December 5th, 2011

How Technology Can Improve Learner-Centered Teaching


For faculty looking to create a more learner-centered environment there are always a few bumps in the road. First they need to get used to no longer being the “sage on the stage” and then there’s the adjustment period for students who aren’t used to being active participants in their learning.

In many ways, technology can help pave the way for both faculty and students, but only if the instructor “is adept at creating a course that capitalizes on the pedagogical benefits that technology facilitates in helping students meet the desired learning outcomes for the course,” said Ike Shibley, associate professor of chemistry at Penn State – Berks. In other words, technology for the sake of technology is never good.

In the recent online seminar Learner-Centered Technology: Aligning Tools with Learning Goals, Shibley provided a roadmap for matching technological tools to course learning outcomes. Grounded in the five core principles of learner-centered teaching, Shibley explained specific ways technology can be used to get students to interact with course content in an engaging and productive fashion.

Here are some of the ways technology can help satisfy the goals of a learner-centered classroom:

1. Shift the balance of power toward the learner: Interactive online assignments can help facilitate the transfer of power and give students opportunities to practice mastering the material at their own pace. The technologies that support these activities could include wikis, online quizzes, blogs and discussion boards.

2. Use content to organize activities: Students appreciate a structured, logical flow to their courses, and how you organize your assignments and activities can go a long way in minimizing confusion. The technologies that support how you organize and communicate course materials and expectations could include an online syllabus, the learning management system, and email notifications of important due dates.

3. Think of teaching as facilitating learning: Teaching with technology enables the instructor to create learning experiences that complement each other whether the students are working on an assignment online or meeting in a face-to-face environment. The technologies that support this goal include online homework, clickers and surveys.

4. Responsibility for learning rests with the learner: Learner-centered teaching means creating assignments that allow students to practice building connections with the material, and evaluate their learning. The technologies that can be used to help students take ownership of their learning include blogs, wikis, online quizzes, and VoiceThread.

5. Evaluation provides a way to foster learning: Shibley likes to use a lot of low-stakes grading opportunities, and he gives students multiple attempts to pass online quizzes. There are numerous technologies that can help students track their progress, including online quiz banks and online platforms that enable collaboration and peer review.

Although he admits that integrating technology takes a fair amount of upfront time in terms of getting past the learning curve and choosing the correct technology to support each learning objective, Shibley says the payoff is a more engaged classroom and improved student learning.

“Technology does do a better job of keeping students on task,” he said. “If it’s well designed and it’s not busy work, students will spend more time on task and the assumption then, which I think has been borne out and will continue to be borne out in studies of how technology can be used in an pedagogically efficacious manner, time on task will correlate with more learning and higher test scores.”

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  • Loretta Driskel

    While speaking with a student the other day, I discovered that professors on our campus often lecture for three hours at a time! Albet this was in a six hour class (yes, six!) with the second half being more hands-on but that was my first clue that although many of our courses have a hands-on component, instructors need help with engaging activities for the entire class. Obviously we have some work to do toward moving away from the "sage on the stage" approach to learning. I like the idea that we teachers are now "facilitators of learning" and as an instructional technologist and online teacher my primary goal is to help our teachers move toward being more of a "guide on the side" but it is a very slow process. How can we get these teachers to see that just because they said all they had to say doesn't mean students learned anything useful for their future? Does anyone have some ideas for reaching these instructors who lecture for nearly two hours, and then give a test the next class and think that students are engaged and learning?

  • jseaford

    I totally agree with Shibley on a few points here. Shifting the balance of power towards the learning is something many lecturers struggle with by dint of their own learning experience. For instance, and like Loretta's example, I've recently completed a law unit in an MBA program where it was the case of sit down, shut up, take notes and leave (I've also done post-grad law and it's the same there, too). Needless to say, attendance numbers declined as the semester wore on. Assignments too are often lacking in guidance and I think an interactive online assignment platform could go some of the way in alleviating this. Too many lecturers expect their students to create industry level reports without ever properly explaining how industry prefers to set out the reports, best practices and so forth. The result is often discursive layouts with derailed content. Provide a digital platform that explains all this, makes it more interactive and moves away from the industrial era style of learning, and I think we might be onto a winner.

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