CSUSB communication studies professor honored for technological innovation


Mihaela Popescu says she was just doing her job.

Mihaela Popescu

Mihaela Popescu

So it was a big surprise for the Cal State San Bernardino assistant professor in communication studies to learn that she was one of four California State University faculty to be honored with the 2012 Sony Electronics Faculty Award for Innovative Instruction with Technology.

“I am certainly very surprised,” Popescu said. “I never expected that what I’m doing would be recognized in any way.”

Popescu and the three other CSU faculty members were honored by the CSU Chancellor’s Office and Sony Electronics Inc., in partnership with Intel Corp., for “their current and potential innovative use of technology in delivering quality and affordable education to students and encouraging continued achievements in teaching,” according to the announcement of the award by Gerry Hanley, CSU senior director for academic technology services, and Steve Zimmer, business development manger for Sony Electronics-Sony Direct.

Also receiving the award were Eric Haas-Stapleton, assistant professor, department of biological sciences, Cal State Long Beach; Kate Lockwood, assistant professor, department of information technology and communications design, Cal State Monterey Bay; and S. Steve Arounsack, department of anthropology, geology and ethnic studies, Cal State Stanislaus.

All were given a Sony VAIO laptop computer and accessories, a Sony Alpha digital camera and accessories, and a Sony Xperia tablet and accessories.

Popescu said the award has allowed her to broaden her network of fellow instructors to allow for more collaboration to design technology-based courses that allow students to learn subject matter easier, in a way that they find most comfortable and meaningful to them.

Also, the award provides Cal State San Bernardino the “opportunity of sending a signal or a statement that our campus is on the cutting edge of technology for better pedagogy,” she said.

When Popescu started experimenting with social media technology in the classroom in 2009, she found that “when used mindfully, digital technologies create authentic encounters with students – from enabling instructors to reach out to learners in an environment that felt most familiar to them, to providing ‘affinity spaces’ in which learners with similar interests could work together on common tasks,” she wrote a statement on teaching with technology that was submitted to the CSU. “I strive to work with, not against, the media technologies that students use as part of their everyday experience.”

That first course, Digital Media and Communication, had students use Flickr (an online photo sharing site), YouTube and micro-blogging to produce multimedia narratives about themselves to be shared with their peers. For most students, that was the technology they felt most comfortable with.

The result, Popescu said, was that “students learned about the creation of online identities, commented on each other’s work, initiated conversations about online identity management and reputation mechanisms, and generally performed much better in the final exam than previous classes exposed to the same textbook.”

The challenge of education is to “articulate the bridge between the students’ life and what we are trying to teach them,” Popescu said. So if social media, immersive technology, such as Second Life, and online games can achieve those purposes, “then why not use them?” she said.

“The challenge (for the instructor) is not keeping up with the technology – that’s the easy part,” Popescu said. “The challenge is to design assignments that make meaningful use of technology. Technology is never the end objective. Technology is the way to get better interaction, more authentic meetings between students and the instructor, and students with students, to help them understand something in a way that feels more natural to them.”

She said technology also has helped her gauge how well students understand the information she gives them in the classroom by providing her the opportunity to see how they apply it outside of classroom time. For example, through online venues, such as Facebook, other students would spontaneously join in conversations about a class topic that were not bound by classroom time, Popescu said.

With her participating in the conversation, she said “it developed different relationships between the students and me. We became, if not friends, at least people on the same level. They used me as resource in ways they didn’t dare do in class, where the distance between us – the psychological distance – was so large. It was a way to connect in more sincere terms.”

She explained it this way: text messaging, being on Facebook or getting on Google+, for example, are things students do outside the classroom. To have an instructor “meet them there (where they felt more comfortable) changed the terms of the relationship for the better.”

While the use of technology can make learning easier for students, Popescu cautioned that it should not be seen as a universal solution. Not all students learn as easily as others, and different students have different learning styles. “So it’s important for lesson designers to know the particular audience of students,” she said.

With that in mind, the opportunities still seem boundless for instructors. “As students become more tech savvy,” she said, “we can certainly do more with these technologies as instructors get more accustomed to them. There are creative ways in which to use these technologies that we don’t even know about. To be able to learn what makes sense for students and to communicate with them on their own terms, that is an opportunity for us if we manage to do it right.”

Cal State San Bernardino, which has launched a Digital Literacies Series through the CSUSB Teaching Resource Center, is moving in that direction, she said.

“What I see happening is the entire campus coming together to better understand technology, and have deeper conversations about how to use it in the classroom,” Popescu said. And to be part of that is the “highest joy. It’s like what I’ve always wanted, to be part of a community of learners, and to serve all students better that way.”

For more information on Cal State San Bernardino, contact the university’s Office of Public Affairs at (909) 537-5007 and visit news.csusb.edu.