By Jonathan Lai
Camden County College math professor Lester Owens thought technology would solve many of education's problems, but many of his students wanted facetime, not FaceTime.
With a master's degree in instructional technology, he had designed a website with practice problems, created video lessons he could send to students' phones, and integrated clickers into his classes to instantly poll students. He's available for online videoconferencing every Sunday at 9 p.m.
"But then you find out a lot of students - and I'm in the Camden area - didn't have that technology that we all think they have," Owens said. "Just because you have a computer doesn't mean you have Internet access, and when you have a phone, it doesn't mean you have a smartphone."
And even some students with the latest gizmos found that the shiny screens and 4G networks were no match for a human touch.
So instead of being a frontline advocate for technologies being heralded today as educational solutions, Owens is standing solidly on middle ground.
"Over time you realize that technology has its place as a supplement," said Owens, 66, of Gloucester Township.
He officially teaches six Elementary Algebra classes at the college: two online, two during the day in Camden, and two evening classes on the school's main Blackwood campus in Gloucester Township.
On his own time, Owens dedicates Saturday afternoons to small-group tutoring at the Ferry Avenue library in Camden's Centerville neighborhood and at the Voorhees library.
In-person tutoring is everything iPad-assisted learning isn't: slow and time-consuming, intimate, hard to scale in size.
It is also, Owens said, exactly what many of his students needed.
"Access does not necessarily mean success. And success is only individual, learning is behavioral, education is a behavioral science, so we have to deal with the individual," Owens said.
Which is what the college is hoping to do.
The Department of Education on Thursday announced a list of 39 recipients for federal grants aimed at improving education at colleges and universities. Camden County College is the state's only recipient, set to receive $386,452, its first year of the three-year grant.
"We based our proposal really on student support on the individual support level," said Margaret Hamilton, the college's vice president of academic affairs. "It's not rocket science that people are unique, learners are unique, and we really need to teach them where they are."
Owens' work serves as one example - "He's his own little research experiment" - for how the school can expand its personalized learning, Hamilton said.
The way classes are structured, Owens said, many of his algebra students can and do sit through class, learn the material, and go home and get the work done.
Others find that difficult.
Tutoring bridges that gap, Owens said. Some simply think differently - "because of that personal attention, they get a chance to use their imagination and use the way they think." For others, each step is a struggle: How will they get to class when they are facing financial difficulty? How will they find time for homework while taking care of children? How will they think about class while also working full-time?
"You have to rethink how, when, and where learning's taking place," Owens said. "We really want to meet their needs, instead of them meeting what we say is needed from my class."
That accessibility has won over Sherise Payton, one of Owens' students this semester. But it's not her first go-round at Camden County College: Payton, 41, of Gloucester Township, also started the algebra class at the college right out of high school.
Frustrated by the professor's lack of clarity, she said, Payton ended up dropping the class.
This time, she not only attends the evening classes at the Blackwood campus, she each week attends the Voorhees tutoring sessions.
And she does so happily: "I just enjoy going, I enjoy the lesson, I enjoy getting the information," she said.
Last week, Deidre Gray, an English as a Second Language adjunct at the college, joined Owens in community tutoring sessions. She has agreed to help students with reading and writing skills, to complement Owens' math instruction, which he has done in some form since 1993 and formalized into a regular schedule for the past three years.
The ultimate goal, they said, is to have an army of professors dedicating time to direct instruction with students.
"We may be from old school, but education is a human interaction," said Gray, 64, of Pine Hill. "It's people, people learning and students who have a willingness to learn, and interact, and gain respect in knowing the necessity of what they're learning, the knowledge they're gaining."
"That's why I think face-to-face is still very important, but I'm not trashing technology. It has its place," Gray said.
And for students like Payton, who are more comfortable with direct instruction, technology's role should be minimized, Owens argued. In Payton's case, Owens' approach has opened up a new area of interest.
"I'm not comfortable doing classes online, I'd rather see the person face-to-face so I can ask questions and be more engaged," Payton said. "Having this class even makes me want to go further. It really gives me excitement about what's to come."