15 April 2011

Conversations about technology in teaching

Many of the learning support people and technologists I work with are highly knowledgeable about the use of technology in education. They are amazed at the possibilities and very keen to share their interests. I learn from them all the time and I am inspired by their passion and enthusiasm – but they drive me nuts, too.

They know that our students all have multiple devices to access the web, and that they probably do their banking online, interact with their friends online, time-shift the television programs they watch, and do much of their research online. My technologist colleagues can’t understand why all academics teaching in modern Australian universities aren’t using these tools extensively; why they aren’t modifying their curriculum to deliver their course online; why they aren’t passionate and excited about the possibilities of the technology. Many of them think that the more our academic colleagues use technology in their teaching, the better they will be as teachers.

These learning support colleagues run proselytizing sessions where they demonstrate the new tools they have discovered or give the more adventurous of our academic colleagues opportunities to show off interesting innovations in their teaching practice. They have passionate conversations about the future of technology-enhanced teaching and learning.

Almost none of the academics from my side of the University – the business disciplines – have ever attended one of these sessions. They rarely attend formal training sessions run in their own Faculty. Nevertheless, my academic colleagues are also passionate and enthusiastic – about their discipline and their research. They, too, inspire me.

So, this is the context. Here’s my dilemma. Last week, I was invited to host one of these show-and-tell sessions in my own Faculty, where my technology-focussed colleagues hope to see my most adventurous academic colleagues demonstrating the amazing and interesting things they are doing with technology in the classroom.

The thing is – no one in my Faculty is using the technology in ground-breaking ways. Of course they use their LMS sites, and they record their lectures, and they run online quizzes (both those they have written themselves and those they have acquired from publishers). They pick the tools that assist them in their teaching.

They do this because they too are doing their banking online, and posting to social networking sites, and watching recorded television programs. Some of them even blog. They struggle to work the unreliable tools provided by the University especially when they have planned something that will add value to the learning experience for their students – but they aren’t focussed on the technology. They look past the technology to the reason for the learning activities.

I sit in the middle of this. My academic colleagues see me as the “technology” person; my learning support colleagues see me as recalcitrant, perhaps even Luddite in my approach to technologies in education.

Actually, I am neither. I use the technologies myself. I sit here typing on my laptop, connected to the Internet via my mobile phone connection, playing with my iPod, checking my Facebook page, typing a blog entry, tracking the delivery of my birthday present Kindle from Amazon. At work, I host a Sakai site, assist my academic colleagues to use their Moodle sites in more sophisticated ways, show people the possibilities of desktop conferencing software, and keep my supervisors informed about trends in the field. I don’t try to persuade my academic colleagues to spend more time using the educational technology, though. Rather, I assist those who have made up their own minds to move in that direction.

So, where amongst my very busy academic colleagues do I start to identify some who would be willing to put their technology-enhanced teaching practice on show? What benefit will they gain from participating in one of these sessions? What will my learning support colleagues learn beyond what I can already tell them about the way we use the technologies in the Faculty? Why should I convince them to spend time preparing a talk about the use of technology in teaching rather than on their latest research project?

I am passionate about education and hope for change in the way my academic colleagues go about that part of their job. This year, that means that I hope they will begin to think more creatively about the kinds of learning tasks they put in place, and shift the emphasis in their curriculum from declarative knowledge to functioning knowledge. With some - a very few - of them, I discuss my emerging qualms about the value of highly explicit marking criteria and the recent rejection by Bradley of the published ALTC-sponsored standards descriptors documents. These are the things I talk about rather than the LMS or lecture recording.

I do this because I do not think that technology answers any question of any worth in the context of learning. I do not adhere to the view that technology can be used as a Trojan Horse to bring about change in teaching practice. It bothers me that the online tools I am recommending to my academic colleagues are not as reliable as they could be.

That does not mean that I don’t think that technology is an essential part of the scene, that I think it is possible to teach in the higher education sector without using all kinds of technologies. I’m just not prepared to spend all that much time talking to academics about it. I’d rather be discussing learning.

03 April 2011

My preoccupation this week: academic standards

I've been spending a lot of time thinking about the new Australian Academic Standards Statement for Accounting (AAS-Accounting) recently ... not something that will interest as many people, I suspect. I haven't quite worked out the purpose of this document. How will individual academics use it? How will it be used by the various quality assurance agencies and mechanisms in place in the Australian higher education sector? Will anyone care that it exists?  Maybe the Director of TEQSA will tell us once that agency is up and running.

It raises this question for me: What guides the judgements academics make about student (and peer) work at the artefact level, i.e. students' individual assignments or academic journal articles?

My reading of the literature suggests three possibilities:
  1. Commonly-agreed, explicit, published criteria (e.g. marking rubrics circulated amongst groups of markers or distributed to students, or the reviewers' guidelines used by academic journals)
  2. Discipline standards descriptors (like the AAS documents coming out of the ALTC Disciplines Setting Standards project)
  3. Personal understanding or interpretation of discipline-based, tacit, unpublished criteria gained from simply practicing as a member of an academic discipline community for a period of time
... or a mixture of all three.

If this is so, then how does a novice get better at the job?  Well, it depends on the quality of feedback and how that feedback is provided, I suppose.

Well, it's keeping me occupied anyway.

Here's another thing ... a great little tool for teachers or conference presenters struggling to think of an innovative way to present data: A Periodic Table of Visualization Methods.