Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Going Beyond Real Time and Using Real Time Better

I am a professor in a faculty of education; my specialized area of study and practice is educational technology. Part of the joy I experience in my line of work is figuring out the best role for technology in learning -- how can access to technology help us to imagine and design better learning experiences for students? How can new media and digital tools empower us to design learning experiences that would not be possible without the technology?

In the design of my inquiry and technology seminar for student teachers, I built from the ways that real teachers use technology in promising ways in classrooms with real students. I research the ways that students from kindergarten to high school learn best and better with technology, and the ways that teachers design meaningful, authentic and challenging experiences for students. Based on my own research, and that of many others, I design learning experiences on campus that reflect the work that student teachers will do in their own classrooms with students. I require my students to engage with each other to design and develop projects and appropriate forms of assessment for their students. Student teachers complete the tasks that they design and subject these to peer review and critique.

Educational technologists aim to understand the dynamic connections within, between and beyond the disciplines as they design and study meaningful and innovative learning environments for today's campus. “Educational technology is the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources” (Januszewski and Molenda, 2008). What is the appropriate use of technology for learning on campus? The answer to this question varies depending on the purpose for instruction, the discipline of study, the characteristics of learners, and so on.

Educational technologists know that today's learners have ready and reliable online access to an ever expanding knowledge base and to each other. No longer tethered to the books in their hands, or the lectures by learned professors at 10 am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, our university students can and do connect with experts, expertise and other learners anywhere in the world. Today’s social networking, augmented reality, enhanced visualization tools and mobile Web 2.0 capabilities have put powerful tools into the hands of every campus student and educator. So, given this new world, it is important to ask why so many professors still require a $100 textbook when students and the professor can access the original research and the researcher directly online? Why do we still see the standard lecture, textbook and test model in most campus classrooms?

Educational researchers understand learning to be an active social process. So, if learning is social, why does the "higher education experience" primarily consist of adult students sitting, listening and watching a professor who works through (or worse, reads) a set of prepared slides in an hour? This kind of "info-delivery" presentation can be done (often better) using a podcast. Why do many professors rely on lecture and multiple-choice exams? Part of the answer is scale - many professors do not know what else to do with 250 - 300 students in a classroom. Most professors have had no formal training as educators beyond their own watch and listen experiences as students. I argue that today’s educational technologies both require and enable us to rethink what face-to-face instruction and what online instruction is "good for" as we re-design and support new ways of blended learning on campus. Professors need support as they chart new territory with educational technology in their campus classrooms.

Educational technologies both enable and require new approaches to learning and assessment that transcend our hierarchical, industrial-based educational models. Educational media empowers us to go beyond the real time lecture three times per week. Let's explore what can happen if we make a few small changes in our "info-delivery" style educational designs. Here is my answer to the question, "if not lectures and tests, then what can I do?"

First, let's replace one of the three lecture time slots each week with some podcast lectures. With the support of an instructional designer and a media specialist, the professor prepares three 20-minute expert podcasts that students can access online and download to their iPod / iPhone. During each podcast, the professor goes beyond the textbook to present key ideas and concepts in the discipline of study. The professor highlights unsolved problems and gaps in the current understanding in the field. Each podcast can be framed by study questions and ill-structured problems that can become part of the learning task in the course.

Second, let's use the two remaining face-to-face times in the classroom for engaged discussion and debate. Most professors love a good debate over ideas and questions in their disciplines. When we invite educational technology into our higher education classrooms, professors have the opportunity to design learning experiences for students in which they engage directly with current disciplinary problems, issues, questions and ideas. So, when we bring 250 students together, let's design group tasks and opportunities for students to communicate, debate and interact with each other and the professor. Real time is best for real interaction, for that give and take discussion and debate over ideas and concepts and latest research findings. Real time is great for modeling the lastest research methods and techniques in our fields of study -- let's podcast the lecture, and use our face-to-face time for what it is good for, and use our educational technologies in a blended model for what the technology is good for -- going beyond real time.

Using online podcasts, both the professor and the students can go beyond real time. Students can download the podcasts on their iPod or iPhone (or other mobile media device), and access the podcasts. What do students gain when they view the expert lecture podcast online or using their mobile device? The podcast offers these "beyond real time" capabilities that extend beyond a face-to-face lecture: Stop Action, Replay, Repeat, Slow motion, Freeze frame, Sharing. Students can listen to the podcast as many times as needed to master the content and understand the key concepts. Students can take the podcast with them on the road -- while they travel to campus, while they work out, and whenever they have time and attention. The students can use the podcast to learn more about the content and bring their questions to class for discussion with their peers and the professor. The professor benefits from expert advice on designing and presenting their content and key messages with the support of instructional designers and media specialists.

When students are required to speak up, share their diverse experiences, draw upon the research in order to participate in a debate with other peers or with the professor, they are ENGAGED in their learning. Educational technologies can help us to give students a good reason to come to campus, to come to class - a reason that goes beyond listening to the professor and preparing for a multiple-choice test. We can use well designed, professional quality podcasts to present expert ideas and ill-structured problems. Students can engage with expert podcasts in ways that make most sense given their learning style and lifestyle. When we bring students together to demonstrate what they know, to ask their questions, to build knowledge with their peers, to create knowledge artifacts and work on group projects, then we are engaging them in real learning, in real time, and with real problems and issues in our dynamic disciplines of study.

So, using a relatively simple technology - podcasts - we can reform the standard lecture and test model. Podcast technology help us to imagine and design better learning experiences for students by making best use of online and face-to-face time. A simple educational technology like a well designed expert podcast, and on-campus interactive discussions, demonstrate how new media and digital tools can empower us to design learning experiences that would not be possible without the technology - going beyond real time.

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