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6 Ways Not To Become Rote Using Instructional Technology

While with any new technology there is a period of nervousness for teachers (more than students) in terms of training, course preparation, and implementation, if the nervous state of use quickly becomes habit, then the use of technology can become rote and meaningless for the student.  Just as we all became so obsessed with group work that every assignment had to be designed that way, even when students hated it, so the integration and use of new technology for instruction must grow with use, become more meaningful with each use, and never seem rote or unnecessary for students.

In light of this challenge, there are six strategies to consider with any use of technology that will guard against rote use and facilitate critical analysis of teaching and learning effectiveness. The following are, from my personal experience and in working with faculty at the college and university level, what have become the checklist I work with and encourage others to work with in learning about and using new technology:

  1. Get your hands dirty;
  2. Set up the "pilot" parameters and criteria;
  3. Involve the students in your reflective evaluation;
  4. Always survey students about the technology specifically;
  5. Always identify the connection with learning outcomes; and
  6. Modify your use and adjust when needed (remain open to change).

That is, while technology uses are varied and complex, the implementation of technology into instruction always involves a learning curve of mechanics and application, as well as an ongoing process of reflective evaluation, modification, and change.

No Substitute for Hands-on Exploration
Teachers who understand that they do not know everything within their discipline and are constantly learning are very appealing to students as they sense the desire for learning that those kinds of teachers communicate.  Likewise, in any use of technology, there should be a similar desire for learning and exploration.  Teachers who remain resistant to technology or only interested from a distance do not engage in the kind of dynamic exploration that is appealing to students.  Technology is only a tool, no matter what the technology is; however, the tools and functions that are provided through new technology can enhance the learning experience for students and also make communication and information sharing much easier for all concerned.  Additionally, new technology, as we have read countless times, engages students and also develops the kinds of skills needed in today's world and workplace.  

Having said that, however, does not seem to be enough to convince some teachers that they should be involved and actually become learners again and "touch" technology for themselves.  It remains something they hear about and somehow find interesting but not as it relates to how they teach and what they desire to have their students achieve.  In other words, if students would like to use technology, that is their choice; it does not affect the discipline or the content area of the teacher and absolutely will never impact how he or she moves and breathes as an educator.  There is perceived to be "no need."  I would argue that there is every need simply because new technology--and the Internet in particular--is continuing to change everything about education and also how students study, write, communicate, and produce knowledge.  So, if educators want to remain relevant and effective, technology is no longer an option but a necessity in teaching and learning.

Some teachers may agree but still find it uncomfortable to take the next step and actually learn something.  I say many times to faculty I am training, "Just like using driving simulations and watching video footage of driving can inform to a certain extent, no one can actually learn to drive a car until their hands are on a car steering wheel and they are driving an actual car.  Similarly, no one can learn new technology by simply watching demonstrations or reading books.  Every user must actually put their hands on the technology and engage their mind if any understanding of that technology is to take place."   Many educators find that uncomfortable because it involves a feeling of vulnerability that most adults have worked hard never to experience willingly.  I would suggest however, that it exemplifies the same explorative mindset that any ongoing learner who happens to educate portrays, and it models a positive example to students in their learning experience.

The Importance of Pilot Tests
Even when you feel comfortable with a specific technology, it is important to realize that the next learning curve involves learning how to use the technology effectively within an instructional context.  It is effective at this point to set up a pilot test of its use with specific criteria for evaluation and success and with the understanding among all participants that they are involved in trying out a new technology and also informing its use for future students.  This not only engages students in the process but demonstrates an important model of learning for students--reflective evaluation and modification.  Students who understand that nothing is without question and in need of ongoing examination and reflection are aware of the dynamic flow of learning which necessarily involves active participants in reflective analysis.  Therefore, rather than seeing a pilot test of anything as potentially diminishing the learning experience for students, it can actually enrich the experience while also developing the reflection and analysis skills so important in learning.

When setting up a study pilot or a pilot test, there are certain points to keep in mind:

  • Set out the parameters of the pilot: How many students will be involved? What exactly is being testing? What possible outcomes are being explored?
  • Identify the success criteria beforehand: How will you know it has been successful? What must necessarily be demonstrated by students to show success?
  • Integrate feedback and reflection opportunities for all participants: Any feedback is important, both positive and negative, and it should also accommodate the diversity of students involved in the pilot.  That is, if the feedback is too constrained, it is not reflective and will not lead to good modifications.
  • Identify the needed modifications of use when the pilot is complete, based on feedback.

It is also an effective practice to notify students ahead if time that within a specific course, they will be asked to participate in a technology pilot and to report back findings when the pilot is completed.  It cannot be understated how important it is that teachers involve themselves in this kind of pilot project for any new teaching method or technology use so that exploration and reflection can be maximized and so that ongoing modification and progress can be made.

Involving Students in Reflection
Personal reflection is not focused on very much in education in general; however, it is an extremely helpful skill to develop and can lead to specific and progress changes in behavior and method that benefits professional practice and student learning.  Helping students learn how to self reflect provides them with an amazingly effective skill, but involving students in a collaborative reflection is particularly enriching.

To borrow from the "Structured Learning" characteristics proposed for students' service learning experiences (Structured Learning, 2001), there are three stages to experiential reflection:  before, during and after.  The idea here is that the experience is contextualized within a larger framework of learning and, therefore, has wider implication for the students and a deeper impact. 

Adapting this for technology the goal would be to orient students to a technology, support students as they use the technology within the specific context of the pilot, and then to involve students in evaluating their experience and specifically the benefit of the technology.  Therefore, the idea that faculty or teachers have to be competent in the use of a new technology before implementing its use in instruction is faulty--on two levels.  First of all, as we have already discussed, students can actually benefit from the exploration and evaluation processes, and, second, technology is changing at too rapid a rate to wait for total competence.  Additionally, it is important to always keep in mind that technology is only a tool, but its application and impact changes according to how and when it is used.  That means users of instructional technology should always be more flexible in their application of the technology in order to maintain its relevance and effectiveness for students.

Surveying Students
When involving students in feedback and evaluation it is helpful to implement a two-approach system.  

  1. Provide opportunities for students to communicate directly with you throughout  the pilot.
  2. Provide a summary evaluation when the pilot is completed.  

This will ensure that the entire process is evaluated and that the teacher will also have an opportunity to learn the progress made by students (or lack of) as a result of the technology use.  When surveying students, make questions specific, and ask about the technology use itself.  For example, if you are piloting the use of discussion capture in a class setting, it would be important to find out what exactly about the technology itself was easy to use and what was awkward.  Also, it would be important to find out if students felt that the technology itself supported their learning process in any way.  However, in attempting to discover that kind of information it is important to be as specific as possible without asking general questions.  For example, it is important to find out if capturing the discussion helped the students remember the concepts of the discussion better or if the capture helped reinforce any of the missed "segments" during the actual discussion.

Learning Outcomes
Likewise surveys and feedback should be tied to learning outcomes.  In other words, it appears confusing and pointless to students to request feedback on aspects that have little relevance to the actual point of the course.  I learned this lesson in graduate school where we were involved in a beta test of a specific knowledge-building software developed by the faculty member teaching us.  The software was designed to facilitate the knowledge-building process, but our feedback was strictly requested in terms of the functionality and ease of use of the software.  While there should always be some level of this kind of input in a beta test of any software program, because it was tested in a course about knowledge building, we should have also been required to input about the effectiveness of the technology in the process of knowledge building. Similarly, whatever the learning outcomes of the course, if the technology does not support or facilitate that learning process, then it is unfair to involve students in any kind of a test.  Ultimately, the goal should be to support learning objectives and outcomes; if a technology does not, then it should not be integrated at all.

Ongoing Change
As I have already discussed in this paper, technology is only a tool in the learning process and, therefore, should reflect the diversity of students' content area.  Additionally, given the differences in student learning styles, faculty use, and changing dynamics in any class group, instructional technology users should always plan for change.  More than any other area, instructional technology users are often the most flexible and innovative of all faculty simply because of the nature and challenges of not only the technology itself, but its use by different and dynamic human beings.  There is no easy way to test and develop good uses of technology with students.  It will always be an unpredictable process and one that will continually demand adjustment and change.

Therefore, rather than learning technology for its own sake, the innovative instructor will always be willing to venture out on those learning curves that are essential in learning about and using new technology and will also be willing to realize that it is the use of the technology that is always changing and must always, therefore, be evaluated.  I am not suggesting that there should never be a sense or acknowledgment of success when using instructional technology but rather that the true success is in adapting and adjusting to support the learning process at every level.  The added bonus of being an innovative instructional technology user is that students can be actively involved in advanced skill development and the customization of their own learning experience as a result of the exploration and discovery required in the process.
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