It's All Just A Click

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Steve Cunningham

With the arrival of the summer break, I've been mulling over what new teaching technology I should embrace for the fall. Part of me wants to give podcasting a shot, since it's a technique I understand from some of my outside endeavors. But it appears to involve a significant time commitment, and I wonder if I can do an adequate job before the fall semester begins. On the other hand, I have a brand-new class to teach for the first time, and another that needs a tune-up to remain state-of-the-art. Perhaps I should just redouble my efforts on the Blackboard CMS rather than taking on what may amount to another career.

I recently attended a conference for USC faculty called "Mobile Teaching, Mobile Learning," whose purpose was to highlight new teaching practices, research methodologies, and learning styles that have emerged in response to mobile and online technologies. This was not one of those boring conferences with sessions in which the presenter reads the PowerPoint text that the audience has already finished reading. The presenters here were all faculty who had actually used the tools and technologies over several semesters. Their presentations were generally light on the technical details (which can be found elsewhere) and heavy on experience and outcomes.

For example, one of the first sessions detailed the use of the Personal Response System (also known as "clickers") and its effect on learning. For those who haven't tried them, clickers allow the instructor to collect real-time answers to a question, usually embedded in a PowerPoint presentation, generated by each student's hand-held IR remote. At the moment when the tally of answers appears on the screen, the instructor has the students' attention and they are fully engaged. The lecture then becomes a finely tuned discussion of the material addressed by the question.

The two presenters, both from the USC School of Genentology, expressed satisfaction with the clickers and the increased level of engagement they generated. While they noted a slight increase in test scores, they were not prepared to attribute all of the improvement to the use of clickers. Rather they believe that the clickers helped make their classes more learner-centric in general, and prompted them to provide students with more immediate feedback during the semester. So clickers aren't a magic bullet, but they seem to help.

Another presentation described the use of podcasts presented on Apple's iTunes U as a way of reinforcing material from lectures. Besides the obvious benefit for students who miss class, audio and video recordings of lectures let students review concepts that they may not have fully understood the first time around. Another group from the School of Medicine described using the online world of Second Life to teach psychiatry and medical students how to conduct effective patient interviews by practicing on a "virtual patient" in the Second Life environment.

All very informative and, well, engaging. But I was still unsure about which road to start down to maximize my effort-to-results ratio. There were obviously several avenues available, but I could not decide. It was near the end of the conference when I attended the most interesting presentation of the day, entitled "How Students View Technology in Learning." Three students - one each from Cinema, Neuroscience, and International Relations - took questions from faculty in the audience regarding how each of them dealt with the concept of learner-centric education and educational technology.

Someone in the audience finally asked the $64 question: "Which of the technologies presented at this conference do you prefer?" The three answered nearly in unison. "It doesn't matter," they said. "We'll use them all. We'll adapt. After all, it's just a click." From their perspective, it is just a click...something they've been doing for most of their lives.

From the faculty perspective, it's all about engaging students, which is just a post-millenial way of saying "getting them to pay attention." That's the core issue for us - how do we compete with the rest of their world of distractions? The current crop of early 20's and younger students cannot remember when media was not digital. They cannot remember life without a personal computer, nor can they recall having less than 40 or 50 channels on television. Music has always been downloadable, and "going to the library" has always involved sitting in front of a computer. They bring their laptops to class, ostensibly to take notes, but they're also checking email and exchanging instant messages.

If I look at how my students contact me today, and contrast that with how they contacted me just a couple of years ago, the difference is striking. In 2005, most of my students emailed me through USC email. At the end of the semester, when they were stressed, I might get a call on my cell from a panicked student. Today, however, I get as many email messages from students on my Facebook page as I do through regular USC email. I still get at least one or two panicked phone calls, yet I get far more SMS text messages on my phone than I do voice messages. If my AIM account is available, then I will invariably get instant messages. Beginning this fall, I'll have limited "real" office hours, and liberal "virtual" office hours courtesy of Skype and iChat.

So, whether I choose to use Blackboard, iTunes U, podcasts, wikis, blogs, or whatever, I doubt that it will faze them. That being the case, my next foray into teaching technology will be using something that I like and with which I am comfortable. If you need me, I'll be working on that in my trailer.

Steve Cunningham is a senior lecturer in technology in the Thornton School, Music Industry Department at USC. He can be reached atvoicetalent@mac.com.

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