Monday, May 25, 2015

Some Challenges in Implementing Technology in Teaching


I love Twitter for many reasons, but most of all because, in my own experience and use of it, it has been an excellent way to connect with people and talk through ideas.  I learn something new every single day.  I tend to avoid fights, though I do frequently express my views on controversial subjects.  For me, Twitter has been a space for networking with a range of people who share my interests in education technology, digital pedagogy, and higher education policy.  It's also been a great space for thinking through and adding nuance to my views through dialogue with smart interlocuters.

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about the need for faculty to get up to date on education technology.  Implicit in my post was the view that classroom technologies like student response systems make it much easier to implement best practices in our teaching.  It's not that I want faculty using technology for the sake of technology; but rather, that education technology is a crucial tool for updating one's pedagogy to integrate current best practices.  The growing array of ed tech tools--which seems to expand by the day--makes it easier for us to do our job well, but it requires faculty to be aware of what is out there and figure out how to use it.

To give just a few examples: student response systems are a fantastic way to check comprehension and evaluate what topics need clarification, what topics are already well-understood in large enrollment classes (and even in small classes).  I use i>Clicker questions to tell me what I need to spend time on in class.  Instead of just running through my prepared lecture, I figure out what students understood from their pre-class work, and what they didn't.  I then spend the majority of my time on the parts they didn't understand.  It requires a lot of improvisation, and has completely changed the way I teach large classes.
 i>Clickers are especially helpful because they are anonymous and you get a response from all students, not just the few who raise their hands. 

A second example: we know that practice and rapid feedback are crucial for learning.  This can be entirely automated by creating a database of practice questions that include feedback for the students.  These practice questions let students practice answering questions; and they let them know quickly where they need to do more review.  In addition, well-written questions can push the students to make connections across the course.  In all of my classes now, I have a database of automatically graded questions (MC, matching, ordering, etc.) for the students to practice on and build their mastery of the course content.  This small change, which required a substantial initial investment of time, has done wonders for student learning.  Most obviously, it has meant that students can know do much more higher-order thinking in class and in other activities.

The incredible array of ed tech tools  is all great if you are fortunate enough to teach at a university where a. your classrooms are "smart," i.e. equipped with the technologies you want to use, like lecture capture; and even a good projector or Smart Board.  As well, if you want students working online during class, the room needs to be able to support those wireless connections.  In large enrollment courses, this can be a huge challenge.  Even at UT Austin, we only have a few classrooms that can reliably support more than 100 or so wireless connections at one time.  This should change when Google Fiber comes to campus; but UT is, in this respect, a very advanced campus.  More typically, austerity has meant significant cuts to IT budgets, and this has had serious consequences for classrooms.  At many non-elite, public universities, classrooms are seriously out of date.

And then there's the question of accessibility for students.  As Megan Kelly gently reminded me this morning on Twitter, i>Clickers are an additional expense for students, one that many don't want to take on.  In addition, especially in more rural areas, students don't necessarily have reliable access to a broadband connection.  Even if our campus libraries and such provide that access, it may not be feasible for a commuter student who is working 30-40 hours/week to remain on campus to do their homework and studying.  Even at UT Austin, this issue occasionally crops up.  The first semester that I taught my Introduction to Ancient Rome as a blended class, I had a lot of students who lived in the campus dorms.  They paid for broadband based on their usage at that time and many were upset to be using their broadband bytes for school instead of gaming or Netflix.  Again, no matter how eager an instructor might be to integrate digital assets into their course, it may not be feasible if the students can't easily access the online content.

As Megan noted, in the classroom there are some ways around these limitations, using analog tools that let us implement the same pedagogies.  I will say, when I teach on campus, I always opt for analog over digital--partly because we are still at a stage where things go wrong with the digital.  So, for example, I give low stakes, weekly quizzes.  It would be much, much easier to do these online but I can't assume that all students have a device to get online; nor can I assume that the wireless will support 200+ students at one time, especially on a timed quiz.  Rather than deal with endless tech issues, I use scantrons.  It's more work but it saves the hassle of constantly troubleshooting tech issues.

I am also a huge fan of student response systems in class.  But there are a lot of ways to do this, including making laminated cards of different colors and having students hold these up.  I ended up not using them, but I have a box of laminated cards, four colors held together my a ring.  I was planning to hand these out to students at the start of the semester and then collect them at the end.  These analog methods are not quite as easy as using an i>Clicker but it accomplishes the same goal.  I also do a lot of "talk to your neighbor" with complex questions and then have the groups click in with their response.  This could also be done with laminated cards.

One of the things that my conversation with Megan clarified for me was that, in pushing my faculty colleagues to get up to date on education technology, what I was really advocating was that they get up to date on the latest pedagogy, as they are informed by the learning sciences.  It's always about the pedagogy, not the technology.  Ed tech tools can make it a lot easier to integrate good pedagogical techniques into our classes--most especially in the area of providing immediate feedback and frequent practice.  But ed tech does not replace pedagogy; and much of what ed tech does can be accomplished with analog tools.

At the same time, it is crucial that universities invest in keeping their IT and classroom technology up to date.  This also seems like an area where foundations ought to be looking to provide financial assistance.  In addition, libraries should be places where students can go to do any work that requires a quick and reliable broadband connection.  This doesn't entirely solve the problem for our students, many of who are commuting to campus and working long hours off campus; but it at least provides the option.

Foundations like the Gates Foundation, I have an idea for you: provide stipends for students who don't have access to broadband at home.  Make it possible for them to sign up for broadband so long as they are registered students.  Similarly, it must be possible for companies like i>Clicker to provide under-resourced public universities, especially in more rural areas, with used i>Clickers (e.g. first generation i>Clickers).  These first generation clickers are perfectly functional for what most of us need and it would be a great service to students and instructors.  Just a thought...

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