Technology Enhanced Learning

Many years ago when I worked as the IT Director for the School of Music at USC, the Provost began a new campaign called “Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL).” The goal behind TEL was to equip select schools within USC with “smart” classrooms to provide a “technology-rich environment” for the students. The Music School was the recipient of one of these classrooms. Only a technician could understand the provided manual and the room interface was clumsy at best. The room featured three large projector screens and a variety of sources. Ideally, you could have one screen showing a video, the other a slideshow and the third would be a live feed from another location. A “smart” tablet was installed and could be projected on a screen; the intent was to eliminate the need for a whiteboard.

The room was filled with good intentions but poor planning and lack of vision led to the room’s failure. Faculty only wanted one screen and a computer connection. Anything more complex than that would require an in-house technician to sit through the lecture and push buttons. In fact, the schools that succeeded in using the smart room did so by hiring people to sit in the room all day and push buttons. As a result, no one really embraced the technology and the students did not gain from the experience either.

Many institutions feel that the way to introduce technology into the classroom is to spend a large amount of money and hand it over to the faculty. At another College, a Dean was very excited about iPads and purchased a fleet for the faculty and left them to figure out how to incorporate them into the classroom.  Within weeks the iPads were returned and reported as useless.

Campus leaders are inspired by success stories they read and react without ever considering how others succeeded. Often times, the institutions that succeeded invested an enormous amount of time, money, and resources towards the technology solution. Faculty need to be trained, systems need to be tested, and custom solutions created to facilitate the process. There are no out-of-the-box solutions. To make matters worse, the ones who create the technology solutions have never stood in front of a classroom. A poor technology solution will turn faculty away from future solutions.

Before incorporating any technology solution, you need to have a clear vision of your goal. You cannot purchases technology and hope that it will find a role in your classroom. Every technology solution will require you to modify your workflow and learn a new skill. Technology will not adapt to you. You need to adapt to technology.

More on this next time.

No One Wants to Hear Me Lecture

This past summer I taught a Music Appreciation class online. It was my first online class and I was nervous about the outcomes. Would the students be engaged? Would they do the work? Would they learn anything?

The textbook recommended to me was geared towards online learning. The book included online access to listening examples and videos, as well as the entire contents of the book. In fact, students had the option to purchase 6 months of online access at a considerable savings compared to the print version. I was even given a test bank to work with and the publisher even gave me the option to use their lesson plans and exams. They would grade the exams and populate a grade book for me. It seemed that setting up the class would not take much time.

In thinking of the student experience, I realized how boring this would be for the student. The student would read the chapter, listen to some music, take a test, and move on to the next chapter. I would be available to answer questions, but I would offer no direct instruction.

I supplemented the textbook material with videos I found on YouTube. I was pleased to discover that I was able to find a video for nearly every piece of music mentioned in the book. I wanted students to experience classical music by seeing it performed, watching some of the history behind it, and even visiting the places the music was originally composed and performed. My goal was share to my love and enjoyment of classical music with them even if I was not in front of them by showing them material that I thought was exciting.

The course ran 6 weeks with a short paper and quiz due at midnight on every Sunday night. On Friday night of the first week I received several emails asking if I was going to provide a study guide. The thought of providing a written study guide bothered me because I pictured students writing down all the answers to the study guide and having it next to them as they took the exam.

I decided to create a virtual study guide. I turned on my screen capture software, opened the book, and created a 10-minute video of me talking them through the chapters for the first quiz, pointing out the important sections, terms they should be familiar with, and concepts they should understand. The response to my study guide was positive and many students asked if I could have the guides available at the start of each week. So Monday morning I found myself creating 6 study guides for the 6 chapters of the week. I never went past 10 minutes and along with going over the book, I would show them the lesson plan for the week and talk about the videos I wanted them to watch and what to look and listen for. In the end, we covered close to 30 chapters in 6 weeks, which means I created 30 videos. Overall, the class was a success. 

Here is what I learned from the whole experience.

Students are very capable of learning on their own. You just have to show them how. I wrote a short document on how to study for an exam because it was very clear after the first quiz that not many of them knew how. Once again, the feedback was positive and the students appreciated me reaching out to them.

Students are far more willing to engage in discussion if they feel the environment is safe. Students were required to participate in weekly online discussions posting their thoughts and feelings on a piece of music that I had them listen to. The level and quality of the conversations was astonishing. Students not only commented on each other, they encouraged and even challenged each other. At first I thought this was due to this being an online class and students enjoyed the anonymity of the chat room, but recent experiences in my in-person classes compel me to believe that it is more about the safety of the environment than the anonymity.

Students will be excited about the topics if you are. My virtual study guides were not dry. I tried to be as excited and interested as I could be for the 10 minutes. In many cases I found myself saying “I really can’t wait until you watch this video and see this amazing performance of this piece.” It rubbed off. Many students started off the semester by telling me that they felt classical music was boring and stale. Those same students wrote me at the end of the semester and told me that they had no idea how exciting this music could be.

Students do not want to sit in lectures. This was the most amazing discovery for me. They only had to listen to me for 10 minutes a chapter, which in a given week was around 60-70 minutes. Much to my surprise, that seemed to be enough to get them motivated and on their way. Yes, there were dozens of questions in the chat room and email, but I did not lecture. Although I did not have to prepare lectures, I did have to carefully build my lesson plans to make sure all the material was covered.

I do believe that preparing lectures would have taken less time. However, had this been an in-person class we would have met 3 hours a day, 3 days a week. I do not know if I would have been able to engage all 60 students in that class for that many hours.

Finally, the grade results were positive: 30 A’s, 12 B’s, and 8 C’s. Eighty-three percent of the students passed the class. The ones who did not pass did not turn in assignments or took the exams.

So what does this all mean?

I am not sure.

But this entire experience has changed the way I approach my in-person classes.

More next time.