Monday, December 2, 2013

Tech Talk: Using Technology to Engage Students as Partners in Learning

Hey GTCers!

Recently the GTC held a lively discussion facilitated by Matt Dumlao on how online interactions can be used to promote a student-centered approach to teaching.  Throughout this quarter we are focusing on how we, as instructors, can get students more involved in the learning process, and technology can be used to achieve those goals.

Direct from Matt, here’s a summary of what we talked about:

What are different types of online interactions?
We began our discussion by listing ways students can interact with each other online.  Students can lead discussions and Q & A sessions in chat rooms (ex. the SmartSite chat room for the course).  They can share and edit files using Google Docs.  For example, potential test questions or study guides provided by the instructor could be tackled by a group of students using Google Docs.  Google Docs could also facilitate peer review of student papers.  In addition, students could make videos or podcasts or summarize content in Wikipedia-like entries, all of which can be both a formative assessment and a way to get students involved in creating content.  Students can also interact via Skype, Adobe connect, Facebook, Twitter, and good ol’ fashioned email.

All of these interactions can be described as synchronous or asynchronous -- i.e., do students interact in real time, or is there a delay --  and each type has different pros and cons.  Synchronous interactions might give students a more personal feel and allow them to tap into nonverbal and contextual cues to help move a discussion forward.  Asynchronous interactions may not have any nonverbal or contextual cues for the students to pick up, but the time delay does allow students to craft a well-written response.

What are the functions and goals of online interactions?
We continued our discussion by brainstorming reasons why one would want to incorporate online interactions in a course.  We all agreed that online forums can provide a place for discussion outside of the classroom.  Discussions started during class or office hours can continue online and new topics that may not be addressed during class can be raised.  In many ways, these interactions can mimic what students do in study groups: they work through concepts together, teach each other, and help each other prepare for exams.  In general, these interactions can extend the learning period beyond the hours spent in class and provide more opportunities to learn the material.

In addition to helping students master the material, we identified several important goals regarding student motivation.  Research has shown that the more ways students are engaged with the material, the more time and effort they will want to put into learning it and the more positive their overall experience will be.  Online interactions can be a valuable tool to achieve these goals.  For example, in the online discussions described above, the students become the teachers, which can give them a sense of ownership over the learning process.  That is also true for assignments like podcasts or YouTube videos, which has the added benefit of involving them in creating content.  Also, online interactions can open up avenues of participation for students who may not want to speak up during class. 

It was also mentioned that incorporating online interactions into the course can be a way to teach media literacy.  Students are often assumed to be “tech savvy”, but that is not always a safe assumption, especially when it comes to finding reliable academic resources online and accessing journal articles.

We also spent a little time discussing how to grade online interactions.  Our ideas ranged from minor participation points to a significant percentage of the course grade.  It all depends on what the goals of the interaction are.  Do you simply want students to discuss topics in online chat rooms?  You might offer them participation points and not grade the content of their comments.  If students are asked to create content (podcasts, wiki-posts, etc) that may be used to teach the rest of the class, then the assignment should be equivalent to a term paper or an exam in terms of the level of scrutiny the teacher gives it and the amount of points it is worth.

We ended this segment of our discussion by reiterating that any use of technology must be purposeful and the goals should be clearly defined.

What is the role of teachers in student-led online interactions?
Just as with in-class interactions, teachers must play several roles to ensure that the interactions are productive. Broadly speaking, the responsibilities of the teacher can be divided into three categories: organizational, social, and intellectual.   From an organizational perspective, the teacher must act as a moderator, setting the agenda for the discussion, outlining the ground rules for all participants, describing expectations, and making sure the discussions remain on task.  The social role involves making sure all participants feel included and comfortable.  Finally, the teacher must also act in an intellectual capacity by asking questions, synthesizing discussion points, and steering conversations in the right direction.  All of these roles can be transferred to students.  To do so, the teacher must first model appropriate behavior and then allow students to take over.  As teachers take a back seat, they should still monitor the discussions to make sure everything is going smoothly.

We also brought up the case of what to do with ESL students.  ESL students often feel self conscious of their communication skills and they may not feel confortable writing in English in a chat room for all to see.  To get around this, someone mentioned Piazza (, a tool that make posts anonymous to other students, but the instructor can still see who wrote the posts.

Some tools for teachers
We wrapped up our discussion by mentioning several web tools that can be used to implement online interactions.  The chat room feature on SmartSite was mentioned as a commonly used tool in a variety of courses on campus.  Google Docs and other aspects of Google Drive have also been used to share and edit files (e.g., study guides).  Diipo and Edmodo can be used for social networking in educational settings, although they have been designed for K-12 classrooms and their usefulness may be limited.

Finally, last year during the TA Consultant workshop series sponsored by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, Nicholas Hall, Robert Lynch and Philip Matern presented an excellent summary of teaching technologies, including tools that can help with podcasting, file sharing, and real-time video/audio streaming.   Check it out.  It’s awesome.

For more information on this topic, please feel free to get in touch with Matt directly. The handout he provided (see below) may also provide some handy insights as you work on integrating tech into a students-as-partners classroom.

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