Technology Can Help with Learning, Not Just Logistics

Recently the Chronicle of Higher Education published a compelling article outlining research which examined professor’s views of instructional technology and the effect on student learning.  Entitled Professors Say Technology Helps in Logistics, Not Learning, the article summarizes research published in Science, Technology and Human Values that David R. Johnson conducted through the University of Georgia.  In his work, Johnson interviewed 42 different faculty members and asked about their use of instructional technology and their perceptions on its effect on student learning.  While the Chronicle’s summary paints a pretty dismal picture of the connection between student learning and instructional technology, a closer examination of Johnson’s original work outlines some important challenges and opportunities.

1.  Faculty members need to be involved in decision-making processes.  Reading through Johnson’s research, I wondered how many faculty were involved in the process of selecting technologies at their institutions.  As one anthropology professor stated: “Nobody from the university has ever come to the department to talk about [instructional technologies]. Things just appear in the classroom and I don’t recall us discussing it.”  Involving faculty in the decision-making process can increase buy-in and can help identify challenges for implementation.  Simply distributing instructional technology to faculty without having some comprehensive plan that reflects faculty needs will cause the integration to languish.  This is clear throughout Johnson’s study.  Even though several of the participants had access to technologies, few utilized them effectively.

2.  It’s not about the technology but about the learning.  In Johnson’s research, most of the professors used technology to efficiently deliver and manage information.  Almost half of the participants used PowerPoint presentations as their main form of instruction and believed that “students view course management software, presentation software, and the Internet as substitutes for learning.”  I would argue that some of the participants see the delivery of information using these same tools as teaching.   Facilitating student learning involves more than using PowerPoint to convey a lecture.  Technology has the power to change how we interact with students and how we assess them.  If they were using instructional technology effectively in pedagogically sound ways, I think the professors in Johnson’s study would see very different learning outcomes.  Johnson himself identifies that the most of the participants’ reasons for using technology was not pedagogical in nature and was not motivated by expertise.  Regular readers of the 8 Blog know that I don’t promote technology for technology’s sake.  Examining what the pedagogy requires should be every instructor’s starting point when choosing technology to use instructionally.

3.  Engagement is more than entertainment.  Many of the participants discussed needing to use technology to “attract student attention.”  One professor used student response systems (clickers) with a large class “to keep students awake.”  Another professor discussed using clickers because “with (the) video game culture… I think that will get ‘em involved… a little remote control.”  But student response systems offer so much more in the way of teaching and learning.  Consider Eric Mazur, the renowned Harvard physics professor.  Mazur incorporated “clickers” in his classroom when he found that students were not performing as well as he had hoped.  By utilizing an active engagement technique called “peer instruction,” Mazur was able to help students perform significantly better on assessments and retain the information for longer periods of time.

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