Thursday, June 18, 2009

How Conveeeenient.

The Church Lady always made that sound like a bad thing, but with instructional technology, making something more convenient can lead to benefits for learning.

I recently participated in a planning meeting for a daylong faculty development session to inform faculty what instructional technology tools are available and to encourage adoption. We talked about what added value these technologies gave to teaching. Things like better interactivity and engaging the wired generation came up, but when I volunteered convenience, the rest of the group was reluctant to include that in the list, but I've seen several instances where the initial impetus to adopt a technology was because it made something involved in teaching easier, and as a side effect, had a positive impact on learning.

An example that is dear to my visually oriented little heart is the use of Powerpoint to bring illustrative materials into lectures (notice I didn't say anything about putting a lot of text on the screen). I was a history major as an undergraduate. In five years (yes, I took five years), I don't think I saw a single map, chart, diagram of succession or picture of any historical figure or location during a lecture. Before scanners, the internet and digital cameras, in order to show a picture to your class, you had to schlep down to the AV department with a stack of books and periodicals, wait a week or two until they were done, probably pay a buck or so per slide, and then drag a slide tray to class with you, if there was a slide projector available. And then you only had one copy of the slide. If there was another lecture or presentation in which you wanted to use that picture, you had to either get another copy or remove it from your original presentation and hope you remembered to put it back right side up before you gave that lecture the next semester. With digital images, you can make as many copies as you need with a keystroke, organized into as many different lectures as you need and if you use network storage, you don't even have to carry anything to class. Not only that, but with presentation software like Keynote or Powerpoint, you can label and annotate and draw Officer Obie circles and arrows all over them. Associating a concept with a visual image is a powerful tool for retention. The language learning software Rosetta Stone builds vocabulary by associating words with pictures rather than with text rendering of English equivalents. This benefit to learning was always there with slides and overheads. What has made it more common in classrooms today is that it's easy. (I guess I am assuming there's a computer and projector available in the classroom–at UW Oshkosh, this is a valid assumption)

Another fairly recent example is GradeMark, an add-on to the plagiarism detection software Turnitin. It has a lot of features that offer convenience for instructors. It provides for on-line submission of assignments which are then accessible to both student and instructor on the web, so no one has to keep track of stacks of paper or files. The big thing that makes life easier for the instructor though is the comment library. Every comment you make is saved and available to be repeated with a menu selection. Since most commenting on papers consists of repeating the same criticism thousands of times, this is a great time saver. In a workshop introducing Grademark to a group of faculty, when we got to the comment library feature you would have thought we had given them a raise. Making it easier leads to more and more timely feedback from the instructor, which certainly has a positive impact on learning.

Group projects for students have been problematical requiring students to sync class, work and social schedules to get together. This is one case where technology making it easy can be detrimental to learning, or beneficial, depending on the tool used. Students very quickly discovered the divide and submit strategy. Any project was broken up into pieces, each student wrote a bit of the report, exchanged them via email and then somebody cut and pasted a Word document together and submitted it to the instructor. The method does provide the convenience of not having to physically get together, but really circumvented the learning objective, since there really wasn't much group work being done. Students dislike this method because they feel they're being judged on what might be the shoddy work of others and instructors don't like it because they can't tell who contributed what. On-line collaborative writing tools like Google Docs and Wikis provide the scheduling and shoe-leather-saving convenience, but more importantly to the learning objective truly allow the students to interactively work on a document as a group, and provide some individual accountability by maintaining a log of who did what.

Whenever a group of Learning Technology folks get together, it always comes up that in order to get faculty to adopt instructional technologies, you have to make it easy. I think they usually are referring to easy to learn. In the examples I've cited, there is some learning the instructor has to invest in, but once implemented, can make it easier to do things you been doing all along, and give your students a learning booster in the bargain.

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