Greetings, Professor Falken: Why Use Technology?
Why use technology? A legitimate question. There’s no doubt that technology cannot replace a good, real-life, sentient teacher, as anyone who’s ever tried to learn a foreign language online has no doubt discovered. But today’s undergraduates enter college with a high degree of computer literacy, and tapping into this trend by using various technological resources really can enhance classroom learning. However, merely dabbling in web design or setting up a Facebook page is not enough; you need to integrate these tools into the class in meaningful ways. The all-important first step is to figure out why you’re choosing to teach with technology at all. Here are some reasons teachers choose to integrate instructional technology:
- As a marketing strategy. There are a number of cases at Yale in which classes that had been poorly attended became popular because of a snazzy, high-profile website. If you want more students, this is an option. Then again, you could also bring donuts to every class and achieve the same thing.
- To make your life easier. Websites (and other information technology, like a class Facebook page or a Twitter account) can ameliorate certain logistical problems that have plagued teachers for years. A well-designed site can facilitate distributing the syllabus and handouts, collecting written work, and posting last-minute announcements.
- To make their lives easier. In a world where content is king, this may be the only reason you need to put up a website—giving students easy, possibly annotated, access to larger and larger amounts of material.
- To let students talk. Many educators believe in the value of discussion among students, but most of us struggle with the issue of time: “If I use class time for discussion, how in tarnation can I cover material?” Social media create out-of-class opportunities for students to interact.
- To let students practice. An increasing number of faculty members are building websites or using pre-made software packages or apps that are interactive and allow students to practice skills or test their own understanding.
- To deal with the complex. Books and lectures are often incapable of adequately reproducing processes or concepts that have multiple dimensions or are extremely complex. You can use computers to visually represent complex processes as dynamic (even interactive) diagrams. These can give students another way to understand difficult concepts that may otherwise be beyond their reach.
- To construct knowledge and test hypotheses. At the very highest levels of computer-assisted instruction, teachers are using technology to give students the opportunity to replicate the kinds of thinking, creating, and problem solving that are at the core of the discipline. They are using technology that allows students to “do” history, psychology, sociology, and chemistry, rather than simply learning about it. If this is your reason for using technology, you will probably want to integrate the technology into the classroom using some of the active and collaborative learning techniques mentioned above. In two words: synergy, baby.
Making Technology Work in the Classroom
Regardless of your motives, here are some tips for helping your students get the most out of your instructional technology efforts.
- Have a plan. Ask yourself four questions: What is my goal? What is the most appropriate technology available? How am I going to integrate this into the rest of the lesson? How will I assess its effectiveness?
- Start simple, start small. Use your teaching experience to come up with a simple problem-solution project. You don’t need a CGI or 3-D graphics to make an effective presentation (remember Waterworldand Jar-Jar Binks, people!). Do something manageable before you head for the big leagues.
- Remember that not all students have the same technological skills. A quick assessment of your students’ technical proficiency at the beginning of the semester can help you figure out what technology will work and what will not.
- Always keep in mind what students will actually do, produce, and learn with the technology. Instructional technology falls flat when it’s unconnected to what students should be learning. At the very least, students should be able to say that the technology— be it a website, chat room, or app—helps them to learn more.
- Consider training or lab support for your students, particularly if they’re unfamiliar with the technology you’re using. If they can’t use it, they’ll get frustrated and—surprise!—not use it.
- Assess along the way. People’s reactions to technology, like technologies themselves, are unpredictable. Create opportunities for students to let you know how the technology is working and whether it’s actually helping them learn.
- Have a Plan B. Until you’re more confident with the technology and how it’s going to work, have a back-up plan, be it books or alternative opportunities for discussion. Don’t build the entire class around a technology that you’re not sure of.
- Don’t go it alone. People at Yale are experimenting with instructional technology in increasing numbers. Contact the CTL to find a group that’s working on technology in your discipline.
- Experiment and take risks. Technology is a great way to augment your current teaching and develop new skills if you work in incremental steps. Give it a try. It’s one of the best ways to keep your teaching fresh for your students and for yourself.