The Chronicle of Higher Education recently announced its 2016 Tech Innovators. In this special report, the Chronicle recognizes several faculty members working at different institutions who are pushing the pedagogical envelope and trying new things in their classrooms. The innovators range from institutions both large and small and span several different content areas. Take Edward Ayers, a history professor at the University of Richmond. Ayers has worked with colleagues to develop a historical atlas called American Panorama. With the technology, history students can examine how important trends and patterns have changed over time. For instance, the atlas can show the fluctuations of the slave industry during the 1800s and examine how the Civil War and other historical events impacted the trade lines. But Dr. Ayers is just one example. There are exciting things happening at all sorts of institutions with a bunch of different content areas. If you have access to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Innovators issue is an inspiring read.
Looking across the different initiatives, one critical observation emerges: successful innovation occurs at the intersection of content, technology and pedagogy. While it often appears that different organizations may suggest otherwise, instructors shouldn’t just use technology for the sake of using it. Technology is used effectively when it supports the teaching and learning of content. To do this, innovative instructors need to draw on their content area expertise and combine it with their knowledge of pedagogy and technology. This is no easy task. In fact, some researchers have developed a unique theoretical construct to capture this specialized knowledge base: TPACK.
Before anyone starts to drift off into an acronym haze, TPACK stands for technological pedagogical content knowledge. TPACK encompasses a teacher’s understanding of the pedagogical techniques that allow technologies to be integrated appropriately into classroom environments to teach content in unique and differentiated manners. TPACK as a body of knowledge, however, is not an isolated entity. It is formed through the development and combination of other bodies of knowledge (content knowledge, pedagogical knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge, etc.) critical for an instructor’s success.
If all of this sounds a little confusing, think of from this point of view. Is teaching writing the same as teaching mathematics? Of course they’re not. Successful instructors of these individual areas know unique strategies that can help students learn their content. That’s pedagogical content knowledge (PCK). PCK requires that instructors know both their subject area and the unique teaching strategies that help students learn. But where does technology and TPACK fit it? Let’s think about this more broadly. Would writing professors use classroom technologies differently than math professors? Sure they would. Maybe a writing professor would use the collaborative features in Google Docs to support peer reviewing and editing while a math professor may use software like Peerwise to foster deeper problem solving and questioning. This difference in technology use demonstrates conceptually technological pedagogical content knowledge. The graphic below may help this whole conversation make more sense.
The challenge, however, is how do instructors develop TPACK? It’s easier said than done. In fact, loads of research is happening around different ways to support TPACK development in educators at the elementary, secondary and post-secondary levels. Sites like the Learning Activity Types can be helpful but it’s just a start. For complex concepts like TPACK, there are few easy answers.