Learning Objectives First, Technology Second

[This is a guest post by Sharon Zuber, Visiting Assistant Professor of English and Film Studies and Director of the Writing Resources Center at William & Mary]

What comes to mind when most faculty think about “IT” services?

  • The person who rescues a crashed hard drive?
  • The voice behind the HELP number when a classroom podium isn’t working?
  • The engineer who replaces a broken keyboard?
  • All of the above?

Without this kind of support, I would not be typing this blog post.  The technological side of my life would come to a halt. Because much of technology will always be magic to me, I am content to leave the details to the experts. As Arthur C. Clarke once said:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

But integrating technology with classroom pedagogy requires more than managing hardware or choosing appropriate software.  With support from William & Mary IT’s Academic Information Services (AIS), classroom content meets technology in creative ways – ways that prioritize course learning objectives.

Putting Student Learning First

Whether implementing Blackboard’s Wiki or Blog functions for a class project or finding a way to create online peer review groups, the purpose for integrating technology is to enhance student learning.  

In a presentation to the eLearning community, Jamison Miller, PhD Candidate and Barton Malow Fellow in the W&M School of Education, recommended that when faculty are interested in incorporating technology, they should:

  1. Explore the available tools
  2. Choose a format that has a low barrier to entry
  3. Start Small
  4. Be open to reconsidering teaching methods.

The possibilities range from low tech to high tech, so anyone can become comfortable integrating technology when appropriate for the course goals.

Backward Design

The stages of backward design.

The stages of backward design as imagined by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their 1998 book Understanding by Design.

Backward Design” describes a pedagogical approach that challenges faculty to think first about what they want students to learn before deciding what and how to teach. Thus technology, part of the “how,” is always in the service of student learning.

With the help of AIS,*  I recently integrated technology in service to student learning in two ways:

1.  Online Peer Review. Goals:  To give students a wider audience and more feedback during the writing process and to emphasize the importance of revision.

Writing is revision. Students learn by giving and receiving guided peer feedback on assignments. In my freshman seminar, I wanted to move peer review online so I could devote more time to discussion of the course readings. With April Lawrence’s help, we chose to keep Blackboard as the entry to a system in which students posted drafts to Google Drive and responded, in groups of three, by using the comment function.

Before exchanging their own papers, the class practiced with a sample paper, and I gave them a list of specific questions to guide their review. The draft-stage peer review helped the students write much stronger papers and value revision. To my amazement, NONE of the students had problems with the technology.

2.  Whiteboard Animations. Goal:  Find ways to creatively communicate writing concepts.

Although the Writing Resources Center has handouts about writing topics, I wanted a more dynamic, visual way to communicate basic writing concepts. At the 2013 Technology Expo, I saw a demonstration of VideoScribe, an iPad App that allows the user to create whiteboard animations. I couldn’t wait to try it!

With support from a Creative Adaptation technology summer grant, I used the $4.99 App to create short tutorials that are now available on YouTube. My work in video production helped me learn the software, but with a little time, anyone can use the VideoScribe program. To create a tutorial from concept and script to design and recording a voiceover takes about ten hours for a two-minute video, but this visual format taps into different student learning styles and is accessible to an audience beyond campus via YouTube.

Think “e” = Educational

For each of these projects, the learning objectives came first, the technological solution/support second.  This approach transforms the “e” in e-learning from “electronic” to “educational” (notice that “learning” dominates the term).  Collaboration between faculty and IT’s Academic Information Services keeps the focus on student learning and offers faculty with all levels of interest and expertise in technology to achieve course goals.

Final Thoughts:

  • Keep the focus on helping students learn course content and skills
  • AIT is always there to help
  • Plan ahead; give yourself plenty of time to learn a new technique
  • When possible, partner with students
  • Find ways to assess if your learning objectives have been met

*Special thanks to Evan Cordulack, April Lawrence, Kim Mann, Rob Nelson, and Gene Roche