The Technology Conundrum

You can’t live without it in higher education: Bethel professors find pros and cons with technology in the classroom, and a need for careful assessment.

Lisa Janzen Scott ’84, assistant professor of education and mathematics, uses PowerPoint in her Introduction to Math class. Photo by Vada Snider.

Lisa Janzen Scott ’84, assistant professor of education and mathematics, uses PowerPoint in her Introduction to Math class. Photo by Vada Snider.

Smartboards. YouTube. MOOCs. Flipped classroom. Skype. Google Hangouts.

Bethel College teaching faculty’s engagement—which can sometime look more like a wrestling match—with technology runs the gamut from using open-access software (which requires every student to bring a laptop to class) in one class to banning all electronic devices due to inappropriate use of Facebook and texting in another.

Three professors—Gary Histand, professor of chemistry, Dwight Krehbiel ’69, professor of psychology, and Doug Siemens ’84, associate professor of education—sat down to talk about what technology brings to teaching in the 21st century.

Context: What are some ways you’re using technology in the classroom that you weren’t 10 or even five years ago?

DS: I use it as a tool to deliver information—for example, I’ll have a PowerPoint in class for guided discussion, and then I upload the PowerPoint to ThresherConnect so they can revisit it and reinforce the discussion. There are a lot of videos—from Edutopia or Teacher Tube or Teacher Channel—that are good sources for the content I’m teaching.

Our learning management system at Bethel is ThresherConnect and I’m still evolving in how I use it. Sometimes [it provides] a discussion board with questions posted for the next class session.

In teacher education, we have a portfolio system, where students submit a portfolio three times: before they enter the program, before they start student teaching and before licensure. We are trying to transition to an electronic portfolio, so students can send a link when they apply to a school district and include videos, photos and so on. It’s not mandatory yet but is strongly encouraged.

Another thing I use is Pinterest, to share about education ideas and resources. It’s easy to find things on Pinterest that fit what you’re doing.

GH: I’ve been reading about flipped classes in chemistry education and research articles and hearing people talk at conferences about how good they are. “Flipped class” is a hot topic. I want to be professionally engaged and try new things, so I decided to do this in my biochemistry class and see what happened.

A flipped class is when the lecture happens outside the classroom via technology and the other things happen in class. It’s about information gathering outside class in order to have students wrestling with the material in class.

I assigned lectures [by Oregon State University professor Kevin Aherne on YouTube] to the students to watch between classes. When they came to class, we would review the lecture, pick out the main points and talk about the topics raised. The idea is to give students a second or deeper exposure to the topics.

DK: For my Statistics course [last spring], I used an online course based at Carnegie Mellon University, part of a whole project they call Open Learning Initiative, which makes courses freely available on the web. We didn’t have a printed textbook —we used what was available on the web, which included an online textbook. There were questions, problems, data sets to analyze and quizzes. This changed the role of the teacher to more answering questions, rather than presenting material in a more didactic way.

There is a large statistics teaching project based at Ohio State University, CAUSEweb.org, that has regular webinars on statistics teaching. About a year ago, I did one on this software and also had some exposure to it in materials I reviewed for a National Science Foundation panel. NSF has devoted a lot of resources to statistics teaching, including to CAUSEweb and a project called “passion-driven statistics” at Wesleyan University in Connecticut.

Standard textbooks in statistics are overwhelming­—they are too big to get done in a semester, present too much information and don’t give feedback as you go. You need rapid feedback in order to reinforce learning.

We used open-access material to find data for students to analyze. For example, there’s a resource called Gapminder.org, from a Swedish public health researcher, Hans Rosling. His “gap” is the socioeconomic one, and you can download his data for free. So [senior] Brooke Banning looked at life expectancy in relationship to the number of physicians per capita in a country [using data she found on Gapminder.org].

Context: How do you feel about the success of some of the particular technology you used?

DK: I liked the role change as the professor. Answering questions is much more important [than delivering content in statistics]. It’s hard material to follow in the abstract, and you need an interactive way to engage it.

[This represented an unusual way to use open-access materials.] Usually “open-access” refers to scholarly literature. There is now a tremendous amount available in its entirety for free, rather than in a textbook or through a paid subscription to an electronic journal.
It’s a worldwide movement and it’s about social justice.

A major example is that it’s crucial that poor countries need to know about medical treatments and agricultural advances. Open access means information should be available to anyone anywhere with a computer and internet access.

Students have access now to a lot of literature for which they would previously have had to pay very significant fees. An important teaching role we have now is to help them develop their search skills and ability to discern between “something posted on a website” and something that’s been peer-reviewed. The easy availability of data leads to many, many data analysis projects that are interesting and worth pursuing. There are two freshmen studying mosquito-borne diseases, as an important consequence of climate change, using the World Health Organization database to dig up data on malaria.

GH: I used the same final exam for biochemistry that I always have, which is a standardized national exam. The percentile [in which Bethel students finished] remained the same. There was no gain.

The flipped class was a lot of work. I had to watch the lectures, answer the student questions—and they did a good job coming up with them­—plus plan for how to use the class time that would have been taken up by the lecture.

Having another person give the lectures meant I ceded my role as expert. The professor on YouTube was the expert. One student evaluation said, “Gary Histand didn’t know any biochemistry.”

I didn’t get to tell the jokes or stories or paint biochemistry the way I wanted to. Maybe videotaping myself lecturing [instead of using an online lecturer] would work better with my personality.

If the flipped classroom had improved the test scores, even if it was a lot of work, I’d do it again.

DS: Technology is one tool but it’s not the only tool. There are many different ways to learn. Technology will have glitches—we’re still working with human beings in charge.
Kids graduate from high school with a set of skills for using technology—competencies as required by curriculum. Technology continues to evolve but higher education doesn’t necessarily emphasize that—and not just Bethel.

The intention for using technology is to create stronger students, so we have to assess: Does it do what we need? Does it work? So I decide I’m going to do a unit with students preparing PowerPoints and presenting them. Does that produce better results? It’s too soon for a definitive assessment.

We get excited when new things come along: “MOOCs [MOOC = Massive Open Online Course] will change everything.” To me, it comes down to the relationship. Without it, it’s hard to get to the level of learning we want.