Technology used in support of learning and teaching has evolved quickly in the information age. Think back to the 1980s and you'll recall overhead projectors, some even with a fancy roll of acetate on the side so instructors could write on the fly. Fast forward to the 90s where you'll recall new-fangled "data projectors" that could show anything you had on your fairly low-resolution computer screen. Fast forward again to this past decade where the emergence of monolithic course management systems ruled the landscape, along with other asynchronous tools. But what will be happening in the next ten years? Some trends are emerging that provide clues.
The colossal course management system (here at ISU we use WebCT/Blackboard) has become an integral tool for many faculty. Recent statistics show that at least 75% of all ISU courses utilize at least one function within WebCT. But many of the tools in any CMS are driven more by the need to manage a course than by pedagogical need. Grade books, document sharing, and closed group discussions are all good tools that aid efficiency and save time, but others ask how we can better aid learning. How can we better construct a learner-centered environment?
Some of the answers come in both physical and electronic environments, and in an increasing number of cases – we see both, together. Peer institutions around the country are increasingly coming up with ways to facilitate student interaction and group work right in the classroom, where learning and discovery can be better guided. A number of institutions are developing "active learning classrooms," where technology is often infused in a series of team clusters or workstations. Students do the exploration in a group as the instructor monitors progress and shares the discovery of other teams in the room.
Here at ISU, we see pockets of this kind of activity starting to occur, even in large lecture halls. Auditoriums in LeBaron and Physics Halls are equipped with seating that allows students to turn around and work with others in the rows behind them. When the instructor leverages this capability, a quiet lecture hall can turn into a vibrant and engaging series of small groups working side by side. The downside is that this flexibility often takes more square footage, which means the rooms are more expensive to build (and sometimes limited space prevents such an approach). More advocacy for these active learning spaces is needed on our own campus.
And technology leverages some of that active dialog. A new system on campus, called Panopto, is generically called "lecture capture" technology. It provides a way to automatically record lectures in a given course. Or, instructors can record something on demand, anywhere they have their computer. Some instructors are taking the opportunity to "flip" their classroom time – they are recording lecture material in their office ahead of time, posting it for the class and having the students view it prior to the class meeting time. Then precious class time is reserved for student interaction, dialog, group work, and lab activities.
Regardless of the method of use, data shows that students are using the recorded lecture segments either right after the class (presumably to clarify understanding) or just before the exam (presumably to bone up on the test material). And in almost all cases, students are not watching the entire lecture recording – they're selecting just a portion of the lecture to review, and in many cases they review it multiple times. Students seem to be using the recordings to achieve a better understanding of the more difficult concepts. This technology carries significant promise toward improving student understanding, performance and retention.
Another significant trend is that increasingly, the institution is not providing a given technology at all – faculty are finding interesting electronic teaching tools via third-party services on the Internet. In many cases, those services come at no cost. Tools such as GoogleDocs, Ning, and Polleverywhere.com are just a couple of the many cloud computing services already being used by ISU faculty. Through necessity, investigation, and interactions with colleagues at other institutions, faculty are increasingly collecting a set of "best of breed" teaching tools that they use in their course. Many are discipline-specific, so broad campus deployment or adoption isn't even needed. Some faculty right here at ISU have suggested that the need for the monolithic CMS has passed, and that more localized technology deployments, leveraging best of breed cloud computing services, would better serve their needs. Part of this dialog also includes the increasing desire of faculty to have their students receive feedback from the broader community. Restricting dialog to just the class members doesn't allow for greater input or review and interaction by scholars elsewhere. Cloud computing, and specifically social networks, enable this broader dialog.
Cloud services bring a caution, however. There are notable legal issues with some of these services that include copyright, intellectual property rights, export control, and privacy. Institutionally, we have to keep in mind the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that protects the rights of students, and restricts what data we can and cannot move off campus. This is one area where campus IT leadership is active in helping to smooth transitions to cloud services where possible. Greater change, and possibly even modifications to federal privacy laws, are being debated by such national advocacy groups as EDUCAUSE.
One trend with great potential is that of mobile technology. From smart phones to tablet computers to easily portable cameras and video recorders, mobile technology is enabling us to take learning anywhere. From the classroom to the library to central campus to the fields, we can be connected to all important resources and dialog. We can leverage that perfect learning moment wherever it occurs, and encourage our students to investigate on the spot. Are you standing in a crop field wondering what that possibly noxious weed is in front of you? Look it up on the database of photos a faculty member has compiled (and not necessarily a faculty member at ISU). Need to send students on a forestry treasure hunt for trees around campus? Leverage something like FourSquare or SCVNGR and the mobile device's inherent GPS feature to lead them along. Concerned about the cost of clickers for students? Leverage both mobile technology and the cloud service Polleverywhere.com to gather their input right from their phones, during class time or outside of it.
We are just beginning to scratch the surface of what mobile technologies can do for us, not only in the academic setting but in student services, as well. Data from last year suggests to us that cell phones are 99% ubiquitous with our students. Smart phones – really mini computers that happen to make phone calls –represent a rapidly growing number of those phones. As device prices come down, and the amount of information that can be accessed via mobile technology increases, smart devices will approach ubiquity in the student population. In the meantime, group strategies can be used to insure access to mobile devices in the academic setting. Institutionally, we need to prepare by being ready with increased network coverage and faculty development activities that help transform learning to a mobile platform when appropriate.
And with all of this, we have to continue to keep in mind that often, technology can be too much. A well-respected ISU faculty member recently mentioned that it took her 18 steps to walk into the classroom and prepare technologically for a class that is about to occur in the next 10 minutes, all while interfacing with the students as they come in the door. And she was only using two academic technologies. With support resources low, so much is dependent on the faculty member to do him- or herself. We need to continue to automate technology for ease of use and provide both technological and pedagogical support to back it up.
Predicting the future of technology in learning and teaching isn't easy. But if we leverage the power of our national peers in higher education, we can begin to see trends. The Horizon Report, a product of both the EDUCASE Learning Initiative ELI) and the New Media Consortium (NMC), is an annual qualitative study that attempts to do just that. The January 2010 edition of the Horizon Report cited mobile computing and open content as near-term trends that universities will need to address. In two to three years, electronic books and simple augmented reality will become easy enough to develop that broad adoption is likely. More "far out" technologies on the four- to five-year horizon include gesture-based computing and visual data analysis. Time will tell whether these last two technologies will stand up to future demand and circumstance.
On a smaller scale here at Iowa State, we attempt to monitor needs and encourage discussion through the ComETS group as a way to keep a handle on technology trends and evolving services. This group of over 200 faculty and staff educational technology advocates is frequently looking for technology that will impact ISU or that we can leverage to help solve local instructional issues. We encourage you to join that dialog.
December 02, 2010