Approach or Avoidance?
Approach or Avoidance?
Understanding Technology’s Place in Teaching and Learning
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter considers the costs and benefits of integrating new technologies into the classroom. It begins by discussing the potential benefits that technology provides within and beyond traditional classrooms. It then tempers enthusiasm for technology by raising some caveats that educators should consider. Following arguments both pro and con, it offers suggestions on how teachers should go about deciding which technology to use, how much of it, and why. It makes the case that whenever new technologies are introduced, teachers should carefully assess the educational benefit of these tools where student learning is concerned. Educators need to do a cost-benefit analysis before deciding to adopt a new technology. The chapter concludes by recommending that technology's role in any course should be periodically re-evaluated.
Many teachers view technology as both a blessing and a curse. There can be great benefits (“approach”), but at what cost (“avoidance”)? Regardless of teachers’ reaction to technology, it is transforming higher education. Knowledge is being presented and taught in ways unthinkable even a few years ago. Almost weekly, a new term linking teaching with technology seems to appear. Older technologies—once novel and dramatic—are now taken for granted and seen as commonplace. Faculty members feel a push, if not outright pressure, to learn to use and adapt the latest tools for their courses. Departments and programs now see online or virtual classrooms as an important part of the array of services they offer students. Whether all these changes are good or bad is a matter of perspective; what is no longer debatable, however, is the degree to which technology has a part in higher education. Its presence and influence there cannot be denied (e.g., Laird & Kuh, 2005; Millis et al., 2010).
Our goal in this chapter is not necessarily to cast a cold eye on new technologies but to be appropriately skeptical about them. Just because technology enables a teacher to achieve a certain end in the classroom (or in an online venue), that does not mean that the instructor is duty-bound to adopt it. As classroom veterans, we prefer to ensure that the tools we use have a proper fit with our teaching goals, our intended learning outcomes, (p.18) and most of all our students’ needs. That being said, we believe that when technology is carefully and thoughtfully integrated into a course, it can make a superb contribution. Both teachers and students can benefit from technology’s presence and its impact on how the course material is received and understood.
To achieve these ends, we seek balance in discussions regarding integrating technology into courses. We begin by discussing the potential benefits that technology provides within and beyond traditional classrooms. We then properly temper enthusiasm for technology by raising some caveats we believe educators should consider. Following arguments both pro and con (the approach–avoidance conflict of the decision), we offer suggestions regarding how teachers should go about deciding which technology to use, how much of it, and why. We then make the case that whenever new technologies are introduced, teachers should carefully assess the educational benefit of these tools where student learning is concerned. Educators need to do a cost–benefit analysis before deciding to adopt a new technology. We conclude the chapter by recommending that technology’s role in any course should be periodically re-evaluated.
The Benefits of Using Technology for Teaching
When linked to teaching, the term “technology” refers to any educational technologies providing communication that is distinct from personal, face-to-face interaction (Bates & Poole, 2003). By this definition, technology can involve any of the following:
• Hardware (i.e., laptop or desktop computers, projectors, monitors)
• Software (i.e., word processing, presentation, statistical, and networks)
• Portable handheld devices (i.e., audio/video players, digital books, smart phones, and personal response systems)
• Web connections (i.e., online courses, course-management systems, social networks, RSS feeds, wikis, blogs, and podcasts)
In some ways, trying to identify all the available technology is foolhardy; it is difficult to keep track of all innovations, as something new is introduced constantly. What educational technologies we know now is (p.19) only the beginning. Even an incomplete catalog such as shown above, however, reveals the vast array of technology available for educational purposes.
How can technologies benefit teaching and learning? As we will show, when used appropriately, technology may foster:
• Communication skills—for reading, writing, listening, and speaking
• Knowledge acquisition—for searching for and locating information quickly and efficiently (e.g., online searches of a library catalog, databases, or the Internet itself)
• Data-sharing skills—sharing findings or results quickly and widely with interested others. Naturally, learning to exercise good judgment regarding what to share (or not) is important.
• Critical thinking and problem solving—enhancing skills involving numeracy, logic, and decision making. Users must learn to evaluate the information they acquire and share with others to be sure that it is reliable and valid.
• Independence, self-direction, and goal orientation—giving confidence to students to work independently (e.g., Smith, 1997). Most technologies allow the user to work alone, refining related skills along the way. Independence should be motivating and should not lead to disengagement.
• Team or group work—encouraging students to work cooperatively and to exchange information with one another (i.e., online communities). Group work and group projects can be accomplished synchronously or asynchronously in a virtual environment.
• New social skills—requiring students to learn to converse clearly and often concisely; yet by doing so, issues of ethics and personal responsibility are necessarily involved.
• Creativity—skill acquisition can be transferred from one domain to many others in new and creative ways
• Openness to change—if appreciated rather than feared or dreaded, technological developments and changes can teach valuable skills about the importance of learning to adapt quickly to new conditions
(p.20) These general skills are all compelling reasons to view technology from the stance of “approach”—that is, something to be used and relied on for effectively educating students. We will review each one in some detail.
Technology can be used to facilitate communication for teachers and students. Not so long ago, using chalk on a blackboard was the common medium used by teachers to illustrate and explain concepts in classrooms. Chalk and blackboards are all but gone on campuses today, replaced by markerboards that do not produce the dust that using chalk creates. Computers, invented about the same time as markerboards, are another reason for the move to a dustless technology. Computers, in turn, created the “electronic slide show.” Presentation software, such as Microsoft’s PowerPoint and Apple Computer’s Keynote, is now ubiquitous in classrooms, in part because it allows teachers to easily display text, graphics, animations, and videos (e.g., Daniel, 2005; Huelsman, 2006). However, purchasing the software, computer, and projector is more expensive than buying markerboards. Also, teachers have to invest some time to learn to use the software that runs the system. Using new technology has a learning curve just like everything else. Teachers cannot expect to use most technologies effectively without reading the dreaded manual. Furthermore, lectures using presentation software do not necessarily make one a better teacher. For example, PowerPoint allows instructors to place essential course information in an easy-to-read, logical, and sequential series of slides that can be enhanced with color, graphics, animation, and sound. Yet Hardin (2007) found that although using PowerPoint increased the perceived teaching effectiveness of one instructor, it often reduced it for another.
Other tools that help teachers to communicate with their students include developing class Web pages or using course-management systems such as Blackboard where course material, such as syllabi, assignments, readings, and past exams, may be stored and retrieved electronically; using e-mail for getting information quickly to students; and creating podcasts for students to download lectures to computers or portable devices such as MP3 players (e.g., iPods), to be viewed outside of class time. Of these, class Web pages, course-management systems, and e-mail have become common in education. Podcasts have yet to be adopted widely, perhaps because (p.21) creating them requires more technological savvy, not to mention the bravery involved in recording lectures that people other than our students may hear and see.
Students may also use technology to improve their ability to communicate. For example, e-mail is a common tool students and teachers use to communicate with each other when outside of the classroom (e.g., Hevern, 2006). Students who are too shy to ask questions in class may be more comfortable doing so via e-mail. Another method of communication similar to e-mail is the electronic discussion group, which allows communication among several participants. Compared with in-person discussions, an advantage of electronic discussions is that the contributions of each participant can be documented (Bryant, 2005). However, e-mail and discussion groups are both asynchronous forms of communication. Some time elapses, perhaps several minutes, between the time a message is sent and the time it is received. Chat rooms, instant messaging, and video conferencing provide synchronous communication: recipients receive the messages almost immediately. Of these, video conferencing most closely simulates a face-to-face discussion. Individuals are able to talk and see other people, who may be almost anywhere in the world. Another popular electronic medium with young people today is text messaging, but it is not yet widely used by students to communicate with teachers. And more recently, Facebook has emerged as a social networking medium that is popular with students and often faculty members as well. Although it is good that students are able to communicate with their teachers so easily, teachers can be overwhelmed if a large number of students send e-mails or other messages on a regular basis. Another downside to e-mail and text messages is that the quality of writing is often not very good. Abbreviations (i.e., imho for “In my humble opinion”) are sometimes substituted for words or strings of words for the sake of expediency or style, posing interpretive problems, as do misspelled words and poorly constructed sentences.
For producing a better quality of writing appropriate for term papers or lab reports, word-processing programs are particularly useful because students (and anyone else, for that matter) can easily edit their prose. Writing is no longer as onerous as when it was done on typewriters. Word-processing software may even warn the student about potential spelling errors and suggest corrections to grammar. Teachers can choose to comment on or edit student writing electronically. However, not everyone would agree that reading papers on a computer screen is as easy as reading paper copies. (p.22) Unfortunately, as easy as word-processing programs make it for students to revise their writing, it makes it just as easy for them to copy writing that is not their own. Students may cut and paste material from other documents. At worst, a paper can be saved electronically and used over and over again, with a different student’s name each time. For example, there have been several scandals on college campuses where students were caught buying papers off the Internet or using a paper written by a student who took the class earlier. These dishonest practices make it important for teachers to create writing assignments that require originality, rather than asking students to write about the same issues year after year.
Another recent innovation in communication in classrooms is the use of student response systems (also known as “clickers”; see Chapter 9). Students use a handheld device that enables them to respond to multiple-choice questions posed by the instructor. Student responses are received and recorded on the instructor’s computer, and the instructor has the option of displaying a graph showing the results (Cleary, 2008; Morling, McAuliffe, Cohen, & DiLorenzo, 2008). Clickers are used to get students, even reticent ones, to participate in class because responses can be anonymous. Thus, clickers are a useful tool for students to communicate what they know or think about a given topic. Clickers are useful for increasing participation in class and possibly the honesty of the feedback (Stowell & Nelson, 2007), but as of yet the demonstrated gains in student learning have been minimal (Poirer & Feldman, 2007).
Almost instant information is a possibility today. For many queries all it takes is typing a few words into an Internet search engine such as Google. Desktop computers are not required: on college campuses, laptop computers have become popular in part because of their portability and the wireless (WiFi) technology that allows these computers to have access to Internet services anywhere there is a “hot spot.” Most campuses provide wireless services, as do many businesses, such as bookstores, coffee shops, and other popular places where students gather. Even more convenient than laptops are “smart” phones (e.g., iPhone, Blackberry, and other models) that make it possible to get information in places where WiFi services are unavailable but telephone (p.23) networks (i.e., Edge, 3G) are. Teachers may take advantage of these Internet technologies by teaching students how to search libraries online (e.g., McCarthy & Pusateri, 2006). Teachers may also create online instruction and store it online (for examples, see MIT Open Courseware at http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/Brain-and-Cognitive-Sciences/9-00Fall-2004/LectureNotes/). However, caveat emptor! Generally there is no editorial review of the content found online; the quality of the information found on the Internet varies greatly. Students need to be taught how to cull the “wheat from the chaff” or how to evaluate the quality of the source (for suggestions on how to do so, see Dunn, 2008).
Team or Group Work
Students have the ability to collaborate with others in ways that only a few years ago were impossible. Student can “virtually” collaborate with individuals all over the world, or anywhere where there is Internet service. E-mail and text messaging are common communication tools, and Web cameras make it easy to see and talk to other people at the same time. It is also possible to share documents in such a way that groups can work on them. For example, Google Docs allows users to access and share documents online. To facilitate virtual teamwork, teachers may also create discussion groups within a class Web site.
Independence, Self-Direction, and Goal Orientation
Once basic skills are learned, some classroom-related technology is easy to use. Ease of use can give students the confidence to use technology to act independently of an instructor or classmates. For motivated students, for example, self-paced courses online can be a boon, enabling them to proceed when they wish and at a self-determined speed. Similarly, when the search parameters for a database are mastered, we have witnessed many students quickly elect to search for information on their own. With guidance from faculty members, students can gain confidence in using technology to pursue goals related to their major area of study, as well as future education or career plans.
With a plethora of electronic tools for communicating and sharing (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, iChat, text messages, YouTube, e-mail, blogs, discussion boards) new social skills are required. The ease and the quickness of electronic methods of communication, especially e-mail and text messages, increases the chance of someone saying something that he or she might not say to someone in a face-to-face encounter. Further, e-mail messages that were expected to be private may be later forwarded to countless others. Teachers too have to establish boundaries. Most do not expect students to call them at home, but some students may expect a prompt response to an “urgent” message sent late at night. Civility is another issue. Students need to learn the etiquette of electronic communication (Bryant, 2005). Statements intended as sarcasm may be misinterpreted, and the interpersonal distance of electronic communication may lead to inappropriate comments. We will need to teach our students that the rules of etiquette for electronic communication are different than those for oral communication.
Technology is rarely used for just one purpose, and its producers cannot be certain how original uses will be applied in new and creative ways. Consider a simple example: PowerPoint probably began as a business-related application, but it quickly found its way into the college classroom as a lecture aid. The ubiquity of technology and software too has dramatically increased the role that audio and video play in the classroom. What began as entertainment is now often educational. Currently, students have moved from being consumers of videos on the Internet to producers of filmed vignettes, many humorous, some scandalous, but quite a few educational. As teachers, we are often amazed and delighted by students’ cleverness when it comes to creating videos that document or explain course-related materials. In the past, students were forced to verbally describe events or rely on still images to illustrate points; now they can simply import video materials into their presentations, often with profound results.
Of course, teachers and students must judge when and whether a given application is creative in a positive sense, advancing knowledge about a topic. Our point is simply that some technologies provide students with the (p.25) opportunity to develop novel ways to present, work with, think about, or apply course material. As new technologies emerge, student creativity will undoubtedly grow in new directions as well.
Openness to Change
The great lesson of technology is that nothing stays the same for very long. New developments and applications emerge quickly and often, encouraging, if not forcing, users to keep pace with them. This need to remain aware of new developments may provide students with a desire to be aware and open-minded when it comes to new technological developments. With luck, the lessons that such open-mindedness provides may be applicable to other arenas of student experience, including preparation for life beyond college. Being flexible, even comfortable, in the face of change is never a bad thing.
Other Classroom Benefits of Technology
Interesting or Engaging
By their very nature, new technologies are salient. They can capture student interest. When students become engaged with something new in class, they pay more attention, listen more closely, ask questions—in short, they display all the positive actions we hope that motivated learners will demonstrate.
Where technological developments are concerned, our students sometimes know more than we do. They may, for example, already be familiar with a new technology that teachers introduce into their courses. This is no reason for teachers to chide themselves on presenting dated material, as it is unlikely all students will be familiar with any given advance. Rather, when some students are already familiar with a new technology being introduced, their recognition can actually make the class go easier. Indeed, sometimes students end up teaching one another.
The availability of technology often encourages teachers to find or construct activities to illustrate its use or application. Activity-based learning helps students to think about course material at a deeper level than listening to a lecture. Such opportunities for active learning enhance what students learn and retain from coursework (e.g., Davis, 1993; McKeachie & Svinicki, 2005).
Students Are Often Experts
We should not overlook the simple fact that technology has always been a large part of the daily lives of recent cohorts of students. They truly cannot imagine a life without various technologies. Why does this matter? Students are not only likely to be interested in new technologies, but may also be able to help instructors and student peers learn to use technology effectively (e.g., Sandholtz, Ringstaff, & Dwyer, 1997). Just as some of us rely on our students when the inevitable computer glitch arises, the same may hold true for still newer technologies. Granting someone expert status and acknowledging his or her assistance is never a bad thing.
Beyond the Classroom
Justification for the use of technology need not always be based on whether its use improves teaching or learning. A new technology may simply make the process easier. Using presentation software may not necessarily produce better learning than using chalk and a blackboard, but it is an effective delivery system, especially for large audiences. Likewise, e-mail, for brief questions, can be more efficient than a student coming to office hours. Course material, syllabi, readings, assignments, and grades are now available whenever a student needs them.
Flexibility in Delivery
Traditional education settings and their delivery of services are no longer the only ways for teaching and learning to occur. Newer generations of students face different pressures and opportunities than those educated in the past. (p.27) Consequently, there is a distinct demand for more flexible delivery beyond the once-normative three weekly lecture meetings in a college classroom. The typical or average student is likely to be seeking more flexible learning activities (e.g., online courses) to accommodate full- or part-time employment. We should keep in mind that flexible learning offers flexible teaching. For example, more flexibility regarding teaching time and place can free faculty time for scholarly or administrative duties.
Technology can save on costs in big or small ways. Buzhardt and Semb (2005) reported that integrating online instruction in a college classroom saved labor costs. Online material need not be printed, which saves the school and the student money, not to mention an additional savings for the environment. Online material may be nothing more than short handouts for a class but could include an entire textbook. Online classrooms also save both the school and the student money in that the school does not have to maintain a room or a building, and the student does not have the expenses associated with commuting or living on or near the campus.
Caveats on Using Technology for Teaching
Technology is transforming what faculty and students do in course contexts. Some of the transformation may trigger unintended problems for both groups. Many of these potential problems will be outlined in the chapters of this book, which will allow an emphasis on specific technologies. However, one general problem is that students and faculty often become “addicted” to technology (Palloff & Pratt, 1999). We all have colleagues who are eager to employ the latest software, hardware, or application, regardless of whether or not it is useful in teaching. Instead of racing to use the newest technology for its own sake, we should consider the following issues when introducing innovation in or outside the classroom.
We need to examine technology in the context of our classroom strategies. The technology we use should enhance learning without taking too long (e.g., long YouTube videos that demonstrate simple concepts), distracting (p.28) from the material (e.g., animated PowerPoint presentations with bells, whistles, and breaking glass), compromising rapport between teacher and students (e.g., any technology used in such a way that it attenuates the relational aspect of teaching), or simply breaking down. The focus in the classroom should be the people, not the technology; otherwise, there is no point to a class at all. In class, a teacher offers information to students or helps students offer information to each other, and technology should build on these goals. Indeed, in the virtual classroom, technology is the only way to make the “in-class” experience exist.
Beyond the Classroom
Students traditionally interact with their teachers in what researchers have called out-of-class communication (OCC) such as office hours. Since the dawn of education, students have accomplished OCC by physically traveling to the teacher’s office. This type of interaction has been associated with better student attitudes toward learning (Clarke, Walker, & Keith, 2002), higher perceived teacher competence and caring (Myers, 2004), and more positive student evaluations of interpersonal relationships with teachers (Dobransky & Frymier, 2004).
Unfortunately, those of us who have taught for a number of years know that few students manage to arrange their schedules around the teacher’s office hours. Technology allows us to remain in contact with students outside of the classroom, and the flexibility helps us reach substantially more of our students than could have been accomplished if we relied only on physical office visits. Our recommendation is to keep the physical office hours in place for students who want or require physical proximity during a meeting, and we should encourage students to come to our office given the positive outcomes associated with traditional OCC.
Deciding Whether and How Much to Rely on Technology
Our teaching philosophy addresses what we believe to be vital in teaching (see, for example, Korn, 2002). How do we accomplish teaching, and why is our approach important to us? For many teachers, keeping abreast of (p.29) revolutions in teaching is crucial, and we cannot deny that technology is a revolution. Most of us are also dedicated to teaching students the latest developments that are relevant to them. Again, students must be proficient in technology to advance in today’s world. Thus, at least part of our dedication to teaching should be to learn what is available in technology, apply what is useful, and share technology with our students.
As we learn technology, we would like to believe that a steeper learning curve has a higher potential payoff. However, most of us know that this is not the case: some types of technology are just difficult to learn and offer little potential payoff. Unfortunately, by the time we realize how much trouble it is, we are already too invested in the technology to walk away. As an additional stressor, we tend to feel most comfortable only with technology that we use on a regular basis; if we only use it once a term (e.g., updating a Web page), we tend to forget the nuances we once knew. Finally, we might become proficient at some type of technology only to find that it has been updated (e.g., Microsoft Office) and has become nearly unrecognizable in a new version!
We are convinced that those who learn new technology on a regular basis and apply it to teaching are high in self-efficacy. These teachers know the learning curve may be steep, and they are comfortable with their ability to reach the asymptote. The rest of us need to remember to take notes on how a technology works and save the files to our desktop so they will be readily available when we need them. We also can rely on our colleagues or books such as this one to tell us the pleasures and pitfalls associated with specific technologies. In short, we can rely on each other as we navigate through learning in this new revolution.
We also rely on each other to develop a basic understanding of what equipment and software we need in order to use technologies of interest. You can find out what your school has to offer (e.g., a license for software that can be loaded onto your computer at no additional cost). Often, department chairs or deans are able to finance needed equipment, especially if you are willing to have the equipment placed in a central location so your colleagues can (p.30) also use it. Of course, grants are always an option and can help pay for equipment and software tied to teaching and learning.
Types of Students
In the end, the most important factor may be the sorts of students you teach at your institution. Whether you use it in or outside the classroom, will they benefit from your use of technology in your teaching? We are accustomed to thinking of the current cohort of students as being especially technologically savvy—communicating electronically is second nature to them, as is surfing the Web for whatever information they might need. We believe that students’ experiences and preferences should not be the deciding factor, however. Instead, we advocate that teachers take a long look at the academic skills that move students toward graduating.
Questions to Ask When Deciding Whether to Use Technology
Table 2.1 list some questions to ask yourself as you consider whether to use technology in one or more of your courses. As you review and answer these questions, keep in mind that these questions are a starting point; they should lead to other questions. Similarly, faculty members need to work within their local conditions, traditions, and resources; what works well at one institution may be a struggle or even a failure at another. Remember, too, that careful planning for a technologically enhanced or technologically based course can make all the difference (e.g., Lehman & Berg, 2007). Look—and plan—before you leap into wholeheartedly accepting any new technology. Methodical skepticism will serve you well.
A Necessity: Assessing Learning When Technology is Used
Information literacy and technology skills are important student learning outcomes that should be routinely assessed (e.g., Dunn, McCarthy, Baker, & Halonen, in press; Dunn, McCarthy, Baker, Halonen, & Hill, 2007). We believe that teachers need to assess the quality of learning that takes place once a new technology is introduced into a course. Some instructors may (p.31)
Table 2.1 Questions to Answer When Considering the Use of Technology for Teaching and Learning
Who is the audience? Is the intended technology an appropriate method for serving this audience? Why or why not?
Why are you considering adopting the technology? Does it offer any teaching or learning advantages beyond what you already offer? Is a novel technology being chosen for novelty’s sake?
How does the technology fit the learning outcomes identified for the course?
Does the technology complement, not compete with, the academic content of the course?
Will the technology advance, impede, or be relatively neutral where other educational goals (e.g., diversity) are concerned?
What are the costs and benefits of using the technology? Is it easy to use and reliable?
What skills do you and your students need to have in order to use the technology?
If you integrate the technology into the course, will any existing material need to be removed? Is there a learning curve for the instructor and students to become familiar with the technology? What is the estimated time frame?
Is technical/professional support available for maintaining and troubleshooting problems associated with the technology?
Is the technology appropriate for the course? Is the technology appropriate for the students?
Will students be able to evaluate the technology and alert the instructor quickly if problems using it arise?
How will you assess the technology effectiveness as a teaching and learning tool? Is there any evidence available regarding its effectiveness?
A lesson about the importance of assessment can be learned from a non-technological example of a past innovative teaching method. The personalized system of instruction (PSI) threatened to revolutionize teaching in the early 1970s (for more information see Keller, 1968). It was popular on many college campuses for a several years before the flame of its popularity burned out. A search of the literature during the 1970s and 1980s reveals numerous citations related to this method of instruction, but since the 1990s there have been only a few (Eyre, 2007). It took a decade or more of research before it was decided that the method was not worth its cost, at least not with the technology available at the time. In light of PSI’s history, we must be reasonably skeptical in regards to new technology, as well; not everything new will have staying power. Thus, as we embrace new technological tools for teaching, we must be prepared to jettison some of them later. Technology can just as easily make teaching and learning worse as make it better.
Re-Evaluating Technology’s Role Across Time
Just because you decide to use a particular technology tool does not mean that you must use it for the foreseeable future. Instead, we advocate that teachers review whether a technological tool is continuing to substantively contribute to student learning. If so, then perhaps this valuable tool should be retained for the next iteration of the course. If not, then it should be dropped or at least appropriately reconfigured so that it meets your stated learning objectives and desired outcomes. Change takes work, and it can be quite painful to learn that the change did not enhance student outcomes or that it even harmed learning. It may be even more painful to discard months of hard work in the interest of helping students. However, we must be willing to learn, assess, and adjust throughout our teaching. We should approach technology with a positive attitude for what it has to offer, but we must be careful to avoid the pitfalls of glitz with no gain.
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