Today’s High-Tech Classrooms
The device is nice, but learning is what counts.
If your memories of the classroom include chalk dust and filmstrips, a lot has changed since your school days. Your students in college today may encounter smart boards as well as chalkboards, and electronic tablets in addition to the paper kind.
But technology-savvy instructors at UW–Madison are doing more than just deploying new gadgets. It’s not the devices themselves they are excited about, but the positive changes in the learning process that they enable.
Imagine, for example, an active learning environment where a roomful of computer-equipped pods are arranged with common screens on which any student can see the assignments and share their ideas for others to view and critique. Workstations are spaced for an easy flow of spontaneous interactions among peers. Rather than lecturing from a podium, the instructor circulates among students. The equipment is configured for collaboration, while also allowing self-paced instruction.
Welcome to the Wisconsin Collaboratory for Enhanced Learning. Don’t get caught up in the hardware, though. Actually, WisCEL (pronounced “whistle”) refers not to the physical space, but to what goes on within it.
“What WisCEL provides is an environment that makes it much better for instructors to move away from being mouthpieces on the stage and instead transition them to more coaches in their midst,” says John Booske, UW professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of WisCEL.
WisCEL serves two to three thousand students each semester, allowing them to learn in a style more effective than relying on repetition to make knowledge stick. It follows a more modern understanding of how learning happens.
“Effective human learning is not done by fifty minutes or seventy-five minutes of an information dump. … Instead, it’s done most efficiently by small bits of information and doing something with each piece,” Booske says. “With computers, you can do this.”
WisCEL is one example of a wider trend toward the “flipped classroom,” in which students might watch a lecture online, on their own schedule, and then use class time to discuss the material with the instructor.
“When you and I were in school, you got the content delivered in the classroom. And then you did homework on your own to see if you understood the principles and could apply them. A flipped classroom does the opposite,” says Christopher Olsen, interim vice provost for teaching and learning. Rather than leaving students to wonder at 11:30 at night whether they are grasping what they heard in a lecture, he says, the flipped approach moves that process to a place and time in which it can be informed by instant feedback.
WisCEL is just one way in which new technology facilitates learning at the UW. The university encourages instructors in all disciplines to innovate in the use of technology to address teaching challenges.
In “situated learning,” for example, students use digital media to move from theory to real-world scenarios. They are presented with the beginnings of a realistic situation, and then choose from among options for how events will unfold. A virtual nurse on a computer screen might ask which lab tests to order on a simulated patient, and allow the student to use a cursor to make choices — each of which produces its own unique result.
“Interactive case scenarios are successful when the resulting student experience reflects the realities and complexities of professional practice,” according to the website for Engage, a UW–Madison awards program that advances the introduction of new classroom technologies. “A professional should be able to interact with an interactive case and remark, ‘This sounds like a day in my life.’”
Engage also promotes the use of “digital media assignments,” in which students are assigned to create multimedia “learning objects.” A good project will engage students by presenting a real-life issue and encouraging them to gather feedback not only from fellow students and instructors, but also from sources outside the classroom.
In one case, Katy Culver’s magazine publishing class uses iPads as they design and produce Curb magazine. The online and iPad versions incorporate audio, video, slideshows, and timelines. Culver, an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication, believes such digital assignments help students become more adaptable and analytical — skills that can be applied to any profession, not just journalism. She has found that using new technology tools also encourages students’ creativity in more traditional tasks, such as writing research papers.
Many faculty members advocate the use of “clickers,” known formally as “audience response systems.” Resembling a TV remote control, the clicker is a handheld device with buttons for students to enter the answers to multiple choice questions posed by the instructor, who then records the responses. The results can be displayed anonymously on a graph to gauge how many in the class understand the material and which concepts need to be explained in greater depth.
“Using clickers empowered students,” reports Tom Sharkey, a professor who teaches a large lecture course for biology majors. “They became invested in the class; some of the shyest students would make sure that their response registered and that their vote counted. The egalitarian nature of the clicker was a huge advantage” because students who might feel intimidated to speak up in class can have their needs addressed the same as students who are more willing to raise their hands.
Increasingly common is “lecture capture,” in which the instructor’s voice is recorded along with whatever visuals are being shown and can be played back later, with or without video, for review. “Students can listen to that on an MP3 player or device while they’re commuting or riding the bus, or on the treadmill at the gym, or they can watch the video and the audio together,” says Vice Provost Olsen.
In spite of so many new e-options, the traditional classroom — chalk dust and all — won’t disappear anytime soon, nor is it intended to. But you might enjoy learning what your student can report about how technology has been incorporated into his or her classes.
“We’re not looking to wholeheartedly replace the existing undergraduate experience with all technologically delivered content,” Olsen says. “That’s not the point. The point is to use technology where it benefits the learning experience for students. But the teaching and learning goal should drive the use of technology. I think it’s very important that technology not drive the teaching and learning goals.”