Technology in the classroom

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Dr Alex Webb uses online programs to add value to the learning experience of students who study her courses. Photo by Stuart Hay, ANU.

One of the University's biggest fans of technology in the classroom says academics who want to incorporate the latest programs and teaching tools should definitely go for it but be prepared for hiccups along the way.

But Dr Alex Webb says if students know that using a new form of technology is a learning process for academics as well and therefore glitches can happen, then it becomes less intimidating for newbies.

A new event for ANU staff who are keen to share their experiences about teaching and learning techniques using technology is coming up in November.

The inaugural TELFest (which is short for technology-enhanced learning festival) will bring together academics and staff from across the University who use innovative teaching practices.

One of those staff who uses technology in the classroom is Dr Alex Webb, who is a Senior Lecturer in anatomy at ANU.

"Technology really enables me to make the most use of my face-to-face sessions that I have with students, so I can ensure that these are very interactive and engage the students," she says.

"This is particularly helpful because it means that I have had an opportunity to cover difficult and complex topics with them in those face-to-face sessions."

Dr Webb, who will be sharing her experiences with technology at TELFest, uses online programming to prepare students ahead of them attending her lectures.

"Before I have a large group teaching session or a lecture, I would provide them with a small online lesson which takes them through the major concepts, terminology and structures that are important for that particular lecture so they can go through them at their own pace.

"I'll then provide them with a little quiz or activity to check their own learning and whether they've understood those fundamental basic concepts as well."

Students would then be required to put the knowledge they have gained from their online session to use within an interactive lecture, to help them solve a complex problem or question with the help of Dr Webb guiding them.

The approach means it is a two-way conversation with the students, rather than a traditional lecture where the student hears the information for the first time, running the risk that they could then struggle to recall the concepts later during exam prep.

"If we get stuck on a particular area where it's clear that they haven't understood one of the fundamental concepts covered in the pre-learning provided by the technology, then we'll stop, go through that and just check that they're understood it before we move ahead and start applying it again."

Dr Webb, who has been using various forms of technology in the classroom over the past two decades, says technology has a fantastic way of ensuring the students keep up with the curriculum and don't fall behind simply because they don't understand something.

"When I give them that quiz before they come to the lecture session, I can actually check the data and the analytics on that.

"If I can see that they've really not understood this very key concept, then I can actually change my face-to-face teaching session and go 'this is really important, lets have a bit of time to go through this before we move on. So it means I can have a very flexible, adaptable teaching session with them when I see them face-to-face."

The result is a more engaging and interesting environment for students to learn in, where they also feel as though they are equal with the teacher and therefore less intimidated by the learning process.

"You have this opportunity to be equals and to talk about it and take other people's ideas and discuss it and work through other people's problems," she says, especially in a subject area as anatomy, which is important for students studying medicine and clinical practice.

"But I do think the assessment grades have improved and the feedback has generally been very positive too."

So what advice does Dr Webb have for academics wanting to incorporate technology into their teaching?

  1. Find a friend or colleague with experience in the area, to get advice and input from.

"You can also use them as a guinea pig as well, to test out some of the ideas you've developed," she says.

  1. Start with something small and achievable and aim to get some success with that.

"Choose something you can easily scale upwards or replicate, because it gives you a bit of a template for actually moving forward and continuing with it. Doing something that is in a relatively safe space and small and achievable to begin with can help get you started."

Dr Webb says whenever she tries something new, she lets the students know up front so they are aware, but that the aim is to benefit them.

"And apologise in a way, by saying 'if it doesn't work I'm really sorry but we're going to give it a go so please be patient with me! I really value your participation and feedback so we can make it better.'

  1. Take educated risks.

Dr Webb says that involves doing your homework and becoming informed, then doing some practice before getting started.

"But I think it's a good thing to be able to model to our students - that it's good to be trying new things and to be creative because that's something we want them to do when they graduate as well."

  1. Don't be afraid to google and youtube techniques to see how other academics use technology in their teaching.

"I also find that attending academic conferences in my discipline is really helpful because I get to see what a lot of colleagues are doing at other universities and I also read a lot of academic journal papers in my discipline and about technology in general."

  1. In-house resources from places such as ANU Online can help academics get the most out of the University's systems.

"Their coffee and espresso courses are a really good way of dipping in and out to get answers to questions that you might have about particular technologies or ways of using that technology."

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To hear about Dr Webb's experience, head along to TELFest on Monday 5 November at the Hedley Bull Centre. More information, including registration, can be found on the TELFest website.

About the organisers

ANU Online supports excellence in education and student experience by providing educational technologies, academic support and development, and learning design expertise. It aims to deliver engaging learning environments and build on robust digital infrastructure to support teaching and learning at ANU. From implementation and training to communication and evaluation, ANU Online provides a suite of technology-enhanced learning solutions to meet the broader goals of the University.

Contact us at EdDesign@anu.edu.au if you have any questions or visit telfest.weblogs.anu.edu.au for more information.

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