Technology as an Accessory to Classroom Learning Environments

Sneha KumarThis guest post comes to us from Sneha Kumar, a second-year Masters student pursuing Systems Engineering in SEAS and a Web Assistant here at WIC, with reflections after attending our 2013 symposium.

Role/Value of Technology in Learning and Education
Inside and Outside the Classroom 

A complete MOOC enthusiast, I enrol in almost 4 – 6 courses online per semester through Coursera, EdX and Udacity. While I audit some courses, in others I have been able to obtain a Statement of Accomplishment. Being able to learn so much about diverse topics of my interest – free of cost – through online education and unlimited resources on the Internet, I often find myself thinking that perhaps I gain almost as much value through MOOCs as I do from the courses that I am enrolled in as a student at Penn. Could it be possible that technology would, someday, be able to substitute a physical classroom environment, especially with the advancement of online education?

Engaging Student Through Technology: Symposium 2013 focused on a reconsideration of what makes the classroom environment irreplaceable and on ways to enhance the faculty-student interaction during class hours in a way that builds the most value for students as well as the faculty.

The Student Panel members, undergraduate students from diverse disciplines, shared their lecture experiences and critiqued the quality of face-to-face time with the faculty. An interesting note in the panel discussion highlighted that when students register for courses, their perception of the faculty member is as important a factor as their interest in the course topic. It is evident that the shared class space and time with the faculty is greatly valued by most students. A classroom that is not designed as an active learning environment can easily be substituted by a MOOC, given the advantages of online education. Examples of class hours that were planned to facilitate active learning included use of technology as a learning aid in the classroom and flipped classrooms. John Conway, a sophomore in the college, appropriately remarked that technology can be an accessory to education in classrooms, not a substitute for an active learning environment.

The Faculty Panel members carried forward this idea of technology as a learning aid by sharing their experiences at the forum. Professor Christina Frei integrated technology in her German class as an aid outside the classroom through activities on Canvas. On the other hand, it is interesting to note that Professor Jane Dmochowski also designed her Oceanography class experience to facilitate active learning by using the ‘flipped classroom’ idea – posting lecture modules online and using class space and time to interact with students face-to-face and engage students to learn from discussion by seating them in groups or ‘daisies’. Professor Paul Heiney used self-recorded illustrative videos posted online to teach concepts better and engaging students in the classroom through group discussions – another instance of a ‘flipped classroom.’ In quite a different example, Professor Frances Rust integrated technology in Teacher Education at GSE by encouraging students to build web portfolios describing their experiences and skill sets as a teacher. These classroom experiences are clearly supported by technology as an indispensable tool.

While the ideas of active learning environments and ‘flipped classrooms’ are catching on, facilitating the same within the class space and time is a pain-staking task and depends on various factors. The workshop on SAIL or Structured, Active In-class Learning helped me to understand the potential and the challenges of these methods for the faculty who are looking to re-think their classroom teaching. SAIL is neither just about active learning, nor just about ‘flipped classrooms.’ The essence of SAIL is to structure class times to allow students to engage in activities as novices in their profession or field of major, thereby essentially shaping student identities, while using post- class time for activities to take on related challenges. The instructor takes on the role of facilitator – interacting with students, allowing peer interaction and discussions for class participation. But, there may be challenges. There needs to be consideration for all types of students; class engagement and participation may make the shy student uncomfortable. The inevitable leader in a group may unintentionally influence the other members of the group, possibly leading to the propagation of a misunderstanding of concepts. Learning environments such as ones we want to ideally design, need to be carefully monitored and constantly improvised; they are harder to implement in large classrooms.

There is, undeniably, a deliberate movement to re-imagine classrooms today in order to gain value from the face-to-face time that faculty and students share. The ways in which technology is integrated with pedagogy, as exemplified by the Faculty Panel members, are innovative and applied differently in various disciplines. I would certainly love to be in a classroom that offers a learning experience that is several notches above the online education experience in terms of active learning and building an identity in my field of major. However, attending the Symposium gave me an opportunity to understand how designing the ideal class environment can be a challenging process at many levels for the faculty. In spite of tremendous efforts, the active classroom can have many things go wrong, such as the propagation of wrong understanding of concepts. With this being a real possibility, a faculty member might opt for the safer way than the ideal but riskier way to facilitate learning. The discussion during the SAIL workshop at the Symposium helped me see things from the faculty’s perspective and truly appreciate the effort that is involved in planning courses and lectures. But, as a faculty member remarked, it is the overcoming of the challenges that present themselves which makes the process rewarding and energizing for the faculty, and highly-valued by the students.

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