Keeping Up: Pacing Teaching Methods with Technology

Moore's Law and its Implicaions for Education

December 13, 2011

In 1963, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel Corp. observed the rapid pace of developing technology and predicted that the number of transistors on a chip will approximately double every two years. The past decades have generally maintained this pace of technical innovation, now known as "Moore's Law", which yields twice the speed at half the cost.

In education and training, advancements have seemed to follow Moore's Law as well. In the past few years, we've witnessed great technological leaps, with newly styled 'virtual' classrooms with live video feed, downloadable lectures, and archived recordings. Classrooms now incorporate the latest technologies, and a growing population of students has taken one or more courses online. (Raise your hand if you've raised your actual hand in an actual classroom in the last 3 years!)

So imagine my surprise when I recently attended the "27th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning" in Madison, WI, and most of the presentations had little to do with the actual technology. Instead, sessions covered topics related to online collaboration and community, such as how to build social interaction, mentoring online, fostering collaboration, building a virtual community of practice, and creating better "instructor presence" in an online classroom.

Conference attendees were less concerned with the technology — which will be different in two years anyways according to Moore's Law — than with how to sustain the "academic atmosphere", the interpersonal dynamics and camaraderie of the classroom. Critics of distance and Blended Learning model point out that, by moving a portion of training online, there is a harmful reduction in the teacher-student and student-student interaction. This was a source of much discussion at the event—how instructors can continue to support those relationships while adopting more efficient and effective technologies.

Strengthening Your Student Relationships

Given what I learned from the conference, here are some suggestions for strengthening instructor interactions in your blended training:

  1. Focus on the students — not the technology. If you're the deployment leader/MBB, you must be completely fluent in your chosen technology so that students are not distracted by it. For example, if you frequently use webinar/desktop sharing software -- Webex, GoToMeeting or Adobe Connect -- take the time to learn how to navigate the screen, share the controls, conduct polls, and utilize the chat function. Though this sounds obvious, there are still underskilled webinarians out there. Don't be one of them.
  2. Embrace the easy technology. Find out the best apps for collaboration and sharing, and use them for creating content, asking/answering questions, and building interaction. A high-school calculus teacher told several stories of how he uses the Google Apps to encourage students to text his Google phone number with questions, both in the evenings and during class, so that he can adjust his lesson for the next day. Of course he doesn't answer texts all night long, but based on the nature of the questions, he can pinpoint where the problem areas are.
  3. Find as much free stuff as possible. Check out WikiSpaces, Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn groups and consider how they can be incorporated into assignments and class communication. The same calculus teacher requires students to do "teach backs" via YouTube for sharing with the class. This assignment is valuable on several levels: (1) It forces the students to understand the material well enough to teach it. (2) It's easier to review than a paper. (3) It creates content that can be re-purposed and used with future groups.
  4. Don't just encourage participation…expect it! Prepare students to participate on calls or in collaboration sites by giving them firm expectations of what they must demonstrate. One conference presenter offered tips on how to elicit substantive participation in online discussions. She gave students a matrix on critical thinking and questioning to help them frame their responses. As well, students were required to post a discussion item at defined intervals supported by the language on the matrix.

Don't Let the Technology Distract You

I left the conference thinking that the soft stuff is still the hard stuff, regardless of how advanced the technology becomes. We know innovation in technology will continue, perhaps at the speed of Moore's Law. But we cannot let the new and shiny technological toys blind us to the basics of solid instruction. How we support students in the learning process is always going to be the most important input into the learning transfer function.

Regardless of the venue and the technology, we will still be instructing students and expecting them to demonstrate their knowledge. Adult students will still want to learn from one another and feel the camaraderie of a cohort. It will be up to us to maintain the pace of innovation in teaching methods to match the pace of technological innovation.

Kathy Miller