posted 2012-05-13 01:04:04

Technically Correct

FITTing technology into our classrooms

Brandon W. Maister

Staff Writer

Living in the the 21st century is a combination of thinking, “WHOA I didn’t know that was possible,” and “WHOA I can’t believe that we’re still doing things like that.” This is reflected when we learn and when our teachers teach: we must all be constantly amazed and appalled at the state of things. The researchers, planners and thinkers who spend their lives fixing creating or integrating technology are the ones trying to move things forward in our world. The tools provided by information culture don’t actually tell us how to use them—anyone who has seen a 30 minute prezzi presentation using nothing but straight-line text can tell you that.

It doesn’t take a tech-expert to know that technology is changing education, this column has explored some aspects of it, and our own Instructional Computing and Information Technology (ICIT) has several programs in place exploring the intersection of what’s possible and what’s happening. This is mostly happening in the realm of the Technology Teaching and Learning Group (TTLG, hunter.cuny. edu/ttlg). This group exists to facilitate and improve teaching with technology at Hunter.

Two of the large and ongoing programs supported by the TTLG are Faculty Innovations in Teaching with Technology (FITT, hunter.cuny.edu/ttlg/fitt/) and their weekly Tech Thursday events. The FITT program is particularly interesting in its aims: among other things, it is explicitly aims to encourage faculty who haven’t used information technology in their classrooms to starting using it. This is the context of a larger primary goal of introducing and expanding the use of technology in the curriculum at Hunter. To these ends it asks for technology plans from educators—ways in which they themselves can benefit by going through the FITT program—and then selects 20 winning projects for close mentoring and a small grant.

The FITT program is year-round, with build up and project selection in the spring, project work over the summer, and various report-backs over the fall and next spring. The main work for educators is over the summer: the selected professors are expected to design their project over the break so that they can talk about it near the beginning of fall term, and actively use it once the semester gets under way.

Since one of the goals is to generate community interest in using technology in the classroom, there is also an ongoing faculty-only Thursday lunch called “Tech Thursday,” in which past FITT awardees or other technically involved faculty make a presentation and the growing tech savvy community eats and talks. These Tech Thursday events range from report backs on the success of FITT-funded projects, to interesting experiments in online collaboration, to workshops on using Blackboard for multifaceted learning and teaching.

Blackboard comes up a lot due to the nature of Hunter’s technological infrastructure—we pay for it so we use it—but there are some interesting common threads that show up when you look at historical FITT Projects and Tech Thursdays. VoiceThread comes up repeatedly, for example. VoiceThread is a tool that aids collaboration around a recording of a physical thing. Which is to say: you create a slideshow (which can have embedded video, photos or other documents) and people can comment upon individual slides in a variety of ways, including with other videos, audio, or drawing. Unique tools like this are contrasted with using common tools in unique ways, for example, Mark Hauber of the psychology department used Google Docs’ ability to create forms that dump their data to a spreadsheet to get his students to collect data in the field.

One faculty focus over the last two years has been in organizing classes that generate ePortfolios for their students. This semester ePortfolios are explicitly one of the four themes that FITT is focused on building out this semester, along with hybrid courses, mobile learning, and large-class engagement through technology.

There are a few reasons that we, as students, should be interested in this focus on portfolios, and ePortfolios in general. First and foremost, in many fields daily work leads to the production of things (artists have new art, computer scientists have written more code), portfolios and e-portfolios are more useful to employers than school grades. Arts and humanities have known this for a long time, but it is increasingly obvious in the computer, science and engineering disciplines as well—people want to see what you can make.

Pedagogically, the currently dominant theories of education all assert that building things and problem solving are better ways to learn, and create deeper understanding and more widely- applicable skills than rote memorization, sterile testing or abstracted domain-free homework. In this context, ePortfolios are a way to structure classes such that students care about what they’re doing enough to generate something broadly useful, or at least interesting.

All in all, FITT has spent four years building a better technological infrastructure for us, and generating a community that cares, at least internally, about effectively using technology today to teach us the skills of tomorrow.