Pedagogical reflections from an instructional technology workshop
Assistant Professor, Human Resource Development Dept
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA
Dr Stanley K. McDaniel
Instructor, Speech Communication Dept
University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA
Our journey of learning how to instruct in cyberspace began June 7, 1999. We attended a two-week intensive, 60-hour workshop designed to introduce instructors to innovative technologies that can support effective teaching strategies. Participation in the workshop was part of an instructional technology grant we had been awarded. The hands-on workshop targeted instructors from different disciplines who were creating team-taught interdisciplinary courses.
Each instructor had been awarded a laptop computer as part of the grant.
The first class involved setting up the laptops in the instructional technology lab and getting online. Once the quirks of the course were worked out--distribution of materials, network connections, and time-lines—we began our journey. Instructional technology specialists presented each participant with a detailed training manual on the technologies that were to be covered during the course, along with 8 supplemental textbooks targeting methods of Web-based teaching. The training strategy was to introduce the class to a broad range of different technologies through lecture, followed by 15 to 20 minute hands-on computer time for each of us to experience the technologies discussed. The 60-hour workshop covered digital media elements, a course management system, editing audio visual elements, ImageReady, streaming and conferencing video, Authorware, web-based searching and evaluating, sharing files over a network, and downloading and installing web-based files. Guest lecturers joined the workshop from time to time, sharing successful experiences and stumbling blocks they had encountered in building cyberspace learning environments.
The 60 hours of training provided a basic understanding of what can and cannot be accomplished through the new technologies, the pro’s and con’s of using Web-based instruction, and technology resources available to help users of the new technologies. Exposure to the new technologies was invaluable, however, the minimal hands-on computer time did not provide enough time to develop competency in any of the technologies. The training strategy could be improved by spending less time discussing the array of new technologies, and more time on one subject, in particular, the course management system. Our University is standardizing online course offerings through Courseinfo as our course management system. Workshop learning needs would be served better by providing in-depth training in Courseinfo, with all hands-on computer time allotted to this program. Later participants could incorporate other technologies previewed during the workshop into their online courses as their knowledge base grows.
We came away from our workshop experience with as many unanswered as answered questions. Our questions were answered about the mechanics of new technologies. The mechanics seem straightforward, a matter of hands-on time at the computer to learn. Unanswered questions remain about the dialectic between pedagogy and information technologies.
The Dialectic Dynamic
The medium is the message: People communicate through a variety of contextual mediums. This requires that we analyze the amount of context needed to communicate meaning and select the appropriate instructional method that supports this contextual level. Our class discussed the power of contextual mediums to support or impede instruction. One of our classmates gave an example of technology problems with context to communicate meaning in an online course. She explained that two cyberspace student teams participated in a project, one team located in the Netherlands and one team located in the United States. Both teams communicated extensively through e-mail during project development. When the teams were asked, at completion, how often they talked to each other during the project, both teams responded that they never talked to each other during the project, but often had wanted to ‘pick up the phone and just talk to each other.’ Findings by Crook and Webster (1999) provide further insight into communication experiences with e-mail. Their study revealed that contextual properties of e-mail poorly match practices of interaction for undergraduate learners. The process of instructional design requires careful attention to the subtleties of contextual mediums to communicate meaning.
‘Words, control over format, voice tone, immediate feedback, nonverbal cues, environmental cues, direct physical exchange, and informal contact’ comprise the many contextual mediums we use to communicate meaning (Gundling, 1999). Person-to-person communication, such as the in-classroom experience, provides the instructor and student with the highest degree of context for learning. Online instruction provides a very low contextual form of communication, which is why it cannot replace the person-to-person classroom experience. While this may not seem surprising, misleading assertions about the role of context for learning frequently appear in arguments that online resources offer a greater contextual environment for learning than the in-classroom experience (see Gillespie, 1998; Kearsley & Shneiderman, 1998; Petraglia, 1998). These generalizations confuse the contextual role of information resources (e.g., the World Wide Web) with the contextual level of instruction needed to communicate meaning. The question is not just the real world context that students have ready access to, but also, in what social and physical context is learning being delivered? Online communication is through computer technology, which lacks the context of a person-to-person classroom experience.
The quest for certainty: We need to design effective ways of orchestrating online learning environments for different kinds of knowledge. Workshop trainers and guest speakers did not provide a balanced overview of cognitive, psychomotor and affective learning domains. They focused on online instruction materials targeting objective knowledge, such as a geometry problem that can be verified with a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer and did not address how to accommodate affective learning needs online. Our class consisted of seasoned teachers who raised concern over this omission. One of our classmates described to us a course he teaches on Images of Jesus--complex, value laden and evocative. Students are exposed to new ways of thinking about their values, which can be explosive. The instructor needs all the contextual mediums at his disposal to communicate meaning and to provide a steady hand as students explore their values. Our classmate reflected upon those times in his course that a hush comes over the classroom as students experience the "ah-ha" of recognition when affective learning occurs. For his course, technology is better suited as a complement to in-classroom instruction.
The present technology is better geared toward objective knowledge that can be tested through repeatability and efficacy, whose legitimizing criteria ask ‘Is it verifiable? Is it valid?’ (see Rescher, 1977). Online instruction seems readily adaptable to cognitive learning and types of psychomotor learning in which facts, skills and methods can be repeated and verified for accuracy. The technology falls short as an affective learning tool for subjective knowledge, where validity is not absolute and is value-laden.
At the conclusion of the workshop, we viewed an award winning software program that seeks to accommodate affective, cognitive and psychomotor learning needs online. The program is designed to complement in-studio instructions for dance, voice, costume design, musical composition, playwriting, and drama. Workshop participants would benefit from a training strategy that models this balanced approach to the different learning needs.
The Contextual Role of Information Resources
The vast amount of information offered online and the ease by which technology brings this information to our fingertips are mind-boggling. We immediately discovered crucial teaching tools that online resources provide. Real world issues can be incorporated more easily into class projects and discussion. This allows academicians--often accused of living in their ivory towers--to balance theory better with practice. For example, industry professionals now provide ready access to their products, services and examples of their consulting tools as they market their companies online. In the past, gaining access to consulting tools used in industry was difficult if not impossible due to proprietary and intellectual property issues, and was limited to whom the professor personally knew. Exercises developed by instructors teaching similar courses to our proposed course are available online. This saves us valuable preparation time. Also, access to case studies, rarely possible before, are readily available online. This is another way we can bring real world issues into the classroom.
A word of caution here. Our workshop introduced us to copyright law, its implications and ambiguities for online information. This was some of the most valuable training we received. We highly recommend it for instructors using online information. One way we plan to accommodate copyright law is to create external links to sites for student access. In this way, the information cannot be viewed as part of our personal material. We also will contact authors requesting permission to include their material in our course, following the guidelines of copyright law.
Information technology is changing our educational institutions, yet we are behind in developing pedagogical values to guide our experiences with technology. As stewards of learning, we need to be asking the right questions, the difficult questions: "What is it we are really doing? What is it we want to do with these, the most powerful tools ever put in the hands of so many? What is our new role in the information society? How can we change and yet still preserve the essence of our valued traditions and also assure educational quality?" (Varn, 1999, p. 75).
We want to preserve the essence of our valued traditions and still change. We owe this to our students and to ourselves who must live and learn in an electronic world. We will make mistakes along the way as we learn to use the new technologies that support effective teaching strategies. A thought comes to mind as we travel down this new path of learning and instructing:
"Give me a fruitful error any time, full of seeds, bursting with its own corrections. You can keep your sterile truth for yourself" (Pareto, cited in Gould, 1978, p. 22 ).
We are on our way.