Monday, August 22, 2005

First Steps with Learning Technology

We start fall semester classes on Wednesday --- a new beginning. The last few days I’ve done some orientation presentations on learning technology targeted at instructors who are new to campus. What should we tell them? The right answer, I’m sorry to say, is much less than I’d like to tell them. My 15 minute talk is mostly about where to find resources and how gain access to them. That’s obviously necessary info for them to have and I’ve been doing these things for enough years now that I know trying to show more at a first session is really counterproductive.

But since this blog is my form of work related indulgence, I’m going to recast my assignment here. Suppose I am the mentor for a couple of new junior faculty members and I am coaching them about their teaching. What would I tell them? What about using technology? Where do they start? How can we make their initial experience successful in the sense that they remain sufficiently interested in learning technology to want to do more with technology the next time they teach and, more generally, they want to continue to experiment with their teaching?

My view is that this is all about finding the right question to ask. One way to get at that right quest is to talk with the instructor and inquire about what they are trying to achieve with their teaching. For somebody who has been teaching for a while but has not used Web based teaching tools, this is probably a good place to begin, because they will have an informed view of their teaching goals. Then the technology recommendations become subservient to those articulated goals and the technology itself can be viewed instrumentally as helping to address those goals.

But I think for junior faculty, in particular, this is not the best way to go about things because while they may have definite views about teaching, they will not have done much of it themselves and so they can’t be reflective on teaching based on their experience as teachers. They can, of course, reflect on their experience as students and possibly on their experience as teaching assistants. It’s not as if that is entirely irrelevant but there is a bit of apples and oranges to the comparison.

I also thing it is critical here to encourage the new instructors to be empirical in their views about teaching. Whatever the approach they do come up with, they need some way for their experience and the experience of their students to impact the changes they make and the next experiments they want to try. The evidence need not be quantitative, but it has to be measured in some way.

Armed with that, I’d suggest the following question for the instructor. What do you know about how students feel or think about your course? (Do they think it is hard? Or easy? Do they think it is boring? Or exciting stuff? Do they think they are getting something out of the course? Or spinning their wheels?) The obvious related question is: how do you know this?

During the process of discussing those questions, I hope it would come up naturally that presentation of content in general and lecturing specifically tells very little on this score. The instructor learns from the questions and comments the students pose. And in a small class setting the body language of the students may convey something about their interest. But students often sit on their hands and wait for others in the class to ask questions. And the body language feedback is often quite insufficient to understand the teaching issues.

I would then lobby real hard with the instructor on the following point, which is fairly basic to economics. Revealed preference information (information that emerges as people make real choices) is much more compelling than information that comes out from providing survey responses, because the respondent usually has little stake in the answers being provided in a survey. It’s not that the respondents are deceitful, it’s just that what they are considering is hypothetical and not tied to anything of consequence for them. This is an issue with all survey research.

So not only do we have the first question for the instructor, we have a strong bias about how to collect the data to answer the question. If possible, we’d like to get at that by observing the students doing the work of the course. And now we have a natural gateway into thinking about the use of technology – it exposes the instructor to some of the student thinking.

Framed this way, it is almost impossible for the instructor to conclude that the right first step is to put up PowerPoints and other course information. That just doesn’t follow. They may do it anyway, perhaps as a teaser to get the students to the course Web site. But as the primary goal, it doesn’t fit.

I will say that perhaps the instructors shouldn’t even come to me for the mentoring the very first semester they are teaching. Perhaps they need some stumbles before they are ready for the help I can provide. In that first semester, starting with the PowerPoints might be right because it is straightforward to do (and usually the students want that content). And this is how we preach in my ed tech unit about getting started. But I have reservations about that because the benefit is pure logistics, nothing about learning, and I think putting off the learning benefits for a semester or two can be a way to turn the instructor off to experimenting with the teaching.

At this point, there seems to be two possible paths, a veritable fork in the road.

Path one is to use the discussion board tool in the way engineering classes use newsgroups – as an area to seek and provide help. In other words, the tool is not where the course work is done, it is only where questions and problems with the course work get vetted and resolved. The good aspects of this approach are that: it encourages the students to help one another, the students who pose a query can reasonably expect a timely response because it is not just the instructor who might respond, and it cuts down on the instructor having to address the same query over and over again. Of course some students might lurk only and not post, so what the instructor observes will be more about those that actively participate, just as in class discussion reveals more about those students who frequently raise their hands.

Path two is to use content surveys as part of the course work. Periodically, say once a week, a question or two are posed on some substantive aspect of the course, perhaps after the student has been asked to read some information on the topic. The student is to respond with a paragraph or so, giving his own thinking on the issue. To keep the instructor’s evaluation work on this manageable, the instructor provides response to the class ensemble, not to individual students, and there is a participation grade only, did the work or not, no letter grading. The advantage of this approach is that it encourages all students in the class to participate. There may be some issues with the students taking the work seriously when there is only a participation grade. But it is my experience that if the instructor can credibly convey that the student work is being read and that the class lessons really do adjust as a consequence to what the instructor has learned from reading what the students have said, then the students will participate in full.

Which path one tries in a first time teaching may be a matter of instructor taste, subject matter, class size and other resources that the instructor has at her disposal. So I don’t want to advocate for one approach fitting all class settings. Yet the reader will note that I haven’t suggested using discussion boards for required online class discussions, nor have I suggested using other collaboration tools for some other type of student writing. My belief is that those are fine to do when the instructor is further along, but they are harder to do well so shouldn’t be tried at first. The instructor should get some experience with simpler approaches initially and only then branch out.

Should we stop the instructors who are more ambitious? Absolutely not. But in figuring out what to say in these first steps discussions with new faculty, let’s avoid the standard teaching mistake of casting ourselves in the role of the new instructors. And let’s remember that primarily we’re trying to help them be more effective as teachers. Turning them into technophiles has to be a lower order priority.


Juliette White said...

We tried the first of these approaches - providing discussion boards as a place to seek and provide help - for some of our engineering and physics courses this last year. But we found the usage from students was low.

I was wondering if you had any ideas about how to present the concept to students to encourage them to use the discussion boards more?

Lanny Arvan said...

Juliette -

When I did this big time about 5 years ago, the two things we did were to have TAs online during the evening so tht the students knew they would get fairly quick response from one of them and we did a face to face training session which made sure the students knew where in the program to go to access this.

It may be that your students have other means (for example, instant messaging with some of their classmates) that they are more comfortable with.

There may also be some issues with the language of the communication. (I wrote about that in today's post.)

For this type of approach to work the students have to perceive a need and that the discussion board satisfies the need.

If something else is satisfying the need, I see no reason to use discussion boards. If the need is not being satisfied perhaps the instructor and whatever support the instructor has can put in some effort to show the value of using the discussion board.

I hope that helps.

Anonymous said...

When I got feedback from the students a certain proportion of them did indeed say that their needs were being met through other channels. I'm wondering about whether to repeat this with any courses this coming year, and if so if we should do anything differently. Face-to-face sessions are very awkward logistically here, but it might be worth the effort.

One thing that was slightly interesting is that a huge number said that they liked the fact that the discussion boards were there even if they didn't use them, so it might have contributed to the students' experiences anyway!

Lanny Arvan said...

The students expressed an interest in face to face office hours with the TAs, so we provided that. They were hardly used.

I think the causality definitely has to run from teaching issue to technology intervention and not vice versa. But perhaps some low cost "phantom" interventions, like a discussion board that gets few posts, does have some value in creating the impression that the student need is being accommodated.

One other point is that the students may segment - some like to IM with their peers for help, others really would prefer to get assistance from the instructor or the instructor's assistants. Then you have to ask how much intervention the instructor should provide given that only a minority of the students will benefit.

Banba said...

I have found that telling my classes that I am watching their online behaviour (via blackboard usage stats) is the incentive that they need.

I tell them that I am much more understanding towards the struggling student who has perused ALL of the suggested on-line resources (and not just the night before the test/exam). I post overall course-site usage graphs in my lectures and have also done simple correlations of marks versus nunmber of on-line visits (overall and by specific areas such as the discussion boards). The numbers speak for themselves (there is a significant postive correlation between online visits and grades....except for some outliers....some students struggle alone online for a long time before getting help in person...and this information is also useful to discuss in class). I teach statistics so this is also great class example material :)

I would encourage more online instructors to avail of these freely available indicators (just simple site navigation info) for gaining an understanding of both student learning AND successful teaching resources/approaches. I have changed a lot of my teaching approaches after gaining access to online student behaviour....and I continue to do so.

Great article...thanks!

Lanny Arvan said...

Orla, thank you. How do your students know you are looking at that data (or are they sufficiently trusting of you when you say you do that at the beginning of the course)?