When I was approached to write a blog for PECOP I thought I could bring a slightly different perspective on classroom technology as I am not a full-time classroom educator. My primary role for the past dozen years with ADInstruments has been to work with educators who use our products to get the most from their investment in our technology. This has led to thousands of conversations about use and misuse of technology in the classroom and teaching laboratories. I would like to share some of my insights here.
Early in my academic career I was tasked with a major overhaul of the introductory Biology curriculum at Louisiana Tech, and incorporating technology was part of this mandate. I have always been a bit of a tech geek, but rarely an early adopter. I spent quite a bit of time and effort taking a good hard look at technology before implementing it in my classrooms. I was fortunate enough to participate in T.H.E. QUEST (Technology in Higher Education: Quality Education for Students and Teachers). Technology was just beginning to creep into the classroom in the late nineties. Most courses were traditional, chalk and talk; PowerPoint was still a new thing, and this three-week course taught us how to incorporate this emerging technology appropriately. PowerPoint worked better for many of us than chalk and talk, but also became a crutch, and many educators failed to use the best parts of this technology and applied it as a panacea. Now PowerPoint has fallen out of favor and has been deemed to be “Killing Education”(1). When used improperly, rather than curing a problem, it has backfired and reduced complex concepts to lists and bullet points.
I was fortunate enough to have been on the leading edge for a number of technologies in both my graduate and academic careers. Anybody remember when thermocyclers were rare and expensive? Now Open PCR can deliver research quality DNA amplification for around $500. Other technologies became quickly obsolete; anybody remember Zip drives? Picking the tech that will persist and extend is not an easy task. Will the Microscope go the way of the zip drive? For medical education this is already happening (2). While ADInstruments continues to lead the way with our PowerLab hardware and software packages for education (3); there are plenty of other options available. Racks of very specialized equipment for recording biological signals can now be replaced with very affordable Arduino based electronics (4,5). As these technologies and their supporting software gets easier to use, almost anyone can collect quality physiological data.
One of the more interesting technologies that is evolving rapidly is the area of content delivery or “teaching and learning” platforms. The most common of these for academia are the Learning Management Systems. These are generally purchased by institutions or institutional systems and “forced” upon the faculty. I have had to use many different platforms at different institutions. Blackboard, Desire 2 Learn, Moodle, etc. are all powerful tools for managing student’s digital records, and placing content in their “virtual” hands. Automatic grading of quiz questions, as well as built in plagiarism detection tools can assist educators with large classes and limited time, when implemented properly. This is the part that requires buy in from the end user and resources from the institution to get the faculty up and running (6). While powerful, these can be cumbersome and often lack the features that instructors and students who are digitally savvy expect. Many publisher digital tools integrate with the University LMS’s and are adopted in conjunction with, or more frequently now instead of a printed textbook. McGraw Hill’s Connect and LearnSmart platforms have been optimized for their e-textbooks and integrate with most LMS’s (7). Other purpose-built digital tools are coming online that add features that students expect like Bring Your Own Device applications; Top Hat is one of these platforms that can be used with mobile devices in and out of the classroom (8).
So what has endured?
In my almost 20 years in higher education classrooms and labs, lots of tools have come and gone. What endures are passionate educators making the most of the technology available to them. No technology, whether digital or bench top hardware, will solve a classroom or teaching laboratory problem without the educator. While these various technologies are powerful enhancements to the student experience, they fall flat without the educator implementing them properly. It’s not the tech, it’s how the tech is used that makes the difference, and that boils down to the educator building out the course to match the learning objectives they set.
My advice to educators can be summed up in a few simple points:
- Leverage the technology you already have.
- Get fully trained on your LMS and any other digital tools you may already have at your institution. The only investment you will have here is your time and effort.
- Check the cabinets and closets, there is a lot of just out of date equipment lying around that can be repurposed. Perhaps a software update is all you need to put that old gear back in rotation.
- Choose technology that matches your course objectives.
- Small and inexpensive purpose-built tech is becoming readily available, and can be a good way to add some quantitative data to the laboratory experience.
- Top of the line gear may have many advantages for ease of use and reliability, but is not necessarily the best tool to help your students accomplish the learning objectives you set.
- Investigate online options to traditional tools.
- eBooks, OpenStax, and publisher’s online tools can be used by students for a lot less money than traditional texts and in some cases these resources are free.