by Alison Ramsey
Education technology is not always ideal, but some software can be a real boon to learning, say Concordia experts.
The best results may be obtained when the teachers using the software move away from text-based courses and towards co-operative learning, using peer teaching, holistic projects that combine information from diverse sources, and group work.
"Some students hate group work," said Professor Richard Schmid, Chair of the Education Department, "but teamwork is very important for employability. It's now considered an essential skill."
Unlike working in traditional groups, computer software can force each member to be accountable for an equal amount of work. The format eliminates the students who ride on the coattails of others in the group.
Co-operative learning discourages students from cramming like mad for an exam. This tends to be an ineffective way of processing information, since much of the knowledge is voided after the exam to make room for the next batch of facts.
"There is an increasing acceptance of the instructor playing the role of learning facilitator rather than teacher," Schmid said. "Information is out there -- in computers, in textbooks, in fellow students."
If you suspect you are among those teachers whose lectures are too text-based and too dull, check your attendance figures. "Students have less tolerance of that kind of teaching," Schmid said. "They don't show up for lectures because if the exams are based on the text and they carefully read a well-written text, they can do well without the instructor."
He recommends a program called FirstClass, currently used by Concordia teachers with a combined audience of about 700 students in the Education Department and Faculty of Commerce and Administration. Others prefer WebCT (which stands for Web Course Tools), actively used by about 25 professors in such diverse disciplines as biology, classics, computer engineering and art education.
Teachers may ask themselves if using any computer-based tool is democratic, given that computers are expensive and many students are struggling financially. While statistics involving students from all departments are unavailable, the Education Department did a survey of about 50 students that showed 70 per cent have computer access at home. The rest use university labs, "and we've had no complaints."
FirstClass grew from software designed to conduct online meetings, and is particularly useful to the professor who needs to reach scattered students with tight schedules who have access to laptops, said Education Professor Gary Boyd. A strength is its ability to follow and summarize online conversations. The survey functions of WebCT, he added, make it useful for Education professors to gauge results and perform research for publication.
With FirstClass, small groups of three to six people can be assigned activities. The program can be structured so that each student has his or her individual responsibility to the group, each must critique and evaluate material prepared by other students in the group, and each must collaborate towards synthesizing course work as a class collective.
"It's individual accountability, with interdependence," said Professor Phil Abrami, Director of the Centre for the Study of Learning and Performance.
WebCT easily handles online quizzes, private dissemination of grades and e-mail. A bulletin board provides for different threads of discourse on select topics. WebCT incorporates a monthly class calendar, where detailed announcements can be made, and provides a table of contents for course information that can include a week by week syllabus. For ease of comprehension, highlighted words are linked to a glossary.
Unfortunately, Schmid said, teachers often incorporate technology in the form of Power Point presentations. "It's just a much, much more expensive and complicated way of doing overheads," he said. Also, "overheads never break down. We're constantly having technical problems with Power Point. If the computer crashes, that's it for the day."
One benefit is that Power Point lectures can be placed directly on the Web and referred to later by students. This eliminates students spending their time copying from the screen. However, the same effect can be achieved by distributing photocopied overheads.
"Power Point presentations have a distanced sameness," Boyd said. "It's often badly used." On the up side, "they help you organize materials and present them in such as way that students feel you are organized." Still, he prefers teaching aids such as WebCT and FirstClass.
"We know computer conferencing can increase the energy in the course," Abrami said. He said that the aim of using computers is to engage the learner, boost learning and, as a secondary goal, to improve collaborative and communication skills. Properly used, well-written software can do just that. "Technology," said Schmid, "is there to serve pedagogy,"
In the next issue of CTR, how to get started with classroom technology.