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  July 10, 2000

Institute Explores Uses of
Technology to Enhance Teaching

Anthropology professor Robert Bee is a 33-year veteran of UConn's faculty whose flair as a lecturer has earned him many accolades. Yet this summer he spent a week on campus learning how to improve his teaching techniques.

"I think my lecturing technique has been honed, but I see my role shifting from actor to impresario," said Bee, who plans to insert computer elements into a large lecture course, Social Anthropology, that he will teach in the fall. "Students are no longer so willing to listen to someone talk to them. And I feel it's my duty as a professional educator to be the best I can, including adapting to what this generation of students is turned on by."

Bee was one of 13 faculty from four departments - anthropology, sociology, history and philosophy - who took part in the intensive 9-to-5, five-day session focusing on how to use educational technology to enhance teaching. The first annual Dorothy Goodwin Summer Institute was funded by an endowment gift from the former state representative and UConn educator, with additional support from the Institute for Teaching and Learning and the office of the vice chancellor for information services. It was designed to help faculty meet the learning needs of the current generation of undergraduates and to reach larger numbers of students.

Multiple Sources
This generation is used to getting information from many sources and in many ways, said Richard Gorham, director of the Center for Instructional Media and Technology, one of the presenters at the institute.

"Anyone who's more than 10 years out of high school had very different sources of information from today's undergraduates," he said. "We had radio, reading, public libraries and phonographs. They have television, computers, videos and a mass of ways of getting information. They think and learn differently from students 10 years ago and certainly 30 years ago. It's not right or wrong, it's just what is."

"The landscape is changing," said Susan Steele, vice provost for undergraduate education and instruction, who addressed participants at the start of the week. Steele said enrollment has risen, with an accompanying increase in class size. "Technology can enable faculty to reach more students."

In designing the institute, "we selected liberal arts departments that teach a lot of undergraduates, in many cases in large classes," said Keith Barker, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning who coordinated the institute. "I think we provided a range of ideas that can be translated into good practice."

Participants were asked to identify a teaching assignment that could benefit from educational technology, and at the end of the week outline to the group some strategies for implementation and evaluation. Each faculty member who attended the workshop will receive a stipend of $3,000 to buy hardware and software to implement the project, either in the fall or the spring.

In addition to electronic resources, primarily WebCT and PowerPoint, presenters discussed educational theory and teaching strategies designed to promote learning, including an approach known as problem-based learning.

Incorporating Technology
By the end of the week, most of the participants had identified a range of potential uses of educational technology to incorporate into their teaching.

"I plan to inject into my course some Web-based elements that will allow me to do things that for the past 30 years I've not been satisfied I've done well," said Bee during a presentation on his plans to revamp his large lecture class.

He said his computer literacy is limited and he was not previously familiar with WebCT, yet he aims to use WebCT to post his syllabus, assignments and practice exams. He also will create links to other relevant sites in anthropology.

"I hope to get students to participate more in class," he said. "I hope that once I begin posting the assignments on the Web along with questions for discussion, they'll come to class knowing what they're supposed to be doing."

In addition, Bee plans to use Power Point software for his lectures. "I'm a great one for models, models of socio-cultural change. PowerPoint offers ways to have students visualize relationships between elements," he said. "I also have a million slides I want to show. I like the convenience of putting them in a PowerPoint presentation."

Although deploying technology in a course can be time- and labor-intens ive, particularly at the outset, Barker and his colleagues stressed that the University has resources to help. These include the Computer Center, the Instructional Resource Center, the Center for Instructional Media and Technology, the Institute for Teaching and Learning and a cadre of faculty - many of them highly technology-sa vvy - who have been named University Teaching Fellows.

Bandana Purkayastha, an assistant professor of sociology and Asian American studies, is already using WebCT in her classes but has begun to recognize additional uses for it. "I foresee putting much more of my information on the Web," she said. "I want to encourage my students not to take notes, to ensure that they spend more time listening than writing."

Developing Skills
There was a tension, however, between the faculty members' desire to improve their teaching and the demands of coping with larger classes.

Several of the participants expressed concern about effective learning in large classes in the humanities and social sciences, where - because of the subject matter - the emphasis is on developing writing, logic and analytical skills, rather than mastering a body of knowledge.

"A lot of skills can only be developed in the context of smaller classes," said Cameron Macdonald, an assistant professor of sociology. "If students can't have a discussion, for example - think beyond their assumptions and defend an argument - they never learn the difference between opinion and reasoned argument."

A popular approach is to break down the class into smaller discussion sections. Macdonald plans to apply WebCT to support the discussion groups she and her teaching assistant organize as part of a class on social theory. She said she encourages the 70 or so students in the class to grapple with the works of great sociologists such as Marx and Weber and try to apply their theories to the world around them.

Until now, she has offered optional discussion sections for extra credit, but found that commuter students and those who have jobs are often unable to participate. She says a feature of WebCT known as threaded discussion - that is accessible on-line at any time from any place - will let more students join in the debates. The feature allows course participants to bring up on their computer not only the original issue but also the various points of view already expressed; they can then click on a particular question or statement to add their own ideas.

"I will be able to log on from time to time and suggest avenues of thought or places the students might want to re-read," said Macdonald. "It will help me get a sense of what they understand well," she said, "and where they need reinforcement in class."

But, she adds, support from teaching assistants is critical, to facilitate the optimal use of technology. "For example, WebCT creates the capacity for students to engage in small group research projects outside of class," she says, "but this is something they need to be taught how to do, and that requires a good deal of help from a professor or TA in order to be a successful learning experience."

Commenting on the institute, Purkayastha said she welcomed the opportunity to spend time discussing teaching issues with colleagues from other departments. "We don't do that often enough," she said, "even though teaching is such a big part of our jobs."

While technology - used well - offers some exciting and effective tools, several of the participants expressed the caveat that it should not be seen as a substitute for good teaching.

"I see technology as enhancing the strategies I already use," Macdonald said. "But for students to learn effectively, there's nothing that replaces being there, interacting with the professor."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu