November 7th, 2017

Highlights from the Magna Teaching with Technology Conference


More than 400 college faculty attended the Magna Teaching with Technology Conference last month in Baltimore, and they came away with a dizzying amount of new ideas, strategies that work, and pragmatic ways to integrate technology into their teaching. This article provides a snapshot of the event’s three plenary presentations.

Teaching, Learning, Technology, Memory, and Research—Oh My!
The conference kicked off with an engaging opening plenary presentation by Peter E. Doolittle, a professor of educational psychology at Virginia Tech, who put technology in its rightful place by first talking about learning.

“There’s no sense going anywhere until we start putting some stakes in the ground about learning,” he said. “We need to understand the learning. We need to understand the design. We need to do all of that before we ever get to technology. If we start with technology first, then we’re just playing.”

During his plenary, “Teaching, Learning, Technology, Memory, and Research—Oh My!,” Doolittle provided an evidence-based look at how people learn and how faculty can structure their classes and assignments to help students construct knowledge by following the six principles for deep and flexible learning (Engle, 2006; Halpern & Hakel, 2003; Mariano, Doolittle & Hicks, 2009; Wagner, 2006).

In noting that “learning is an inside-out gig,” Doolittle encouraged attendees to give students multiple and varied opportunities to process content and construct knowledge. Lecturing for 50 minutes and then expecting students to make sense of it on their own doesn’t work for all but the highest performers, he said.

“If we want deep, flexible knowledge—deep in that it’s interrelated, flexible so we can use it in lots of different ways—then we have to get students used to retrieving it a lot and for various reasons,” Doolittle said. “It’s hard when you cover chapter five on a Tuesday and you never return to it. And then we wonder why their knowledge isn’t flexible. It’s because we don’t teach them that way.”

When it comes to teaching with technology, Doolittle acknowledged that there is a lot of allure in trying something new and, at times, considerable pressure to do so. Things like MOOCs, e-portfolios, social media in the classroom, and even flipped learning have all gone through something of a hype cycle, a term Gartner Research coined for how technologies evolve—from inflated expectations to disillusionment, enlightenment, and, finally, productivity. Doolittle encouraged attendees to examine the how and why of every technology decision.

“The bottom line here is that learning is not magic. It’s by design,” Doolittle said. “What do we want students to know? What kind of processing do they need to do? And how do we then build an environment that integrates technology and assessment in meaningful ways?”

The Importance of Critical Thinking in this Post-Truth World
On Saturday morning, Julie Smith, an instructor of media communication and digital literacy at Webster University, gave an eye-opening presentation on how to help students recognize the credibility of what they see on the Internet. During “The Importance of Critical Thinking in this Post-Truth World,” Smith shared many humorous (and sometimes not-so-humorous) examples of how easy it is to create fake images and information that go can go viral. Who hasn’t seen the image of a shark supposedly swimming in the flood waters following every hurricane that made landfall in the past three years? It even made an appearance at the conference hotel after Smith’s talk.

While stuff like that is harmless fun, the stakes are much higher when people are intentionally manufacturing false information around political and societal issues.

With two-thirds of Americans reporting they get at least some news from social media, according to a 2017 report from Pew Research, trust in mainstream media at an all-time low, and the ease with which someone can doctor images or create erroneous and subversive news stories, we’ve seen a proliferation of online misinformation of late. The fact that most of us tend to congregate online with like-minded people only exacerbates the situation.

Quoting Michael P. Lynch, professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, Smith noted that “the Internet is both the world’s best fact checker and the world’s best bias confirmer – often at the same time.”

“What we’re fighting here is our own biases and our own belief systems,” Smith said. “We don’t like to be told that we’re wrong. And the biggest challenge for us as educators is my college students insist they have no biases whatsoever.”

Smith then shared a variety of tools that she encourages her media literacy students to use to determine the credibility of articles or images they’ve seen on the Internet or shared by friends. These include:
• First Draft News –
• Snopes –
• Hoax Slater –
• Emergent –
• Who Is –
• Politifact –
• Google Reverse Image Lookup –
• Foto Forensics –

“What we need to do, and teach our students to do, is mentally press pause, check sources, and check our biases,” Smith said. “We can’t outrun all of this misinformation. We can’t outlaw it. Much of it doesn’t even originate here in the United States. But we can outsmart it, and that’s what we need to do. That is what will save our democracy. And that is basically my attitude— all the time, every day, media literacy in every classroom.”

Teaching Naked
After a full day of concurrent sessions, Saturday closed with a plenary presentation by José Bowen, president of Goucher College. In “Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student Learning,” Bowen discussed how technology has changed our relationship to knowledge. The Internet puts a world of information at our fingertips and students recognize that you are not the only place they can go for content.

“Remember today that learning is about change,” he said. “You are not in the knowledge transmission business. You are in the change business. … Yes, what you know is important, and there is knowledge that you have and students have to learn, but fundamentally, you’re trying to turn students into self-regulated learners.”

In some cases, that means educating students about digital literacy but not trying to police which websites they can use to gather information. That doesn’t work, he said. Instead, knowing they will seek out a five-minute video in hopes of getting out of the reading, Bowen says fine, watch the video. But he also recommends then making students analyze the content—write down three mistakes from the video, identify the key theme from the reading or class discussion that was left out of the video, write a critique, evaluate the source, explain the concept to someone who knows nothing about the topic.

Bowen also encouraged attendees to adopt some of the principles used by video game designers. Gamers use a term called “pleasantly frustrating” where a task isn’t too difficult to cause a person to quit, but is not so easy they’ll get bored. Faculty should design their learning experiences in much the same way, and that means lots of low-stakes testing.

“A video game is a series of micro-tests,” Bowen said. “If you fail a test in a video game, nothing happens. You try again, and again, and again.”

A final point to Bowen’s talk was that technology is a tool, not a strategy. It changes our relationship with information, enables more ways to reach out to students, offers up new course design and content sequencing options, gives students more ways to demonstrate their learning, but it also makes critical thinking more important than ever. As a result, faculty need to model for students what it means to be “an intellectual superhero.”

“When a student asks you a question, you can say, that’s a really good question, I may have to think about that. I’ll have to do some research and then post on the course website later …” Bowen said. “Do this sometimes even if you know the answer, because you’re modeling that smart is slow. … That’s way more important than any content that you have to deliver. And the truth is, it’s also way harder than just standing up there and delivering content.”

And so that’s a wrap for the 2017 Magna Teaching with Technology Conference. All told, the conference brought in attendees from 45 US states and 16 countries. If you’d like to join us next year, the 2018 conference heads to St. Louis, October 5-7. Learn more »