Teaching Naked: Why Removing Technology from your Classroom Will Improve Student Learning
The posting below looks at the benefits of using technology before and after, but not during class time. It is by Josť Bowen (firstname.lastname@example.org), dean, Algur H. Meadows Chair and professor of music, Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University. It is #36 in a series of selected excerpts from the NT&LF newsletter reproduced here as part of our "Shared Mission Partnership." NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [http://www.ntlf.com/] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Volume 16, Number 1, December 2006.© Copyright 1996-2006. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.
Flashy powerpoints with video and synchronous
e-conferences are impressive, but the best reason to adopt technology in your
courses is to increase and improve your naked, untechnological face-to-face
interaction with students. Technology is often accused of pushing people further
apart (the interaction is really with a computer screen and not another human
being, they say) but a few minutes of questions at the end of an hour covering
material from behind a podium is hardly an interactive experience either.
However, simple, new technologies can greatly increase your students' engagement
outside of the classroom and thus prepare them for real discussions (even in the
very largest classes) by providing content and assessment before class time. The
goal, in other words, is to use technology to free yourself from the need to
"cover" the content in the classroom, and instead use class time to demonstrate
the continued value of direct student to faculty interaction and discussion.
Most of the ideas listed here are aimed at medium or large courses (20 students and above) where lecturing remains the easy choice and powerpoint has become the most abused new technology. If we believe that the value of a residential college experience consists largely of the human interaction between professors and students, then we should maximize that experience. Better online courses are coming and consumers and legislators will continue to put money where the best learning is. Residential colleges will always be more expensive, so there should also be a demonstrable learning benefit. Technology will surely be a key component of all future higher education, but we need to rethink how we use technology inside as well as outside of the classroom.
As young teachers, almost all of us over-prepared for class with more content-specific lecture notes than we could ever deliver coherently. All of us have also had the unexpected and exquisite student epiphany that usually occurs when we abandon the script and follow our instincts or a student question. The best teaching moments do not happen when we are worried about making sure we do not forget a detail. These new technologies allow faculty to abandon this tyranny of content (at least during class time), but they will also require us to rethink our use of class time. I'll return to this at the later, but I strongly endorse under-preparing for class; it will lead to your best teaching moments though it will feel a bit like teaching naked.
Use Email to Create More Class Time
If you need to reschedule the midterm or change a reading, do not take valuable class time to make announcements that some students will copy down and most will forget. Lists of announcements are time consuming and ineffective. Email is a great way to communicate with your students and save class time for something better. Technology makes it easier to provide an email or handout with the complete details; For maximum effectiveness, limit announcements to one highlight.
Imagine my surprise when I first read on a student evaluation: "This professor emails me several times a week and it shows he really cares about his teaching." Student perceptions of your enthusiasm and dedication are tied to their engagement in the subject. They like getting email from you, and you immediately seem more open, accessible, friendly and caring.
Second, if you forget to mention some vital information in class, simply email all of your students after class. Again, students like this and it reinforces what every campus has been trying to do: to connect learning with the entire college and life experience. Email is a great way to remind students that they are responsible for the learning and that they should still be learning even when they leave the classroom.
Third, you can guide your students' time outside of the classroom by providing timely reminders of key themes in the reading or connecting classroom topics to current events. Students always learn better when they perceive that the material is relevant and most of us see connections to our work periodically in the news. Since mentioning a recent news item might divert us away from other course content during class time, we sometimes skip it, but email is the perfect way to draw attention to a news story immediately, as it happens.
Most universities now have some sort of course management system that automatically creates emails lists for every course, but another way to reach your students is to create a Facebook site for yourself. (Go to Facebook.com and follow the instructions.) All of your students are already in this virtual community and asking them to join a class group creates a virtual community where they already live; posting an announcement on Blackboard is the equivalent of asking them to come to office hours in your building. Posting on Facebook is more like showing up in the dorms for dinner. Posting here may reach students more quickly.
Use Online Tests to Create More Class Time
Online course management systems all include some testing function. Many of us have felt the conflict between a desire for more timely assessment and the problem of "losing" class time. In the last year or two the sophistication of online quizzes and assessments has dramatically changed in products like Blackboard, but there are also a quickly expanding array of free learning modules developed by your colleagues at merlot.org.) Moving one or more assessments outside of class time, again frees up the class time for something more interesting.
Again, the fringe benefits far exceed the original goal. You can now give more quizzes and more varied assignments. You can allow (or require) students to work together. You can monitor their progress more easily. You can provide opportunities at different hours; this levels the playing field for different types of learners and situations, but also reaches the traditional students who want to study late at night. Most importantly, however, you can disguise learning as exams and tie the assessment of learning to measurable and increased learning.
As a music teacher, I used to give periodic "drop the needle" exams, where the teacher drops the needle onto the record and asks students to identify the style, period, composer, performer etc. These were easy to grade, but as class size grew so did the work, and they took up class time. They certainly didn't enhance learning; they only measured the work students had already done. Then I created simple multiple choice exams in Blackboard. This freed up class time, but students needed a way to test the system before logging on to take the exam. So I created practice exams for each week using the same questions, but with the same pool of audio examples. My support person wondered if students would cheat by memorizing all 150 examples before taking the test. I thought, "that isn't cheating, that's learning." Indeed, allowing students to "practice" (or "cheat") dramatically increased how much time they spent "studying" or practicing this activity and increased the scores on the exams by almost an entire grade. Even when I randomly moved exams back into the classroom, there was dramatically increased performance.
Quizzes before Classes: No More Unprepared Students
We've all arrived in class only to find that most students have not done the reading and are hiding behind their desks. One way to ensure this never happens again is to create an online mini quiz for every reading; each quiz is due an hour before the relevant class. Create four multiple-choice questions and email a reminder and a deadline to all students.
An earlier version of this concept is Just in Time Teaching or "JiTT." (Novak, Patterson, Gavrin and Christian, 1999) Students prepare a problem set or an assignment in advance of class and submit it before class; you use class time only to work on the problem areas. New technology makes this easier and even more effective. Now, not only do you know that every student did at least some of the reading, you can print out the quiz results an hour before class and focus on the issue they found most confusing or most compelling.
Pre-class problem-sets don't have to be SAT reading-comprehension-type questions. I often ask students to discover a writer's bias, the hidden assumptions or to relate a story from their own life that reinforces the point the author is making. It does not even have to be a quiz. You could require your students simply to make a relevant online posting or submit a question they have. There have been online discussion groups for over a decade now and even in a large class, students can be divided into smaller discussion groups. (Again, if you use Facebook, you can reach students where they already live.) While there is disagreement about whether online discussion can substitute for face-to-face discussion, it is clear that requiring students to make a few postings or demonstrate some competence with the material before class can only lead to better in-class discussions.
The Inverted Classroom
Most of us learned in the traditional model: come to class unprepared, listen passively to the first contact with the material, then go away to "learn" the material and then return for the exam. In an "inverted classroom," (Platt and Lage, 2000) the first contact and exams happen outside of the classroom, but students come to class prepared to engage with other learners and the professor. Project-based learning and the studio model of teaching in the arts are also expressions of the importance of engaging with students in the flesh. Technology makes it even easier to invert your classroom so that your classroom becomes the center of learning rather than only a passive point of first contact with the material.
The traditional model was once the most efficient one. Long before the rise of cheap textbooks and the internet (in ancient Greece, for example) a lecture was the cheapest and most efficient mode of communicating new knowledge to a large group of students. Larger nineteenth and twentieth-century concert halls and most of our lecture halls were designed using the latest acoustic technology to aid this delivery of content. New technology allows for more varied modes of communication.
Lectures of Wonder
In the nineteenth century, long before radio, movies, television or paperbacks, going out to even a poor public lecture or concert was a rare and stimulating experience, but we can hardly expect our students to be this enthusiastic. Our students understand the difference between passive and active multimedia experiences, and they are used to walking out of bad movies, concerts or lectures. So if you want to reach students through lectures, they need to be lectures of wonder; they have to be even better than they used to be to be effective at all.
When you could only hear Beethoven live and in concert, you would tolerate lots of wrong notes. Higher standards in recorded music have increased not only the standards of playing on those recordings, but also in our concert halls. It's the same with lectures. They better be good. Save your best stuff for the live experience, but be realistic about what is engaging and how often you can deliver it.
The most obvious way to open up class time for those best "aha" moments is to remove your recitation of content (the lecture) from the class room. If your classes are only lectures and exams, you might as well be teaching online. Coming to class has to "add value" and reducing the technology and increasing the human interaction is the best way to create something interactive that cannot be duplicated online. Most of your lectures (all of the ones covering "content") can be turned into videos, but interactive discussion cannot.
A great lecture is a great performance; it is best at stimulating an interest and spreading enthusiasm for further study. Like any performance, you need wow factor, pacing (including change of pacing and plot twists) and you need a great ending. If your lecture includes a great "aha" moment, live experiments or demonstration, or you keep students on the edge of their seats, then lecture and make them even better. (Bligh, 2000) You can, however, probably improve that lecture (and that "aha" moment), by removing that survey of the bones in the foot or poetic structure. If your students need background content to understand your great moment or to engage in discussion, then communicate that in some other way. The lecture then can focus on something dramatic and memorable. Current research (Crouch and Mazur, 2001) demonstrates that students retain relatively little content from most lectures, but they do take away a lot about your attitude toward learning and your subject.
What They'll See When You're Naked
Your style of teaching conveys volumes about your values, your discipline and what you want students to learn. When you lecture about facts, the implication is that they should be memorizing facts. If you tell students that they need to question authority, but you lecture from behind the podium, it is harder for them to question you and they probably don't take you seriously. If you want students to think or consider multiple points of view, you need to create a situation in the classroom where they can do this.
While a good lecture is still a great way to present an introduction to many subjects, there are now better ways to allow more people to see them (see below). While the technology is relatively easy and available, the much more dramatic change is what happens in the classroom. Many new pedagogies (JiTT, Inverted Classroom, or Project-Based Learning) rely on a professor who is an improviser in the classroom. This won't appeal to everyone and it is a huge change, but fear is not a good reason to avoid trying. We all entered this profession because we are passionate about our subject. All of us can talk passionately for 50 minutes (or longer) on a variety of subjects, and for most of us, reducing the lecture notes and trying only to communicate passionately a few key ideas results in more excited students who are inspired to learn more.
"Teaching naked," means moving some of the content, removing some of the personal safety net and simply trying to connect with our students. Delivering first contact with the material is very safe; you know what comes next, and it is the students who are naked and unprotected. When you provide another means and incentive for learning the material in advance, you give up some control, and that can feel like teaching naked, but it can improve students learning.
Bligh, D. A. (2000) What's the Use of Lectures? 6th rev. edn. Hoboken: Jossey-Bass.
Bowen, J. A. (2005) "Jazz Bandstand" and "JazzByEar" video games (designed with Britt Carr at Miami University) available at http://www.josebowen.com
Crouch, C., and Mazur, E. Peer Instruction: Ten years of experience and results. American Journal of Physics, 69/9, pp 970-977.
Gee, J. P. (2003) What Video Games Have to Teach US about Learning and Literacy. New York: Palgrave/ Macmillan.
Novak, G., Patterson, E., Gavrin, A., and Christian, W. (1999). Just-in-Time Teaching: Blending Active Learning with Web Technology. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Platt, G., and Lage, M. (2000). The Internet and the Inverted Classroom. Journal of Economic Education, Winter 2000, (31/1) (Electronic version: http://www.sba.muohio.edu/plattgj/eco201).