Advice for the tech-curious instructor

Advice for the tech-curious instructor

This is the last installment of posts based on my keynote address with Matt Boelkins on "How can technology extend the humanity of learners? A dialogue." To watch the entire thing -- including Matt's responses to my questions -- click on the link or go here to my speaker's page.

In this post I am responding to Matt's question:

What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about using technology in new ways in her/his teaching?

Three things.

First: When making choices about technology, you need to lead with students and with relationships, not technology. We should be making choices in our courses based on an effort to create what Ken Bain called a “natural critical learning environment”. This is a learning environment where every student can contribute to a community of inquiry, where efforts are rewarded and intellectual growth is expected, by doing work that matters to students and connects with them. Filter your choices about technology through this lens. If there is some reason to believe a piece of technology will improve that natural critical learning environment, I will consider that technology, and I am going to pick the simplest, cheapest, lowest-footprint form of that technology possible to make sure it's fully accessible. And then I'll use the technology with confidence.

But what I am not going to do is pick a technology to use just because I am curious about it, or because it's the latest thing or the biggest thing on Twitter. Look, using technology is fun. I get it. I like new tools and new toys and I find ways to get to know them. Ask my wife, who wonders sometimes if I prefer gadgets to people. Enjoying technology for its own sake is fine if you are acting as a hobbyist. But if you are acting as a professor then this is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. The focus needs to be on what students need, not on what we think we need.

Second: You need to immerse yourself both in the world of technology to know what’s out there that could be of use, and you need to immerse yourself in the scholarship of teaching and learning to know how it can be used effectively.

Let's say you've heard a lot about clickers and you'd like to try using clickers in your classroom. That's great. However, it's important to learn about clickers before pulling the trigger on using them and especially before spending money on them, or worse, requiring students to spend money on them.

A lot of people don’t know, for example, that there is a 20-year old body of literature on peer instruction, which is a pedagogical practice in which clickers and their questions play a central role, and there is a lot of recent research about students’ use of clickers and how this can motivate learning and what to watch out for. And a lot people also don’t know, for example, that there is a broad range of technology available that can be a “clicker”.  Unless you’re reasonably aware of both the range of technologies available and the state of the art about what’s known about their use, we’re not going to make the best decision with the needs of students in mind.

Finding time to do this is challenging but doable. For me, I make sure to schedule each week one hour, usually on Wednesday afternoons, that is devoted to reading one research article in the scholarship of teaching and learning that is of interest to me. By doing this I will read at least 50 articles a year and be somewhat aware of what is scientifically known about these questions, so I can make better decisions. And if you find there is no research on the question you are interested in, then set up a research project of your own.

Third and finally: Don’t be married to technology. If you have the right frame of mind about your classes, you know what you want your learning environment to look like and you are aware of the SoTL literature and the tech products available and there is seriously no technology out there that really hits the spot for you or your students, be prepared to stay low-tech with your teaching until there is such a technology. If you're using a particular technology and you're really invested in it, but it starts to become clear that your students aren't benefitting and that it's causing more problems than it solves, you have to maintain enough objectivity to be able to cut yourself free from it and use what helps create that natural critical learning environment the most -- which might mean no technology at all in some cases. Remember we are teachers who use technology, not technology zealots who happen to teach classes.

So that's it for this series. I hope you enjoyed it. There's more at the talk, which is linked above.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.