Thursday, January 3, 2008

Point & Click

How technology is changing teaching at Penn

By Kofi Darkoh

When Professor Alan Plante wants to find out whether or not students follow his Environment Studies lecture, he does not ask for a show of hands. Instead, he puts up a question on a PowerPoint slide, and students respond using clickers, small plastic response keypads, which allow the professor to see exactly how many students picked which answers.
Clickers are one example of technology that is influencing modern education and the nature of lecturing in classrooms.
“Without the clickers I can only ask one or two people, or one person will respond and when that answer is received, I stop,” said Plante, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Now with the clickers I can ask everybody, and everybody gets to answer. It gives me a better sense.”
The professor also uses the clickers to organize class quizzes, and to collect information on the backgrounds and interest levels of students at the beginning of the course.
More critically, he uses them as a way of maintaining interest during lectures.
“We’ve got a hundred and sixty students in that class, the lecture hall is big, and so people tune out,” Plante said.

“The clicker helps me break up the lecture and have the students be more engaged.”
In the Sociology department, Professor Melissa Wilde, asks demographic questions at the beginning of the semester with the clickers, and then sorts the responses she gets to social policy questions according to the demographics she collected.
John MacDermott, director for Instructional Technology at SAS Computing, explained how clickers and other technology can change the dynamics of a lecture class.
“We're trying to promote the clickers as an easy and effective way to get students involved,” he said.
“We've satisfied ourselves that it's effective and that it's worth doing.”
Student reports confirm this assessment. In a survey of Plante’s class, 90% said they enjoyed using the clickers during lecture, while 65% agreed the clickers effectively enhanced their learning.
Technology has changed the way several classes are organized. Group work is assigned more often, and students frequently have to give presentations. In some cases, students are being assigned to design posters and make movies instead of writing papers.
The David B. Weigle Information Commons in the Van Pelt Library is the resource center for Penn’s technology needs. According to their brochure, the center “supports collaborative learning using the latest technologies.”
The center has 10 study rooms which students can reserve for 3 hours at a time. There are also 12 booths with laptops, two alcoves with plasma screens, and a seminar room with 20 laptops, a projection screen, and a video recording system.
Three of the study rooms have video recording capabilities with which students can practice and record their presentations. The recordings are then reviewed by staff from Communication

Within the Curriculum (CWiC) who counsel the students on how to speak better. This is one of many ways in which the center integrates technology with services available to students.
Anu Vedantham, Director of the Information Commons, expects the center to continue playing a large role in education.
“I see a sense that students should be creators of content rather than consumers of content,” she said.
Her view is reflected in the success stories the center has generated, including podcast tours of Philadelphia created by students of Dr. Patrick Wehner, associate director of the Critical Writing Program; and videos of victim impact statements produced by students of Dr. Regina Austin, a Penn Law faculty member.
“The traditional way would be the professor shows the video. Now the students are making the video, so it's much more powerful,” Vedantham said.
Some of the technology at the Information Commons is available in a number of of newer classrooms on campus. Lecture halls in the Huntsman building at the Wharton School have video recording facilities, and the classrooms in the Fisher-Bennett hall have similar audio capabilities.
Technology is present in classrooms in even smaller ways. Almost all lecture rooms have screens and equipment for making presentations. Textbooks now often come with CDs that contain supplementary material, from which professors can lift diagrams and other illustrations into their lectures.

The School of Arts and Sciences is also starting to make either video or audio recordings of class sessions. The recording includes the professor’s voice, what is displayed on the computer, and any markings on slides made with an electronic pen.
“When it's all done well, it's pretty much invisible during the class session, but it is very valuable to students after class,” MacDermott said.
These new tools present new challenges to lecturing, some of which have the potential of negatively affecting learning.
MacDermott accepted, for instance, that video recordings might keep an instructor from repeating important concepts, knowing students could refer to the recording if they needed to go over some material again.
Some lecturers also expressed concern that preparing their lectures in PowerPoint removed the flexibility they had in determining the course of their lectures.
“It puts me into a rather linear path. The next slide is the next slide and I don’t have a lot of flexibility,” Plante said.
“It forces you to be a bit more linear, whereas, if you’re not stuck with a presentation and a student asks a question, you can follow that.”

These are some of the challenges addressed by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL). The center helps faculty develop and improve their teaching through discussions.
This semester, the center held Teaching with Technology Seminars, where professors met to discuss effective ways of teaching with technology.
Bruce Lenthall, the director for the Center, explained how the sessions were organized.
“We try not to spend a lot of time talking about ‘how would you do you do this technically,' but rather ‘why would you do it? What are you trying to accomplish?’” he said.
Recently, two speakers at the seminar shared different ways of using PowerPoint. One speaker had linked his presentation to a live feed of laboratory research which introduced students to ongoing experiments in the material they were studied. In this way he had removed the problem of the static nature of presentations. The focus of the seminars, however, is not simply to get professors to use new technology.

“The very basic question that comes up there is - what are you trying to teach the students?” Lenthall explained.
“The challenge for faculty member after faculty member was, ‘I can do interesting things with discussion board, but if it simply makes work and doesn't relate to what we're doing in class, it fails.’”
He gave examples of instances when he has encouraged faculty to consider using chalkboard over PowerPoint. This allows the students to see how the material develops.
“Whether you use hi-tech or not, you have to ask the lo-tech questions: What am I trying to teach? What are the best ways of teaching it? What are my goals for the class?” Lenthall said.
These teaching goals, even with new technology, have not changed. The primary concern of faculty is still how best to educate students.
“Faculty always get more interested in technology when they can see how it will help students learn better,” MacDermott said.
“They're not interested in gadgetry just for gadgetry sake.”
It follows that this is the primary factor the directors consider when selecting what technology to introduce to campus.
Other factors include cost, ease of use, and the presence of facilities to support the technology.
The technology has to have a reasonable learning curve for faculty and the support people. There also has to be confidence that the technology is durable and viable for a reasonable amount of time, MacDermott explained.

The new clickers, for example, give insight into the selection process. There was an older version available since 1999, which used infra-red communication between the transmitters and the receiver, as in a TV remote control. This meant that receivers had to be mounted in visible locations in classrooms, which made setting up difficult. Only a few rooms could be used.
The newer technology uses radio frequency which requires only a small USB device attached to a computer. It can be made available in any room with a computer.
Still, the biggest challenge is providing reasons for professors to change their teaching methods to new ones that use the technology.
“What faculty do, and are conscious of, and have to be vigilant about, is to think about their teaching goals first, and not the technology first,” Lenthall said.
For his Environmental studies class, Professor Plante recognizes that the technology helps him deliver more information visually that would otherwise take many words and more time to describe verbally. He can therefore take the time to prepare the material, especially those he can reuse in future lectures.
In other cases, professors cannot make the initial investment.

“Sometimes there are disagreements with the benefit of the technology, but more often it's just the time and attention that it takes,” MacDermott said.
“Most commonly it's, ‘I don't have the time or attention to devote to figuring out how to re-engineer my teaching.’ That's a very understandable thing and so when we're picking technologies we do try to promote ones that are relatively easy to adopt.”
But over time these concerns are lessening and more professors are including technology in their courses. The Weigle Commons holds tutoring sessions that reduce the time needed for students or faculty to learn new technology. Resource centers, like CTL, educate faculty on using technology to augment, rather than replace their lessons.
“I don't really see that there are too many disciplines that don't use technology anymore. It's becoming so commonplace,” Vedantham said.
With this scale of adoption it is interesting to imagine how technology will be used in classrooms in the future.

One practical direction is in introducing students to the technology that is used in the research of a discipline. Except for buying licenses for software used in particular fields, SAS Computing is looking at new ways to enable students to use tools of the trade in analyzing problems.
Professor Plante already uses real time data in his weekly recitations. He intends to incorporate computer modeling sessions into his class next semester, where students can build simple models to help understand concepts introduced in class.
“In this day and age there is so much data available,” he said.
“To be able to harness some of that for teaching is really useful.”
At least at Penn, a less realistic option is moving classroom lessons completely online.
“The technology is designed to supplement and enhance the residential based, face to face teaching experience,” MacDermott said.
“It is still all based on the assumption that the traditional same time, same place model is at the heart of it, and the other stuff helps support that model.” Lenthall compared the scenario to the 1950s when radio was touted to replace Universities.
“Universities have a function beyond the dissemination of knowledge. Bringing students physically together is a value,” he said.
“There's always going to be a role for sitting down and working through problems.”

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