Faculty Workshop — Making Technology Work for You

The Center for Teaching Excellence sponsored a workshop on technology in the classroom on Friday 24 February 2012.  The workshop began with presentations from Todd Romero (History), Rebecca Forrest (Physics), and Jennifer Lazzaro (IT support staff for CLASS).

Todd Romero began the discussion by stressing the importance of getting help from IT support staff when planning to employ new technologies in teaching. He thanked Jennifer Lazzaro for her help in helping him organize the material for his history courses. The challenge for the history department is to lower the failure and drop rates for the large (450 student) survey courses it offers as part of the Core Curriculum. Those rates have exceeded 50% in the past, although recent efforts have brought that number down. Romero used clickers in his class, but discontinued the practice in favor of alternative methods for increasing class involvement. The lesson is that it is important to find out what works for a given situation, and to adjust when a given technology does not help.

The technologies Romero uses now include video podcasts to help students improve their learning skills such as note taking, reading a textbook, and taking essay tests. Many students have had no prior experience in these areas. Romero also makes extensive use of e-mails, to remind students of items on the syllabus such as tests and major assignments, and to given students feedback on how they are doing in the course, both for those who are having trouble, and those who are doing well. He explained that his use of PowerPoint has evolved from text dense slides to the use of graphics such as editorial cartoons, maps and satellite images of parts of the world. He stressed the importance of making PowerPoints visually rich.

Romero described how technology is used in two online history classes, one on Native Americans and the other on witchcraft. Here lectures are replaced with shorter units of about 20 minutes that make extensive use of video podcasts, and film clips. Students are encouraged to engage in digital story telling, by working out their own graphical presentations on history topics. Developing a good script for a video can be as rewarding for the student as writing a paper, and many students have strong digital skills to draw on.

Romero has also used discussion boards extensively, and advises that it is not necessary to respond to everything, as he did at first. Now he takes the role of a moderator, who provides reminders, thanks students for their participation, and encourages further discussion.

Rebecca Forrest described her efforts to improve her introductory and upper-class physics courses. She used clickers as a method for peer instruction. A question is posed to the whole class. Students respond, and then discuss their answers in small groups, and are then asked to respond a second time. The hope is that the responses will converge on the right answer, and that the responses can be used as a focus of discussion of the topic at hand. Forrest no longer uses this method, as she now prefers to use that class time for demonstrations.

Forrest reported on three different online tactics she uses. The first is online systems for submission, grading and feedback on homework, which are supplied by many introductory physics textbooks. This is an improvement over manual submission and grading of homework where only a fraction of the problems can be graded by TAs, and feedback is not immediate.

A second online technique is to give short quizzes on material through Blackboard shortly before a class. She got the idea from project on teaching called Just in Time Teaching. The tests help guarantee that students are ready for a given class.

A third method Forrest uses is to provide online tutorials on math skills in the first two weeks of her introductory courses. Students in these courses are often not prepared mathematically, as evidenced by drop and failure rates in the 30% – 40% range. A diagnostic exam of math skills is given before the class begins, to warn students of their deficiencies, but even so, the problem persists. Online tutorials allow students to get back up to speed in math.

The main problem Forrest experiences is dealing with three different online systems, one for homework grading, one for quizzes (Blackboard), and one for tutorials. She is hoping that the homework systems can be integrated into Blackboard in the future.

Jennifer Lazzaro began by urging faculty to think hard about the issues they are trying to resolve before they worry about applications of technology. She described a wide range of technologies for the classroom, including Wimba, where one can create a virtual classroom with students and/or guest speakers at remote sites, and archive the entire proceedings for later use. She also mentioned Voice Boards to language training, TurnItIn for plagiarism checking, and convenient return of written comments by the instructor, Skype for virtual classrooms and guest speakers, and Google Hangout where up to 15 people can collaborate with video camera and microphone on a single document or blackboard. Lazzaro also described some successful teaching technology projects in CLASS, including a course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, where a website describing the pilgrimage of the characters is presented.

There followed a freewheeling discussion on a wide range of issues.

Frank Holt described the reactions faculty have to the technology revolution – from those who complain that there is no chalk in the room, to those like Forrest who develop a sophisticated range of technologies. The main problem he sees is that it is very difficult for faculty to see, and come to appreciate, the rich variety of technologies being deployed at UH. He suggested that we create a super course so that examples of best practices would be available to all.

The topic turned to the “blind” use of inappropriate technology. Jennifer Lazzaro pointed out that while Second Life is very exciting, it is far from clear how it can be successfully used in a given class setting. Rebecca Forrest pointed out that despite all the technology she deploys, she uses chalk to lecture. That is an advantage over PowerPoint, since the speed at which she is able to write matches the speed at which students can take notes effectively. When questioned about how her class of over 165 students can all see the board, she responded that she simply writes larger than usual. Jim Garson mentioned that working with PowerPoint restricts his movement and this is detrimental to keeping the class’s attention. Frank Holt remarked on the problem that turning ones back to write on the board automatically loses contact with the class. It was pointed out that using visual presentations has been around ever since the widespread use of slides. PowerPoint does help by providing more convenient storage and management of images, and the web has improved access to them.

The speakers were asked to comment on the amount of extra time it takes to use technology. Romero pointed out that his e-mail system can be managed with as little as a half an hour a week. Forrest pointed out that many of the things she must do to set things up online (such as setting up homework assignments) would have to be done in any case. She said that grading the pre class tests was manageable for 80 students, but for a class of 180 she needed to develop a new way that used multiple choice grading. In general, it is important to rethink how to do testing so as not to be swamped with the extra work. Her worst problem is managing the grades in three different system. Merging files where student lists are different can be challenging.

A discussion of the issues related to online grading of homework followed. Those systems are good at evaluating student answers, but not at evaluating the methods students used to arrive at them. It is not easy for such systems to award partial credit for a good derivation followed by a silly mistake in keying a value to a calculator. The worry is that online grading will stress getting the right answer, whereas what we want to teach is the correct method for deriving the answer. Furthermore, online grading does not encourage the student to work out a problem in detail on a piece of paper.

Near the end of the workshop, the topic turned to textbook publishers, the new online tools they provide, and the digital revolution in the way students will read them. Several participants mentioned heavy lobbying by textbook representatives interested in the large profits to be obtained by having a whole department adopt their text for an introductory course. Packages with textbook and online materials can run well over $200. As to whether these costs will come down for students who use digital readers rather than hard copy, Lazzaro thought that the answer was: No. At present, publishers offering packages where the student uses his or her digital reader are provided for a limited amount of time (6 months to a year), cannot be sold after their use, are harder to use than a hard copy text, and still cost only about $15 less. Frank Holt remarked on the poor quality of some texts, which are only lightly revised and retitled for use in very different courses.

High Impact Practices: how to incorporate them into hybrid as well as face to face classes?

After our discussion, I received the following question from Rex Koontz,

My big question regarding high impact practices is this: as we move to a more hybrid/blended system of course delivery, how can we build high impact practices into every level of hybridization?

This, I think, is a really good question. If we are moving to more hybrid or non-synchronous forms of course delivery, how do we make sure these practices are incorporated into those courses as fully as in face to face instruction?

This was my response to Rex, which I hope those of you who have taught hybrid or distance courses will comment upon.

In terms of the increasing hybridity of instruction, I’m not sure if this trend is advancing, or advancing in the right ways if we want to satisfy the equally compelling demands for better learning, improved graduation rates, post-grad success and so forth.  We would probably need better forms of assessment, for both hybrid and face to face courses, if we wanted more definite answers about this question.

All my courses, for example, use WordPress courseblogs, which is my favored delivery system. In all my courses, whether for undergraduates or graduate students, I use the course blog as a discussion forum, as a repository for required readings, as a portal for their online library resources, and as a space for their ongoing research results to be shared and reviewed.  There is no reason why this approach could not be emulated in BlackBoard, as many already do, or with other platforms.

These online interactions do not substitute for face to face interactions, but supplement them. My rule of thumb, which I have taken from the economist and NYT columnist Ed Glaeser, is that online interactions do not substitute for interactions, but supplement them, in more or less-powerful ways. This is a view that seems to be getting corroborated in at least some of the research that I have seen. (See, for example, this 2003 study by some sociologists at Berkeley).

In my view, if we are going to move towards greater hybridity, then we need to configure the online resources for optimal access, reliability and interactivity, and follow the same principles of pedagogy that we should have been using all along for face to face classes, but translated to this specific medium: these include active learning, independent research, authentic problem solving, group work, swift and detailed feedback, plenty of opportunities for practice, and so forth.

There are ways to do this with the online components of instruction, but they require development time and resources (and professional development for faculty), monitoring of what works and what doesn’t, and attentive revision and tweaking of course presentation over several iterations of the course. (and don’t forget IT support/course design infrastructures and possible additional personnel to provide high quality feedback and grading for large sections).

So building and sustaining the HIPs in the classroom necessarily entails careful planning and support at the front end, in the course design stage, and sometimes additional support during the semester itself, and then careful revision and updating at the back end, as courses are prepared for the next cycle.

At the very least, assignments have to be designed with these demands in mind, group work assignments and online forums for asynchronous coursework need to be set up beforehand.

Once the course is live and work is handed in, their work should receive some degree of peer review and instructor feedback. This feedback should prepare students to advance to the next level of difficulty with the material. And faculty need to have ways to communicate continually with students about their comprehension of the material, their concerns, and what questions they are developing.

In any case, those are my thoughts about how to develop a culture of teaching at UH that incorporates HIPs into every level and every aspect of interactions with students, both online and face to face. Best, DM