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Teaching and Learning in Review: Insights from the EDUCAUSE 2010 Annual Conference

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Key Takeaways

  • A corresponding research methodology should accompany experimentation with emerging technologies in the current fiscal climate.
  • E-textbooks must offer more than cost savings: they must incorporate new media, offer functionality to include annotation and searching, and transform the traditional textbook in order to attract students.
  • Students have strong opinions about what they consider good or poor teaching in online environments, thus the next generation of learning management systems must focus on the needs of the learner and be adaptable enough to address those needs.
  • The notion of customizable instruction represents the future of online learning environments.

The teaching and learning track of the EDUCAUSE Annual Conference receives more session proposals than any other, most years numbering in the hundreds. We are delighted to have such an active and engaged constituency, one we believe is central in informing and shaping higher education information technology efforts. In an effort to "gather" and synthesize the highlights from our nearly 50 teaching and learning sessions and presenters at the 2010 EDUCAUSE Annual Conference in Anaheim, California, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) embarked on a community-based process to collect emergent practices and innovations in teaching and learning.

Crowd-Sourcing Teaching and Learning Innovation Highlights

In an effort to crowd-source the collection of information, including participants' opinions and insights, we employed a two-step process. First we recruited "reporters" from various teaching and learning–related EDUCAUSE community groups by asking them to sign up using a Google doc. Over 50 individuals signed up. Next we asked reporters to attend a short online orientation to explain their role and the process, which was simple and something they could do while attending teaching and learning–related sessions. While attending those sessions, they were asked to deposit their answers to the following questions in the Google doc using any mobile, wifi-enabled device.

The Directive

  • Check the tag(s) that best describes the session you attended: e-Books, Strategy, Emerging Technologies, Mobility, Social Tools, e-Learning.
  • In a couple of sentences, summarize the innovation or strategy presented in the session.
  • Describe in 200 words or less the significance of this session's innovation or strategy related to teaching and learning.
  • What do you think about what was presented and why?
  • Other comments about this session.

Nineteen reporters presented their thoughts, insights, takeaways, implementation ideas, and skepticism about what they heard from the teaching and learning community. I summarize this process and findings here and suggest it as a model, scalable to any level, to promote engagement and critical thought while participating in professional development activities.

The Community Voice

Reporters used six categories to classify session content (to simplify the process, we did not ask participants to tell us the name of the session they attended). A summary of their conclusions follows, organized by category.

E-Books

Significant challenges exist with traditional textbooks, participants agreed. Current textbook publishing and distribution models need to change, driven by student customers demanding reasonable pricing and a format that fits the way they prefer to learn and use information.

The consensus was that e-books have the potential to revolutionize the textbook format, but the technology is still too immature for wide adoption due to the absence of a standard publishing format, students' preferences for a printed text, and price-point issues. The current model, where students purchase a new textbook each term, is not expected to continue, although publishers are working to maintain the status quo. Faculty members also have a financial and professional stake in the current model, so most are minimally engaged in supporting change.

E-readers and print-on-demand services offer other options for accessing content. While all textbooks are not available in new formats, useful experiments and pilots can show us what works and how it can benefit learning. Experiments at Northwest Missouri State University with e-readers (as well as laptops) provided some useful insights. When e-textbooks were just a .pdf, students preferred the paper book. To really change user preferences, the e-version must have added functionality, like searching and annotation. Color is also critical; black and white e-readers are not preferable to textbooks.

Traditional textbook rental programs have the potential to save students more money than e-books. Thus e-textbooks must justify themselves on more than just cost. Looking to the future, what are the implications of new media for e-textbooks? Will e-textbooks look completely different from a simple digital version of a print textbook? Who or what team of persons will develop those new formats, and how will they be created? What roles will publishers have in this new model? And what might the pricing look like?

Some recommendations emerged from the e-book sessions. Colleges and universities need to continue to experiment in this arena and push for high-quality e-textbooks integrated into the learning environment. In order to disrupt the current model, institutions may need to invest in this effort, rather than leaving the outcome to the end consumer (the student) or commercial publishers. Many publishers are active in delivering digital content to complement current texts and should be encouraged to take a more significant role in developing a product that enables significant functionality beyond that of current e-books.

E-Learning

Student ambivalence to e-learning options should be a concern to university officials during these tough economic times. Various surveys and reports shared in sessions revealed that students have strong opinions about what they consider to be good or poor teaching in online environments. The next generation of learning must focus on the needs of the learner and be adaptable enough to address those needs. The notion of customizable instruction is the future of online learning environments. The Adaptive Learning Environment (ALE) proposed by the Phoenix framework should enable an understanding of the learner in the same way that Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, or other online merchants can make recommendations on what we would purchase next or what we would like to see or do. These types of customization options are likely to prompt brick-and-mortar institutions offering online or blended instruction to reconsider their learning environments.

Lecture capture or web video tools continue to grow in popularity. Students report that these systems enable them to speed up or slow down a professor's lecture, to learn from professors other than their own, and to get help with learning disabilities or language challenges. These tools might help instructors improve their content delivery methods and institutions to increase their visibility and showcase their learning environments.

Emerging Technologies

Participants noted the importance of remembering to integrate a research component in emerging technology pilots that might produce change on campus. Doing so lends credibility to the work (and outcomes). It also provides a better understanding of campus needs and the areas to which the institution should direct efforts and funds.

Several institutions are implementing social media to improve community building and communication with students. These sessions emphasized the importance of keeping social media open and social, rather than trying to control or lock down the tools students use to connect to each other and the institution. Recommendations offered for using social media in learning environments include:

  • Be authentic.
  • Use it often.
  • Keep it simple.
  • Keep it open (community building).
  • Use the tool(s) appropriate to your objectives.

Participants noted that research data indicate students want to connect with their institutions via social media, but they do not want the institution invading their personal online spaces. They prefer that connection be authentic and relevant to them (not marketing). The session presentersencouraged attendees to join a community for sharing resources and research tools for social media: http://uwmsocialmedia.wikispaces.com/ and http://edusocmedia.wikispaces.com/. As the use of social media grows, institutions should strive to employ best practices and assess the effectiveness of their social media use.

Mobility

Participants who attended the ACU session on their mobility initiative noted that for a technology to become mainstream, it must be ubiquitous. Although the form factor and functionality are as yet unknown, experimenting with this technology is worthwhile. Significant research and assessment of their mobile program is taking place, longitudinally and from many perspectives. Some initial findings were noted:

  • Students report a more than 90 percent positive attitude toward using mobile devices in education.
  • Of the faculty, 83 percent regularly use mobile devices, but largely for administrative purposes (this seems to be the faculty entry point to mobile technologies).
  • Further, 92 percent of the faculty are comfortable with requiring mobile device usage for students in their classes.
  • Reported academic use is lower than social/entertainment use, but academic application is growing.
  • No performance difference was found between quick-reference podcast and lecture podcast groups, but highly motivated groups showed better grade outcomes when using podcasts than lectures.
  • Faculty members have increased their involvement in technology assessment/research efforts.
  • The campus culture has changed, moving toward experimentation, innovation, and increased acceptance of technology.
  • Mobile devices have been implemented for the purpose of increasing participation and interaction among students, although no substantive evidence of a positive impact on learning has yet been found.

Social Tools

Through various social media sessions, participants noted that students already use social tools heavily, so it is critical that educators understand how the tools are being used and how to use them effectively in instructional environments. Various recommendations emerged:

  • Content or interaction that needs security should be kept in the learning management system and not in social, open environments.
  • Using open social media tools can be a paradigm shift for many faculty members. Unless they embrace the openness of these tools, they are unlikely to feel comfortable using them.
  • Understand the social media culture and learn how to communicate with that particular culture.
  • Know your student audience.
  • Consider the pedagogy — make sure there is a purposeful reason to use social media. The clearer you are on why you're using it, the easier it will be to evaluate. Assess the outcome, not the tool.

Although little research has been done on the effectiveness and application of social media in educational settings, the tools do produce some positive results. They can help students communicate, for example. Short Twitter communications can help students focus their points and, at the same time, document what was said for later reference.

Strategies in Teaching and Learning with Technology

Some strategies shared in the realm of teaching and learning with technology focused on reorganizing technology support resources to create new partnerships within the technology organization, with the goal of developing a community of support for instruction. One institution developed a strategic plan that created tactical partnerships within and beyond the IT unit. The purpose for creating these new partnerships and collaborations was to generate faculty perceptions of the IT support unit as cohesive and unified (and ultimately offering better support than in the past), rather than as separate silos of support. They set up a front-door support system for walk-ins and referrals, a creative services department for project management, and a training development department. They also partnered with their Center for Advancement of Teaching and Learning, actually merging their website presence. A critical element of this transformation was deploying their instructional designers, who were distributed in each area, to ensure that pedagogy drove the technology used. They removed their "faculty lab" and created a "commons" so that faculty could come in and discuss their projects in a comfortable setting. Basecamp software, which was used for project management, was invaluable in managing projects using web-based tools.

Reorganizing what is traditionally known as "academic computing" has been occurring more and more. In another session, presenters said that 38 percent of academic computing departments have reorganized within the past two years (although many have been subsumed by other departments, such as the library or IT). However, this particular reorganization had the goal of building community with "clients" and enabling them to respond more quickly to faculty needs, while serving as partners rather than silos of support. Although the two units mentioned in this session had slightly different missions, a significant portion of their missions converged, creating opportunities for partnering and presenting a synergistic presence of support for teaching and learning. Creating or converting organizational structures that integrate IT, faculty development, the library, and campus support services emphasizes the shared responsibility for providing a variety of support elements to the faculty, helping them function in a technological environment while keeping an emphasis on learning.

Other sessions focused on the need to inform decision making through learning environment research. One suggestion was to include a researcher on design teams to help inform projects and consider how to collect data to evaluate the relationship between learning environments, student learning, and effective teaching and learning practices. Another suggestion was to employ "observation days" where visitors could see new learning environments in action.

Concluding Thoughts

The process of crowd sourcing highlights of the EDUCAUSE annual conference teaching and learning track yielded some interesting results. At the very least, it allowed us to collect our perspectives and opinions as a community. When we attend the annual conference, it's often impossible to go to all the sessions we'd like, and being able to see the collective "takeaways" and reflections can be invaluable. Although this process needs refinement, we are encouraged by the participation and attendee contributions.

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