Technology is evolving the way educators teach and helping tech-savvy students stay more engaged in their classwork. Whether by incorporating innovative ways to share information, or by connecting with students taking classes online, new technology-enabled teaching and learning tools are helping to expand the walls of the traditional classroom.
An aphorism often quoted in education circles — “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” — dates back all the way back to Chinese Confucian philosopher Xunzi (312-230 BC) and yet is no less true today.
These words of wisdom are particularly apropos to the increased use of technology in higher ed teaching practices. Today’s students are intrigued by the latest and greatest gadgets and many aren’t interested in learning the “old fashioned way”.
“When I was an undergraduate, my faculty used chalk and chalkboards,” says Clarion University psychology professor, Jeanne M. Slattery. “They were the sage on the stage. That works well for some faculty and students, but this strategy often falls short for students who are not initially engaged by the material. The new learning technologies, when used well, open doors for both faculty and students.”
Teaching with technology
When Slattery first started teaching Abnormal Psychology, she used chalk, overheads, and a few videos, which limited the kind of information she could share. Today, she uses PowerPoint to help students organize the vast amount of information discussed; YouTube to give students a range of perspectives on a single diagnosis; discussion boards so students can continue their conversations outside of class; and Google Docs, so they can collaborate.
“Our learning management system allows me to post assignments, handouts, rubrics, videos, and grades in one place,” she says. “This can put my students in charge of their learning; they know their grades, can identify when an assignment was completed, and can find the readings they need — even at 2 a.m.”
Slattery is not alone in her innovative teaching methods. Thanks to technology, more and more educators are finding new and better ways to prepare students for the future.
To help teachers gain a better understanding about their students’ level of engagement in the classroom, Amy Ogan, assistant professor of Human-Computer Interaction at Carnegie Mellon School of Computer Science, is using vocal recognition sensors to gain insights about what students are learning, whether they are collaborating or challenging each other’s ideas, and what things actually prompt students to listen.
Ogan uses depth cameras and microphone arrays to collect the information on a computer database. In the classrooms she has tested so far, Ogan provides a dashboard to the teachers, which shows them everything that happened in their classrooms that day so they can determine how their actions impact student outcomes. A red light may signal to stop talking and let students ask questions; a green light could mean the teacher has their attention and should keep going. Eventually, teachers will use the sensors’ data to influence their teaching in real time.
Technological advances in the classroom are also a key contributor to improving students’ soft skills. In fact, in a study of 16 colleges and universities, Steelcase Education researchers found that “instead of using class time to spoon-feed information, technology is helping instructors use their time with students to advance problem solving, communications, and collaboration.”
Other interactive learning technologies have yielded real and measurable successes. Smita Bakshi is co-founder and CEO of zyBooks, which develops interactive software for undergraduate courses in nursing, computer science, and engineering. She notes computer science professors at Eastern Florida State community college are seeing their highest retention rates in 25 years after switching from static textbooks to zyBooks’ digital interactive textbooks.
“The digital textbooks don’t simply replicate traditional books in a new medium, but instead offer opportunities for students to practice coding and receive instant feedback directly from within their ‘textbook’ itself,” Bakshi says. “This is growing thanks to forward-thinking instructors who are willing to experiment and want to see higher retention rates in their courses.”
Perhaps the most influential change in teaching methods since the turn of the 21st century involves students taking higher education classes via the Internet. Flexibility of schedules, an increase of hybrid models, and the ability to use smartphones and apps to conduct classwork have made distance learning more appealing. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of people taking online classes has skyrocketed to more than 6 million students.
Judith V. Boettcher, author of A Faculty Guide for Moving Teaching and Learning to the Web, compiled a list of the top tips for online teaching success. Among the most important, she shares, is to be present at the course site. “Liberal use of a faculty’s communication tools, such as announcements, discussion board postings, and forums,” she says, “communicates to the students that the faculty member cares about who they are, cares about their questions and concerns, and is generally present to do the mentoring and challenging that teaching is all about.”
Other tips include presenting a set of very clear expectations for students; preparing discussion posts that invite questions, discussions, reflections and responses; and combining core concept learning with customized and personalized learning.
Peirce College, one of the first accredited colleges in the U.S. to offer a complete online degree program, was also one of the first to revamp its technology infrastructure to accommodate the school’s increase in online enrollment. Michael Mozeliak, director of IT at Peirce College, notes the infrastructure improvements allowed the school to increase its speed in data transfer, conduct disaster recovery and maintain business continuity (should any natural disaster strike), and rely on a robust backup center. These are necessary components for any university offering online classes and distance education courses at the postsecondary level.
Rise of innovation
One new phenomena influencing people from classrooms to admissions offices is livestream video. In the past, livestream video was incredibly complicated and expensive to produce. In the more recent years, however, advancements in technology have made it more accessible to the average user. This is influencing educators to rethink how they can immerse students in a curriculum, and some admissions directors at universities even use this technology to produce live campus tours.
Take, for instance, a lesson on Civil War history: now students at a California-based university can instantly travel to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to explore the battlefield and ask a tour guide questions in real-time via a live video tour.
Vin Forese, president of Link-Systems International, an educational technology company with student-centric eLearning solutions, notes that the company’s Refer Tutor Report empowers faculty to direct tutoring efforts and see into tutoring sessions. Other technology, he adds, is changing how professors stay in touch with students.
“WorldWideWhiteboard, for example, offers web conferencing enhanced by features and functionality developed specifically for education,” Forese says. “Faculty can connect with students during online office hours, helping to address distance education requirements like regular and effective or substantive contact.”
Training and education company ViziTech USA has installed its unique 3D training technologies in a growing number of colleges and universities, such as Savannah Technical College, Georgia Regents University, and Embry Riddle University. Professors can put students in a virtual world to help prepare them for jobs in commercial, military, education, and healthcare fields.
Fordham University’s Kristen Hawley Turner, associate professor of English education and contemporary literacies in the Division of Curriculum and Teaching, supports the development of distance learning programs and effective instructional practices in virtual learning environments. As the world has evolved and digital has become part of our daily lives, she says, she’s tried to incorporate technologies into her teaching that help students develop skills they need to participate fully in society.
“For example, collaboration is a key skill in both academic and professional settings, and collaborating across time and space [digitally] is becoming increasingly important,” she says. Turner sees wikis — websites that allow shared editing of content and structure by users — as valuable tools in building these skills.
“Wikis allow students to build content collaboratively, holding discussions virtually as they create,” she says. “The product of the wiki itself can serve as content delivery or resources for other students in the future. I’ve seen success as my classes build wikis over time, each group adding to what the group before has created.” Turner has also seen other students outside of the classes using the wikis as resources.
Many of these technology innovations are leading toward more and better teaching and learning experiences for educators and students. Personalized learning, where educators and students use real-time learning data to optimize the learning experience, bring a new wave of technology innovation to learning.
But, despite the variety and accessibility of these innovative tools and methods, many educators aren’t yet ready to embrace the technology. Bakshi feels that, although auto-graded, auto-feedback systems offer instructors more time to plan lessons and monitor learning, these technologies aren’t being adopted as widely as they should be.
“The lag is expected because it’s natural to resist change, but also detrimental because truly transformative tools are left underutilized,” she says. “Forward-thinking instructors who are willing to experiment and want to see higher retention rates in their courses will be successful. It’s difficult to teach a willingness to try new things, especially when an instructor has years of experiences and what they consider to be a time-tested approach.”
Educational innovations can also fail when they are adopted paternalistically by zealous departments and districts without first consulting educators and students about the real needs “on the ground.” Wide-scale tech adoption succeeds only when teachers and learners are invited to the conversation as equal stakeholders.
Slattery admits technology isn’t necessarily always better, acknowledging it can be used at the wrong place, at the wrong time. But, for her, the possibilities are vast. “In my own teaching, technology has often been freeing,” she says. “It allows me to imagine different ways to approach things, which keeps both me and the students engaged.”
Stephanie Keer, education and government solutions manager at Konica Minolta Business Solutions, believes higher education institutions must be structured in ways that allow for flexibility while spurring creativity and entrepreneurial thinking.
“The challenge becomes one of integrating blended learning with non-traditional ways of teaching — both online and in class. This requires use of the Internet, videos, and interactive exercises that foster creative thinking,” she says. “Educators must understand the complex pedagogies that support more interactive learning. Universities should even encourage faculty and staff to hone their own entrepreneurial skills through professional development and opportunities.”
Bakshi agrees. When it comes to technology, she warns not to treat the classroom like a cocoon or an island. “There is innovation everywhere, perhaps even next door. Get out and watch your colleagues, attend workshops, and be willing to try anything,” she says. “Never get so stuck in your ways that you are no longer excited by innovation.”
Keith Loria is a freelance writer specializing in business and education. He has also taught English and Journalism at The College of New Rochelle and other higher education institutions.