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So you are thinking about using Learning Technology

Nora Mogey
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This chapter is to help you think about a few of the issues that should be considered while you are deciding whether or not learning technology is for you. Questions will be posed throughout the chapter, some of which may not be welcome, but which can introduce some helpful angles from which to think about your teaching.

What are your aims?

No new courses will be truly successful unless they have been properly planned. Lectures which are carefully prepared and tailored to both the course and the students are much more effective than those which are only sketchily thought out beforehand. This statement is especially valid for the use of technology when many other variables interact with and confound the educational environment.

Following best educational practice the starting point must be the aims and objectives for the introduction of technology. Why exactly are you thinking about using learning technology as part of your teaching? There are many possible motivations, or more often a combination of motivations, and any or all of them can be very laudable.

The ever changing environment as your motivation to use LT

Universities in the 1990s are very dynamic environments with an increasing emphasis on efficiency and financial accountability. Many staff find courses changing to fit in with new university structures or delivery methods, and increasing competition for shared resources such as laboratories and teaching rooms. Can technology offer one method of addressing some of these issues?

"We just can't spare the time to reteach the basics that the students should have learned at school."

It would be most unusual for all students to begin courses with equivalent background knowledge. Some students have a very weak grounding in material that is an essential foundation for their degree, yet it cannot be justified to recap this material within their University course.

"Our class sizes are constantly increasing; I need another way of handling tutorials."

In large tutorial groups some students are reluctant to speak out, or to participate in the discussions. Perhaps they absent themselves from the classes.

"I would like to encourage the students to feel free to come to my room to seek help, but more and more that is meaning that I can hardly get on with my research"

Do groups of students often ask the same question as each other? Are there likely to be other students who are wondering the same thing but never felt able to ask? Are a lot of enquiries to do with routine or administrative issues?

Enhancing the student experience as your motivation to use LT

Student learning styles vary enormously. Not all students respond positively to the same teaching techniques. Not all students respond positively to the teaching techniques that we respond to when we are learning. Does your teaching style match the preferred learning strategies of your students? If not, could you change it? Do you know about the preferred learning styles of your students?

Used well, learning technology can help turn the learning environment into a highly interactive, stimulating world where the student is totally embedded in the learning process. Learning technology can offer students control over their learning, and flexibility, so that they can learn in the style that for each individual is the most effective. The ideal package will offer both a highly structured route of study for some students, or the opportunity to explore topics in any sequence which is practical for the subject being studied.

"I explain it my way, then we use the computer. Some students understand me, and the computer reinforces the concepts; other students find the computer helps sort out what I was talking about in the lecture."

"Often lectures can be rather dull. I've never seen a student fall asleep in computer labs, and they definitely ask far more questions"

"Even a lot of full time students are now working, so sometimes it's difficult to arrange for times to get together. CAL packages offer tutorial support at times that suit the student; and they are always available for revision."

"It seems wasteful for me to spend my time teaching straightforward ideas, that the students grasp immediately. If I deliver the straight forward material using a computer, then it means that my direct contact with the students can be spent exploring the difficult ideas, and trying to sort out their misconceptions."

"I haven't got the resources to let the students try all the experiments that I would like to, so we have included a few simulations this year. They let the students experience the process of the extra experiments without stretching departmental resources, and the students seemed to like them."

Skills training as your motivation to use LT

Most employers reasonably expect that new graduates have a working knowledge of computers and their role in a modern working environment. Some jobs demand a thorough knowledge of particular types of package, others require a general level of computer literacy. The computer can also be used as a tool to develop skills of collaborative working, or equally to encourage students to take more responsibility for their own learning. Perhaps you, as a member of staff, are keen to develop your own skills in the use of and management of technology.

Encouraging students to work collaboratively can have the added benefit that students will ask each other questions that they do not feel able to ask you - and explaining things to each other is a great way for students to discover what they understand and what they just think they understand.

"Databases are fundamental to the job these days. Students must be fluent in their creation, applications and management."

"No one ever really makes backups until they have lost something that was important to them. Students have to be encouraged to use computers on a day to day basis to really learn about the reality of the electronic age."

"More and more team working is an important skill. The computer can be the focus for a group activity, and thus the catalyst for the development of effective group skills."

"A lot of our students have access to computers away from the campus. We have been setting assignments that depend on material delivered by computer but the students choose when and how they complete the task. It makes them much more responsible for their own learning."

Other types of motivation for your use of LT

Teaching Quality Assessment exercises are now familiar, and can be a factor in encouraging departments to consider the possibilities of learning technology more seriously. It is a potential danger with an assessment looming that the introduction is less thoroughly planned than it would be in an ideal world, and if this in turn leads to a few slightly (or highly) negative reactions then problems may be hard to shake off - first impressions still tend to stick.

"Students like practical classes; every year their feedback forms ask for more practicals."

Feedback from students for courses where technology is highly integrated and embedded into the course indicate that it is generally popular with students. Use of technology can add a modern feel to an otherwise old-fashioned course.

"It'll give me more time to ....."
The introduction of technology may allow you restructure your use of contact time with students or it may redistribute the times in the session when you feel under greatest pressure, but staff, or institutions, who view technology as the wonder tool to release major tracts of time, previously used for teaching are likely to be disappointed.

Technology can be a wonderful supplement to a course. It should not be expected to be the answer to every situation. Sometimes a non technological solution may even be better!

What are the course aims?

Is the course that you are delivering really matching the documented aims? For every lecture and tutorial can you identify which aim is being addressed? Which parts of the course do students struggle with? Are those parts essential to meeting the course aims? If not, why are they included?

Planning the introduction of technology is a long process. By all means tell the students that the package is loaded on the machine cluster in lab B3, but they will never use it. Any learning technology MUST be fully embedded and integrated with the wider course.

Does the content of the technology closely match with the aims of the course? If not, can it be tailored to do so? (Or should the course be revised ?) Does the technology promote an appropriate depth of learning ?

Many packages are designed to be tailored by an individual institution or an individual member of staff. Any one with a standard familiarity with computers should be able to change the examples in these packages, so that they refer to the local area or the appropriate context for each class. Don't rule out a package because there are one or two features that you don't like, if you think that the overall approach matches with your course and your objectives then it may well be possible to tailor it into a perfect fit.

What does technology offer that other resources do not?

What is the introduction of technology going to add to the course?

You must be able to answer this question, otherwise you should question the merit of going ahead with the introduction of a new item of Learning Technology.

There are lots of possible answers, these are just a few :
"The students can each work at their own pace"
"Students can use the computers at a time that suits them"
"The computer allows experimentation so the students can try things out"
" IT can demonstrate effects that are normally too hard to see"

Additionally technology assists in the motivation of students, particularly by involving them interactively in the learning process - see chapter 9.

What extra benefits can be anticipated?

What are your own aims for introducing the technology? Looking back through the earlier sections in this chapter how many other aims would be of interest to you and your students?

And the down side....

There are important words of caution. Practical issues to do with implementation are discussed in more detail in chapters 8 and 4, so just a few points are made here. Perhaps some of the most important issues can be listed as:

So how do I actually get started?

Planning an implementation is not a quick job. There is an initial enormous demand on your time, but a well planned implementation can repay it all eventually. Allow far more time than you can ever imagine needing.

Enjoy it.

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