3 Myths of Using Digital Tools in the Higher Education Classroom

College professors account for a sizeable portion of educators who, though they appreciate the value of digital tools and materials, do not use them to teach. All too often, faculty members see digital tools and materials as the ‘second best’ options when compared to traditional ones. Why is there such apathy or resistance toward edtech in the higher education classroom? I believe the answer lies in the deep-seated misconceptions and outright fears that some higher education professionals have towards technology.

Recently, I stumbled upon a new eBook from Pearson titled, Why I Went Digital. In it, higher education professionals discuss why they decided to start using digital tools and materials in their classrooms. After reading the eBook, I reflected on some of the myths that discourage higher education professionals from using digital tools and decided to write a piece that discerns myth from reality. In this piece, I will list and discuss each myth and counter it with reality, backed up by research. I will also use the experiences of the professors from the eBook to offer real-world examples.

Myth #1: Math must be taught in a face-to-face format.  Many higher education professionals think that subjects such as math are best taught exclusively in a face-to-face format. They believe a professor must teach students how to solve problems in a linear step-by-step process. In their minds, attempting to teach all or a portion of a math class online would be setting your students up for failure. However, this could not be further from the truth.

The Reality: In, Why I Went Digital, Jessica Benards, a math instructor at Portland Community College, declares that she used to think students wouldn’t learn math in a digital format. She believed that students had to see every step and review every problem with a professor to learn math. Thankfully, her colleague Wendy Fresh talked her into using MyLab™ Math, and she ended up getting phenomenal results. MyLab™ Math is an online tutorial and assessment tool that is designed to provide engaging experiences and personalized learning so that each student can succeed and pass the course.

The colleagues decided to do a one-year study to test the efficacy of MyLab™ Math vs. traditional teaching and learning methods. They both taught two sections of a math class concurrently – with one class working exclusively from a print book, and another class doing the problems in MyLab™ Math. Everything else about the courses stayed the same. The passage rate was 14% higher for the class that worked exclusively with MyLab™ Math.

George Woodberry, a professor at The College of the Sequoias shares a story concerning his first online teaching experience. He encountered many challenges, which centered around the significant differences between the capabilities and academic performance of his online and traditional students. Because of this, George believed that they were missing the in-person lecture.

Then he had an epiphany; the in-person lecture wasn’t the problem, it was the lack of interaction between the students and the material. He solved his problem by recording his classroom lectures on VHS tapes and allowing his students to check out copies. The process wasn’t perfect, but his students started to perform better academically. From that experience, he discovered that there’s an advantage to the pause button and that allowing students to learn in a digital format is more productive than with traditional text.

Myth #2: Courses taught in an online format only allow minimal student engagement. Students see the ability to interact with their instructor as crucial to a good learning experience. Some people believe that since students can’t directly interact with their professors or classmates in an online course, student engagement either suffers or is nonexistent. This is a myth as the digital format offers a plethora of ways for students to engage with each other.

The Reality: In an online course, the interaction between individuals can take several forms, including (but not limited to) detailed feedback over email, online forums or discussion boards, voice feedback using a voice feedback tool and video chat sessions. In the eBook, Terry Austin, a biology professor at Temple University offered these insights: “I’m finding that the students engage a lot easier online than in the classroom. With online lab discussions, the students are sharing effective ways to study with each other. When someone’s slipping, two or three of them will jump in and help them out. It’s become a community of learning instead of a single individual trying to battle the material.”

Sam Sommers a social psychologist and professor of psychology at Tufts University and Lisa Shin, professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Tufts University have developed some innovative ways to use digital tools to engage students outside of the classroom. In the eBook, Sam discusses how they engage students with digital tools: “It allows our students to share journal prompts and shared writing assignments. It allows us to have, embedded into the text, video reenactments of famous psychology experiments, so they can see for themselves how these studies looked.”

Lisa chimes in with some keen insights about implementing digital tools outside of the classroom: “What we’ve found, rolling out the Revel platform in our classes, is that students initially express some wariness before using an eText. But as the semester rolls along, they become more enthusiastic about using that technology.”

Myth #3: Artificial intelligence will replace professors. Some are beginning to wonder whether the expertise of professors is on its way to becoming obsolete in our colleges and universities. Are we headed to a brave new world in which professors are replaced by giant computer screens and a tech coach to assist on the sidelines? What will the role of the higher education professional be in this robotic classroom of the future? Many professors’ worry that artificial intelligence will take their jobs. They need not worry about robots taking over schools anytime soon. A recent study conducted by Pearson predicts that there is a 73.04% chance that the teaching profession will experience growth in the coming decades, and 0.00% chance that it will shrink. While artificial intelligence can teach students skills or reinforce difficult concepts for struggling students, it can’t replace a human professor.

Reality: Let’s face it: Good professors will never become obsolete. Students may be digital natives, but they still must be taught how to construct knowledge for themselves and navigate higher education. The best professors care about us and inspire us to do our best. And that will never go out of style. However, there are tremendous opportunities for artificial intelligence and professors to work in tandem to help students reach their potentials.

As Karen Gross, a higher education consultant puts it in the ebook: “I think the potential for technology and AI are enormous, and they call for us to rethink what and how we teach across the entire educational pipeline.” Pearson also sees this potential, as the IBM™ Watson Tutor is now included in select Revel products. This provides students with the benefits of an in-person tutor — like targeted feedback, motivation, and shared knowledge — minus the cost and hassle of finding one.


The bottom line is that many higher education professionals have their myths and misconceptions about edtech, many of which discourage them from utilizing it in their classrooms. The reality is that there are lots of digital tools and materials, that if used correctly, can positively impact student learning. For the professionals of tomorrow to reach their full potential and compete globally, they need to be taught by higher education professionals that can tap into the power and promise of edtech. When we can move from myths to realities, then and only then, will digital learning reach its potential in the higher education classroom.

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