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The Promise and Challenges of Integrating Interactive Technologies into University Pedagogy

Excerpted from the Campus Technology 2007 conference proceedings for the session, "Realizing Your Smart Classroom Dream"

At the University of Washington (UW), Seattle, one of the key factors driving AV purchases these days is the quest to create added value in our existing learning environments. In the past this simply meant installing data projectors, Ethernet, and AV control systems. It was largely a capital projects effort with little or no thought being put into the precise pedagogical demands that we were meeting by doing so. This was something that almost everyone wanted regardless of their personal approach to instruction, and we happily met that demand. Life was easy.

Questions about Classroom Technology
Now that many of our rooms have reached a certain standard of computer-based multimedia display sophistication, we are turning to pedagogical-based analyses of the roles technology plays in our classrooms. This process is impacting how we look at basic room configuration and design, but, more importantly, it is leading us to consider technology offerings that might better support desirable pedagogical outcomes. After all, we now have more than 100 years of dramatic growth in learning theory, learning science, and technological aids to guide us. Yet, with countless hours of practical experience invested in investigating these tools it seems remarkable that up to 80 percent of our campus instruction still comes in the form of tried-and-true sage-on-the-stage lecturing, albeit enhanced by digital bullet points, clipart, and sound bites.

Surely there is value to be found in traditional lecture formats, but what added value might we harvest from large lecture environments where significant interaction is seriously lacking and where only a handful of students dominate any attempt at spontaneous interaction? How might we improve a 50-minute lecture period where questions from the audience comprise less than five minutes of class time and where only 19 percent of students will ask a teacher for advice after class? And how might we improve things if we know that only one-third of all students leaving a typical lecture will have most of the key lecture points recorded? What are the barriers that prevent our smart classrooms from being used by our very smart faculty in the smartest of ways?

Questions like these have led us to investigate the promise and challenge of integrating technologies that support interactive experiences into our learning environments. Many theories of learning suggest that instruction will be most effective when it leverages both active and interactive learning experiences. That is, learners must respond in some way to the learning material they encounter.  Passive listening, viewing, or reading cannot yield the same benefit. With this in mind we set about to identify technologies that would support some degree of interactive learning believing that the true value of modern educational technologies is only fully realized when they allow us to do things interactively. We sought to find ways to engage students using technology, to provide formative feedback along the way, and to allow for novel ways of interacting with instructional content.

Using educational technologies in interactive ways is challenging because it demands better curriculum design and course production. Significant time and effort must be invested in mastering the technology and in converting existing courses into interactive experiences. There may be substantial initial instructor effort required and almost certainly additional efforts required of learners, but the promise and payoff comes in the form of a much better overall learning experience for all stakeholders. Technology managers are tasked with offsetting as much of that effort as possible by implementing well designed technology programs, selecting appropriate technologies, and providing a variety of avenues for end user support. The first step toward accomplishing this is to gain an understanding of the relationship between interactive educational experiences and educational technology.

An interactive experience might be defined simply as allowing a user to make a change in the state of a system. However, from an educational technology perspective an interactive experience would be employed to promote change in the state of the user's mind.  This is an important distinction and the fact that the state of the system changed may be irrelevant. Educational technology can be broadly defined as knowledge applied systematically to instruction and can be viewed as both physical technology (i.e. assorted classroom tools, books, computers, software, computer networks) and communications media (i.e. lectures, writing, drama, instructional design, symbol systems).

Educational technology, therefore, allows for two basic types of interactive activities: technology-based (human-machine) and media-based (human-human). Human-machine interaction might involve interactive whiteboards, tablet and pen display interfaces, document cameras, and other hardware-based tools (i.e. keyboards and mice) and allows instructors or students access to learning materials, in potentially novel ways, by using a technology interface. Human-human interaction can occur in three distinct ways:
  1. Interaction between the learner and the originator of the teaching material;
  2. Interaction between the learner and an instructor who mediates between the original material and the learner by providing guidance and assessment; and
  3. Interaction between the learner and other learners.
It is commonplace to use technology to mediate human-human interaction. There are also many applications, such as in educational virtual environments, where both of the above types of interaction are employed simultaneously.

Interactive educational technologies might provide simple transparent access to a variety of instructional content, serve to remove distance or time constraints by providing a channel of communication for learners, be employed in ways that directly challenge a students' existing knowledge or abilities, or be used to push personalized content to learners just when they need it most. There are many potential approaches to using interaction in education and educational technologies will vary widely in both how they encourage interaction and provide an educational benefit. Successfully generating added value by integrating interactive technologies into university pedagogy turns out to involve a highly sophisticated set of considerations.[Editor's note: Proceedings from the Campus Technology 2007 annual summer conference are being added to the conference proceedings site. You can find the full text of Randy Jackson's session proceedings there, along with the proceedings of many other conference session presenters.]

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