be just a straight transmission of information," she says.

At the same time, she cautions that "technology is not a panacea" and cannot be a substitute for face-to-face contact. "For me, learning is a social activity."

At McMaster, Prof. Kim agrees. In addition to his online lectures, he plans to give optional "live" talks on special topics.

He also plans to spice up his online offerings with hidden features that his students can discover and game shows involving students and tutorial assistants from the course. He's thinking he'll model it after Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

He says given the number of students who enroll in his course, teaching in person would mean cramming thousands of them into a large lecture hall.

In past years, students in the course went to tutorials and watched a videotape of the lecture. This new format allows more time for discussion in class and forces them to become involved as they listen, he says.

While most of the personal instruction will come from undergraduates, Prof. Kim says his new job is designed with an emphasis on teaching, and the majority of his time will be devoted to this course.

He will be dropping in on tutorials, he says, and holding regular office hours if students prefer to ask questions in person.

Finally, as a professor of psychology, he's hoping to use the new course design to study how this new generation of students learns. The real test, he says, will be whether the combination of interactive, online learning and small group meetings will allow students to take in difficult concepts more easily.

"I'll be watching how they perform," he says.

CALCULUS SUPERHERO

How does a math professor create a cartoon superhero?

Veselin Jungic says he got the idea from watching the way his two sons, now grown, were captivated by characters in pop culture. "These superhero characters, they are able to bring a message to young people," said Prof. Jungic, 52, in English that carries the accent of his native Bosnia.

He started thinking that he could use a superhero to turn learning calculus into a positive experience for his first-year students. One day in 2003, as he handed back mid-term tests to students, he found his inspiration. Only one student got 100 per cent and, when he asked her to stand up, he saw a tiny young woman reluctantly rise in the large lecture hall. "That was my math girl," he said.

Prof. Jungic says he still has lots to learn about being a writer. The cartoons, filled with formulas and complicated concepts, are not likely to make it into a Saturday morning time slot. Still, there have been refinements. The first Math Girl episode, for example, didn't have a villain, but one was created for the sequel at the advice of his students. Prof. Jungic says he also has gained inspiration from old episodes of the Batman television series and predicts Math Girl 3, now in production, will be his best yet.

"I am just warming up," he said.

Elizabeth Church

Cool tools

The latest crop of university students share many characteristics that professors can use to improve the teaching experience, says University of Guelph professor Julia Christensen Hughes. They are generally tech-savvy, are comfortable communicating online and are more willing to learn through trial and error than their parents.

"When they get a new piece of technology," she said, "they aren't going to look at the manual."

The same goes for the wave of young professors arriving on Canadian campuses. But just because technology is available doesn't mean every learning experience needs lots of bells and whistles, Prof. Christensen Hughes says. Posing questions and encouraging discussion is also a great way to foster different kinds of learning, she says.

"Some students find it very refreshing to go into a course without PowerPoint because it is a break," she said.

The trick, she believes, is to offer students a variety of learning options so that they can pick the style that works for them.

Some of the techniques now being used include:

Course websites: There are lots of developments on this front as websites evolve from a source of general information such as lecture outlines and assignment schedules to interactive hubs with discussion groups, professor blogs and links to journal articles or other sources.

Podcasts: Making lectures available in MP3 format is becoming a popular feature of many courses. The option means students can catch up on a missed class, review material at exam time or go over difficult concepts at their own pace. Many podcasts are also available to the general public. But some scholars worry students will forgo class altogether and just listen online.

Video podcasts: A few professors have gone one step further and created recordings with pictures and text that can be downloaded onto computers, MP3 players or even video-game consoles. They also allow students to review material and go at their own pace, but also provide charts, slides, video and other features for students who are visual learners.

Elizabeth Church

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