Posted by: Andrew | January 31, 2010

Teaching and Technology: Second Pillar of Wisdom

“Use of technology in an inappropriate manner can make a good learning experience into a bad one.”

It is very important to think through how you use any technology, and what advantage it gives to the learners.

Types of Learners

We can (very crudely) define three types of learners.  Everyone will have some aspects of each of these attributes, but mixed in different proportions.

Visual Learners:  assimilate and process through visual stimuli.  They respond best by seeing something such as an image, a practical demonstration

Auditory Learners: assimilate and process through auditory stimuli, by hearing the spoken word or music

Kinesthetic Learners: assimilate and process by doing something, writing notes, diagrams, sketches, doing mathematical or symbolic manipulation or by practicing physical skills.

Now a traditional lecture is very often excellent for the auditory learners, but not so good for the visual and kinesthetic learners. The “dual coding” theory of learning suggests that both visual stimuli and auditory stimuli in tandem are a better way to teach and learn.  This is relatively easy to do in some of the sciences and fine art subjects, more difficult in other subjects.  Physics is surprisingly visual, many professional physicists often approach a problem by drawing some sort of diagram pulling together the various physical principles.  Most of the science lectures that I attended during my undergraduate days (in the early 1980’s, sigh) were accompanied by visual material to a large extent.  Funnily enough, most of the textbooks did not have all that many illustrations or diagrams in them.  At present, first year undergraduate textbooks have, if anything, gone to the opposite extreme.  It is difficult to find the underlying physical principles sometimes in the maze of worked problems, bullet point, hints and tips and images on each page. It should be noted that publishing technology has improved substantially in the last thirty years, but I wonder how much testing has been done on the effectiveness of this type of layout.

So if you introduce a new technology, you should consider how it changes the balance of the visual/auditory/kinesthetic mix in your teaching. Here are my personal notes.

When I started teaching here at the University of Saskatchewan, I decided right away that I would not teach as I had been taught.  I immediately went to PowerPoint presentations to enhance the visual aspects of the teaching/learning experience.  In the first year, I did not give out notes, but expected students to take their own.  At the end of that year, I concluded that while it was obviously beneficial for some to take notes (the kinesthetic learners), many students were tending to take too long in scribbling an not enough time listening or watching.  In other words, I was disadvantaging the auditory and visual learners.  After that, I decided to introduce new technology (PDF handout sheets before the lecture).  I have done this for every course since.  This gives the option for people to take their own notes, if they want to, and for those that don’t they have notes which can be annotated as appropriate. Does this disadvantage students? Well, yes, if you have students who don’t bother to come to class because they can get the notes online, then they fail to get the full educational experience on offer.  But, it’s their choice and their tuition fees.  If you want a full teaching/learning experience, I try to offer it.

After a couple of years of this, I also began to ponder whether I was giving an advantage to the visual learners by giving them the notes.  So I started to do audio recordings of my lectures (podcasting them as MP3 files).  I was actually a full year ahead of the “official” university podcasting trial.  I must say, that the fully developed system makes it really easy to podcast and disseminate to the students.   The uptake of people listening to the podcasts is not high, but those who miss a class and those who are strong auditory learners really appreciate it.  As one of my student’s said ” I now know that physics has an English accent”.  A Scottish colleague of mine in Chemistry assures me that his students realize that chemistry has a Scottish accent.  We are looking for an Irish or Welsh biology professor to complete the hat-trick.

My next technology innovation in the classroom was to start using the Turning Point classroom response system, better known as clickers.  This involves each student having a little keypad with a radio transmitter in it.  The teacher can pose questions on special Powerpoint slides and ask for the audience response.  Why did I put this in?  Well I use it for several purposes, one of which is to help the kinestheic learners who can get to discuss a problem or physical principle with their neighbours. Verbalization can often act as a way of getting the idea straight.  It also means that the students can teach each other. Peer -to-peer instruction can be very effective, as sometimes the instructor (as a subject expert) cannot get the point across because they know too much!

As you can see from my own technology use, it has to be carefully considered.  It would be very easy to go overboard on the visual aspects and not have enough verbal explanation in it.  It would be easy to use the clickers in an unproductive or even counter-productive manner (such as merely using them to take attendence). It is alos tremendously easy to produce a PowerPoint presentation which is very distracting and does not keep the attention of the students.

Common errors in PowerPoint presentations

  • Bad choice of backgrounds (distracting)
  • Bad choice of font sizes (illegible)
  • Bad choice of colours (illegible and distracting)
  • Information overload on a slide (overcrowding)
  • Bad design (too many levels of bullet points)

I willl do another post on some easy guidelines for PowerPoint presentations. It’s not difficult to put together a clear, legible and professional looking presentation.

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