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Making Education Technology Translucent

We always see through a glass at least a little darkly. There has never been a truly transparent medium, especially for teaching and learning. And there never will be. Educators and learners always make choices about the media in which teaching and learning are attempted. Every choice has consequences.
When a professor steps out from behind the lectern, he or she changes whatever happens next. When a student approaches a faculty member with a question just before or after a class, he or she changes whatever happens next.
The TLT Group has been offering a weekly series of Web casts this year in which we simultaneously offer the audience audio presentations or discussions, centrally controlled display of PowerPoint slides and Web pages, and real-time brief surveys. There is also a chat room or live discussion board built into the interface so that all members of the audience can hear the conversation, see the slides, and see the chat room simultaneously.
When we first used this combination, I found the chat room irritating and distracting. I couldn't comfortably note the relevant questions and comments in the chat room and pay enough attention at the same time to the oral comments of my guests to guide the interaction effectively.
Fortunately, in another series of Web casts, Trent Batson of the University of Rhode Island initiated the practice of assigning a 'presenter' to focus primarily on the chat room, and voice selected themes, comments, or questions from that discourse. This served to encourage the audience to participate more actively in the chat room, because they knew someone would be linking their efforts to the leaders of the event.
More recently, we took two other steps that have changed the character of the sessions. We begin every Web cast by explaining carefully and assertively that we provide a different option for getting help during the Web cast- one that will get a rapid response- instead of having people use the chat room for this purpose. We have also begun inviting one or two people who have some expertise in the topic of the Web cast to participate entirely as 'chat room discussants.' We ask them to participate in the chat room as if they were members of the audience and to set an example of model chat room behavior.
Our Web casts now function effectively in three ways- via audio, text, and slides- and participants can choose to follow or actively participate using any combination they find comfortable and useful.
We believe we are now using this media combination much more effectively because we are attentive to its characteristics. We also believe we have enabled our audience members to participate much more effectively and with greater satisfaction because we offer guidance and examples of how to do so.
The alternative is perilous. By ignoring the implications of any medium, you may be subject to unintended consequences and its abuse. By striving to make it invisible or transparent, you are likely to be punished if you fall short of perfection.
Many of the new media options offer ways of personalizing communication between students and faculty, enabling all involved to connect more fully as human beings, not just as those who deliver and receive sterile information. This is most often achieved by increasing awareness of each medium's characteristics, rather than letting it disappear. Of course, the goal is to achieve some balance between ignoring the medium and spending too much time and energy on decisions about it. In education, technology should be neither transparent nor opaque. It should be translucent.

About the Author

Steven Gilbert is President of the TLT Group and moderates the Internet listserv TLT-SWG.

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