Technology and its Softer side to Learning

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Much has been written on the topic of incorporating technology into the classroom, all in the name of increasing student success through increased engagement. Technology has been an important factor in the concept of the flipped classroom and “teaching naked” (José Bowen) where the students are responsible for viewing lectures and doing the readings beforehand so that the classroom can become more activity-focused and engaging.

It has been an established part of online learning where both access to, and preparation for, the use of technology is critical to learning and participation in this digital environment, especially as a way of reducing the distance between students – each other or between them and the faculty. The results are mixed with many claiming that MOOCs are the new egalitarian education. But the results are mixed, especially when applying this to credit-bearing courses. The engagement of both learner and educator become critical and results often depend upon the increased fortitude from highly prepared students and faculty who are both committed to successful completion.

But technology can also play an important pedagogical role in the area of personal narratives as a tool for increased student engagement. Digital storytelling is the subject of a brief guide published by Educause that provides some food for thought on how to incorporate the digital medium effectively and accessibly without requiring a high mastery of advanced digital tools. Today, students and faculty have access to a digital movie studio in their telephones, and can easily edit on mobile devices or their desktop and save it in a format that can be viewed for free online.

The goal, however, is not just to create another way to utilize technology in the classroom. The real objective is to instill passion in the topic leading to the successful achievement in the learning outcome. Humans are natural storytellers. We can ask students to incorporate research and resources into their projects. But by also allowing them to make it personal, they become more engaged. This becomes not just something they have to study, but something they are immediately making relevant to their own worlds.

Ken Bain, author of What the Best College Teachers Do, would call this deeper learning, something that may be achieved through a series of “goal-based scenarios.” His follow-up book What the Best College Students do addresses the passion that students can find within to motivate their own learning. Hear Ken Bain in this recent NPR interview from May 2015.

What does all this have in common? It is the combination of inspiring student passion and the ability to express a personal connection to the material that creates passion for learning. This makes digital storytelling a powerful tool for student engagement that can be applied within any discipline we teach. To learn more, follow some of the links provided above and discover more ways to be inspired to apply this in your own classroom!

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Some useful reflections on the Flipped classroom

Casting Out Nines

Math professor and Chronicle blogger (Casting Out Nines) Robert Talbert had some great reflections on the concept of the Flipped Classroom in his post –Three evolving thoughts about flipped learning – from January 22, 2015. He reflects on how his thinking has changed from a more structured approach, to a more thoughtful one that doesn’t abandon lectures, doesn’t abandon assessment, but he has modified it to meet his students where they are, rather than create stress that doesn’t improve learning.

I wish more of us would … transcend the shopworn “lecture sucks” narrative and instead try to craft the best pedagogy that combines the most effective uses of several modalities.

Read the full article here.

Reflecting on the Continuing Challenges of Teaching at Community Colleges

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As we take this time to look back upon 2014, those of us who teach and work at community colleges may consider how much our work has reached the attention of the nation. The challenges posed in educating our students are not completely lost on observers and critics. But when focusing upon the statistics often featured at the center of official reports and white papers, it is easy to miss the narratives of the main stakeholders, the students and educators.

A recent New York Times article highlights some of these challenges as told through the story of Dr. Eduardo Vianna, a psychology professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, arguably one of the most diverse community colleges in the nation. The article, “Raising Ambitions: The Challenge in Teaching at Community Colleges” by Ginia Bellafante and published December 19, 2014, reminds us of the important role our institutions play in educating nearly half of all undergraduates nationally. Even more so, community colleges see the majority of our students coming from the “lower half of the income distribution.” Along with this come many challenges in terms of the lack of preparation for college, including poor analytical and critical thinking skills. Yet those skills are vital to meeting the demands of economic mobility and growth.

To create a world of young people skilled at analysis, you first need to create a world of young people receptive to complexity, and many of Dr. Vianna’s students, he said ‘cringe at complexity.’
– G. Bellafante, NY Times, 12/19/14

Many of us who teach at these institutions will recognize elements of the story from our own classroom experiences. Vianna shares how his students found it difficult to assess evidence from data posed to them that conflicted with their own assumptions. By way of example, he shares how he gave his students an assignment based on the work of psychologist Edward C. Tolman. The graph they were reviewing showed that rats could learn to navigate a maze without extrinsic rewards, yet the students could not see this and came to the opposite conclusions.

“Often learning requires changing one’s position toward some issue and they resist this.”
– Dr. Eduardo Vianna

To help prepare incoming students to meet the expectations of critical and conceptual thinking, many community colleges have begun requiring students to take a first year seminar course. The courses also connect students to faculty in their majors, another important aspect in student engagement, according to much of the published research. Community college educators are also leading the way towards facilitating learning rather than simply lecturing facts, involving students in more active learning and collaboration, and offering continuous forms of low-stakes assessment. These are all parts of the arsenal of techniques meant to improve student engagement. These and other pedagogical approaches are addressed in a forthcoming book “Taking Teaching Seriously: Why Pedagogy Matters! that includes contributions by Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College.

At Columbia’s Community College Research Center, assistant director Melinda Karp suggests that in order to engage our students in academic discourse, a more constructivist approach may be necessary, one that involves more active and collaborative learning. These techniques have already been embraced by many community college educators. Bringing it mainstream requires sharing it college-wide.

As we reflect upon the needs of our students, at the Center for Teaching & Learning at Mott Community College, as with similar centers at community colleges around the country, we understand the role of professional development opportunities in addressing the issues raised in the NY Times article. Just as with the students we teach, sharing among our colleagues about successes gained, while working through the challenges, can help community college educators – faculty and staff alike – meet the challenges of raising the ambitions – and ultimately the success – of the students we serve.

With warm wishes for the holidays and beyond!

Measuring Faculty Attitudes towards Technology & Online Learning

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Only about 9% of faculty surveyed in a recent Gallup study published by Inside Higher Ed said they would “strongly agree” that online courses have similar achievement levels for student learning outcomes compared to face-to-face courses. Titled The 2014 Inside Higher Ed Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, the survey reveals an apparent disconnect between the attitudes of technology officers and faculty on how well online courses address 8 quality factors for online learning.

The authors of the study identified quality factors for online courses for their survey:

1) Ability to deliver the necessary content to meet learning objectives.

2) Ability to answer student questions.

3) Interaction with students during class.

4) Interaction with students outside of class.

5) Grading and communicating about grading.

6) Communication with the college about logistical and other issues.

7) Ability to reach “at risk” students.

8) Ability to reach “exceptional” students.

In general, the authors reported that the majority of Technology officers rated these factors as being equivalent or better than in-person courses. Faculty were a bit more ambivalent indicating that only four of those quality factors might be equivalent for online courses to in-person courses. For instance, 50% indicated that online courses had the ability to meet learning outcomes that were the same for both formats. And 72% of faculty said online was the same or better than in-person for grading or communicating about grades.

On the flip side, 77% of faculty responded that they felt online teaching had a much lower potential to reach at-risk students compared to in-person. For institutions such as Mott, measures have been taken to make sure that students who are identified as at-risk (i.e. lower GPA, attendance, placement test results indicating remediation) cannot register for online-only courses before addressing these issues.

The results are not all negative, however. According to the study’s authors:

More than 8 in 10 instructors say they have converted a face-to-face course to a hybrid course.

This may be in part because a large portion (78%) already use learning management systems to share some basic information such as syllabi, grades, and general communications. Just over half (51%) of faculty agree that more active learning – or what José Antonio Bowen referred to as Teaching Naked – can be done with the flipped classroom approach of blended or hybrid courses.

In reviewing the data shared in the report, it is interesting to note a few elements that were not highlighted by the authors in their summary. For instance, 56% of the respondents fell between the ages of 50-69 with another 6% aged 70 and older. Among faculty, 49% were tenured while 31% were not on any tenure track. Among disciplines represented by faculty, a larger portion – 29% – identified their field with the Humanities, compared to 17% in Social Sciences, 19% in Engineering/Physical Science/Biological Sciences, and only 5% in Computer and Information Sciences. Among faculty 78% who responded were fulltime.

Asked of the technology officers, they indicated that 85% of their institutions offered some blended or hybrid courses, and 73% offered online degree programs. The institutions that were represented in the survey represented a variety, including community colleges (26%), public four-year (26%), private four-year (43%) and for-profit (2%). There were no private two-year institutions represented in the survey respondents.

While the results seem to portray a system that does not have full consensus, there is at least one area where the majority of faculty agree, early warning systems for students at risk of dropping out of their courses do help students. Based on other responses in the survey, and consistent with other research, the early warning system triggers a team response that serves to reach out to the student and provide some kind of intervention before they fail.

Want to read more from this study? It offers some interesting insights into the role of online learning, faculty and technology officer perceptions, and learning outcomes. Download the full study here.