A large university in the northeast two years ago required all of the students in a certain major to purchase a laptop computer. The idea was to take advantage of the new information technologies to enable better teaching and learning, and also to prepare them for a world of work in which the computer is a ubiquitous tool of the trade. This spring, just after graduation, the Dean received a petition from a respectable cohort of recent graduates of the program, suggesting he rescind the laptop requirement. "We all bought the laptops, but we never used them in class. They weren't part of the program. Unless use of the computers is integrated into teaching and learning, they make no difference."
The Dean's dilemma
What's a dean to do? Forward-looking, he realizes that his school must embrace the information revolution that is sweeping business and academia. But realistically, he must face the fact that most of his faculty have never taught (or learned) with the kinds of digital technologies the students carry in their backpacks and connect wirelessly to the world. So a brave initiative into technology is thwarted by lack of application.
What's a dean to do? The key seems to be faculty development: students in his program will not experience the kinds of digital learning he envisions unless the faculty changes the way they teach and the assignments they give to students. But in most schools, the dean cannot order such behavior by the faculty. Or if he did, the academic traditions of most schools would leave it up to each faculty member to decide whether or not to follow it.
At the same time, most faculty members are eager to learn how to do what their dean wants. They understand the potential of these new technologies to make the classroom experience more effective and to enable students to do higher level work. They want to get those laptops out of the backpack and integrate them into the lecture hall. They want to craft assignments that send students off to online investigations and back into the classrooms with cogent presentations of their own research.
These desires on the part of teachers were manifest when the President of Hunter College solicited proposals recently from faculty interested in re-tooling their courses with technology. Faculty crawled out of the woodwork to apply for the Faculty Initiative with Technology, proposing all sorts of applications of digital technology to teaching and learning, from diseased digital-mechanical manikins hooked up to computers for simulating medical emergencies, to a writing process for the classics using online ancient images, Greek texts and student response forms. Their ideas for applying technology to their academic work surprised the President, the technical staff, and the rest of the faculty. They had no idea that the faculty harbored such creative notions.
Many faculty are eager but unprepared to make these things happen in their classrooms and in the hands and minds of their students. But they don't know how to do it. Technology integration was not included in their academic preparation, and it seldom appears on the agenda of their faculty meetings. Faculty want to develop their skills with the technology, and their ability to embed digital assignments into their courses. But they know not where to start.
Some say that their learning should begin with the technologies they want to use: training in how to employ the new hardware, demonstrations of the features and benefits of the latest software, lessons in linking to the campus network and its long list of resources, and so forth. Show them the technologies, and they will figure out how to use them.
Others would prefer to start with success stories: demonstrations and discussions by fellow faculty who have employed technology into their teaching, lectures by leading lights listing the myriad of methods they have found to make computing a part of the curriculum. Show them some good examples, and they'll see what they need to do.
But neither of these approaches seems to result in much success. Knowledge of hardware and software has little connection to what goes on in most classrooms; show-and-tell seldom provides what you need, unless its from another faculty member teaching exactly the same course. A better way is to start with the syllabus.
Start with the syllabus
Every course has a syllabus, an outline of the topics, ideas, readings, lectures, and assignments that make up the standard 15-week, 45-hour, 3-credit experience. It's a staple of college life, the first thing handed out in class and the last archive of the content of the curriculum. It's also a good place to begin the process of integrating technology into the curriculum.
Sit down with your syllabus and look for opportunities to employ technology to increase student engagement. Most syllabi share a common format: course description, readings, lecture topics, discussion questions, quiz dates, and student assignments. Each of these offers possibilities for digital enhancement. The first task in faculty technology development is to identify these digital opportunities in one's own syllabus. Here's a transcript of a syllabus consulting session with a typical faculty member. (The faculty developer's words appear in italics.)
Well, this is certainly a concise and economical course description. Do you think it captures the essence and extent of your teaching?
Hardly. Somebody else wrote that years ago. The course is actually much different now: I wish I had time to explain how exciting and deep it really is.
Have you considered developing a podcast to describe your course? With your own voice, and maybe some pictures to illustrate some of the key ideas. Or a video podcast, where you can explain it personally.
Could I post that to the department web site, so that prospective students could better understand the course?
Yes, and you might also place it on your Blackboard site, and make it available in iTunes format so that students can listen to it on their iPods.
I see that many of these readings are on the reserve shelf in Sterling Library. How convenient is that for your commuter students?
Oh, they never do the readings anyway. And the resident students complain that the pages have been Xeroxed so many times they are hard to read. And there's never enough to go around.
(Pointing to the syllabus) I think I saw this article on the effects of moonlight on marigold molting the other day while I was browsing through Google Scholar. Perhaps you could see if any other of your readings are available online, and let your students link to them instead.
How do I do that?
The librarians can help. They have a special desk just to help faculty find these kinds of resources, and make them available to students.
So, tell me, how do you deliver this lecture on the sex life of the petunia?
Well, I have my notes, and I describe the process of cross-fertilization as best I can, and tell them to refer to the diagrams and photographs in their textbooks.
Do they all bring their textbooks to class?
You've got to be kidding. I'm lucky if they bring a pencil and paper. But they always have their iPods...
Didn't they put a new projector into the botany lecture hall last year?
That thing on the ceiling with wires on it?
Yes. We could help you put those key images onto slides, in resolution high enough that the students could see the intimate details of the flower's anatomy, as you describe it in words. Your textbook publisher provides all those pictures in computer-ready format, at no extra cost. And some video clips as well.
Could they download the diagrams to their iPods? And watch the videos on their laptops?
There's no way for computers to help with a class discussion. So let's skip this next part of the syllabus...
Not so fast. What are you trying to accomplish in this discussion?
I try to get them to debate the pros and cons of pesticide use in developing agricultural economies. Petunias, you see, are particularly perturbed by pesticides. I'd like to see them debate this in small groups, so more of them get a chance to talk, but that's not easy to do in the classroom where the chairs are bolted to the floor.
Let me show you something in Blackboard. See how you can divide the class into groups of six students each, just by sliding their names across the screen? Go ahead, you try it.
Like this? Okay, now how do they discuss?
You assign three of the students to develop one side of the argument, and post it on the site. The other three read it and rebut. And so forth, for three rounds. Then you can log in, comment if you like, and have a permanent record of their discussion.
Can they do this from home? So we have more time in class for other things?
I see here in the syllabus that you have scheduled a quiz every other week.
Yes, that's the only way to get them to do the readings and to listen in class. But handing out the quiz papers, and then taking it, handing them back, and grading them is a real pain in the pistil.
How about a short online quiz after each reading? They do the reading, and then immediately take a short quiz online to see if they got the basic ideas.
How do I get the quiz papers back to grade them?
There's no paper involved. The quiz corrects itself; the students see their results right away, and the system keeps a record for you online.
I see that 30% of their grade hinges on this paper on eggplant evolution.
Yes, the eggplant is a fascinating fruit, a prodigious plant. Well worth studying.
I am sure it is, Prof. Aubergine. How do you find the quality of their work?
Boring. They all go to the same sources, year after year, and report the same results in stultifying prose. I've gotten used to reading them while watching The Hidden Life of Plants series on the Oxygen network.
Would you consider letting them report their results as an enhanced podcast?
What's that? Some kind of new-fangled germ dissemination technique?
In a way, it is. Students write the script of their podcast, explaining the essence of eggplant evolution in their own words. Then they record their voice speaking the script. And finally they add diagrams and pictures to explain the key concepts. The final product can be disseminated online to computers, iPods, and even some mobile telephones.
Where do they learn to do that?
Most of them already know. The laptops they were required to buy come with a built-in podcast production program that they all know how to use. Some even add mood music to the mix.
ConclusionUntil faculty development gets down to this nitty-gritty level, technology will not have much effect on everyday teaching and learning. Start with the syllabus, look for digital opportunities, and then find the software and hardware to enable their integration into the course.