August 4th, 2014

Putting Students in the Driver’s Seat: Technology Projects to Decrease Passivity


Passivity still seems to be the norm for most college courses: students passively try to learn information from teachers who unwittingly cultivate a passive attitude in their learners. As the subject matter experts, many faculty are reluctant to give up some control. We know the material, there’s a lot to cover, and let’s face it, going the lecture route is often just plain easier for everyone. We “get through” the material, and students aren’t pressed to do anything more than sit back and take notes. Teacher and student thus become complicit in creating a passive learning environment.

Technology becomes an accomplice in the crime of passivity. When teachers think about technology, the goal is often to have students interact with instructor-created multimedia. Learners will watch a screencast or complete an online quiz. Sometimes the learner will interact with technology by doing a simulation or completing homework online. The assignments themselves are distinctly teacher-directed. All of this direction by the teacher equates to students learning to drive by sitting in the passenger seat.

What if we let students drive? Putting students in control may seem a bit frightening. The students will not be nearly as smooth in their driving as we are. We will not be able to reach the brake if things go badly. But learning to drive requires time behind the wheel, and learning course material requires that students become co-creators of knowledge rather than recipients of information.

Surprisingly, the solution to the problem of passivity might be the same accomplice that contributed to that passivity: technology. By putting technology in the hands of students, we put the learner behind the wheel. Instead of the teacher being the only one who works with technology to create learning objects, students become creators of learning objects.

In a recent undergraduate neurobiology course that I taught with a colleague, students had two ‘driving’ projects: one involving iMovie and one involving Garage Band. A number of audio and video editing tools exist, but these were the applications supported by our campus in our multimedia commons area.

For one project, we assigned each group of four-five students a chapter in the textbook that they needed to teach the class. Students in groups had to create a three-four minute iMovie video that introduced their assigned chapter. The rest of the class watched the video project prior to class and during class the groups presented the information in the chapter. Most groups included active learning exercises during class time to complement the introductory movie. By creating a video and then teaching a 50-minute class students, created their own flipped learning environment. Students responded positively and took ownership of the project which mirrored what researchers have dubbed “The IKEA Effect” in which people attach greater value to something they have had a hand in creating (Mochon & Norton, 2012).

In another project, students had to read a popular book related to neurobiology. They chose titles like Blink, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and The Brain That Changes Itself. Rather than assign them to then write a paper about the book, which seemed too formulaic and not much fun, we instructed students to create a three-minute podcast for their classmates. Students used sound effects, mock interviews, and music to create an engaging podcast. Because the podcast was limited to three minutes, each student had to convey the gist of the book in a short period of time. We used Yammer—a social media site that allows institutions to create closed groups specific to their institution—to facilitate commentary between students. In addition, students had to comment on five other podcasts.

Grades for both projects were rubric-based. Because the course was an upper-level course for majors, my team-teacher and I kept the rubric relatively open-ended so we could focus on the creative aspects rather than on the grade. We relied on student comments in Yammer to help guide our assessment of the podcasts, and a nice feature of Yammer was that we could sort by comment to see if a particular student was excessively critical across the board. The assignments constituted approximately 30% of the total course grade.

An auxiliary benefit to allowing our students to drive is that they become more adept at another form of communication. The technical consultant who visited the class pointed out to students that the projects will give them an edge in the job market. Digital storytelling is a form of communication and employers value technical literacy as well as oral and written communication skills.

When learners use technology on their own, they learn about content and about how learning occurs. The teacher will still create multimedia objects for students to use, but I suspect that the students will become more savvy consumers of the multimedia. With practice, the learner will begin to see how to more effectively engage with the media and might even become, dare I say, less passive.

Mochon, Daniel, & Norton, Michael I. (2012). The IKEA effect: when labor leads to love. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 22(3), 453-460. doi: 10.1016/j.jcps.2011.08.002

Dr. Ike Shibley is an associate professor of chemistry at Penn State Berks. He also serves as the conference advisor for The Teaching Professor Technology Conference.

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  • Paul Beaudoiin

    Ike – these are exactly the kinds of engagements that our learners should be having. I have even written about using Digital Stories as an assessment marker. An you are right, learners LOVE doing projects like these- it feels like a win-win in most cases. I would have liked to have seen some of the more successful projects you wrote about in this paper.

  • Linda

    I have used this method–the part where the students present the material. The problem was that the students were disengaged from the material and presented very dull point by point overviews which the rest of the class slept through. When I tested the class to see how much they remembered–it was as if they hadn't been there that day. This semester I am giving them more choices with the material and I hope their "teaching" presentations are more engaging and that they are more engaged.

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  • lisette

    Dr Shelby: thank you for writing this article, and sharing your research. While I think your argument is prescient of the next decade of teaching, I don't think it's fair to lump all teachers into the same category as you have done in this article. Not all of us share the pedagogical mentality of 'getting through' class by lecture, as Linda's comment above clearly illustrates. Granted, you do say 'many' faculty but then go on to assume all faculty employ the lecture approach to teaching. Collaborative learning research in the 80s (e.g. see Findley) reshaped many faculty members' approach who had previously used the lecture model. In the 90s more research out of Berkeley proved many other methods were more effective than lecture (forgotten name of that study, sorry), which thrust more teachers into trying new methods, such as combining oral, visual and written communication with collaborative learning. I've been letting my students 'drive' the novel component of my literature and critical thinking classes for over a decade.

    Thus, I think your idea of all (or many) faculty lecturing all the time is, perhaps outdated. But I could be wrong.

    • Tara

      Hello Lisette, Can I get your contact information? I would love to hear more about your method of teaching. I am a new instructor and I'm trying to find ways of avoiding the traditional ways of passive teaching. I have to teach Communications to first year engineering tech students. This will be my first time teaching communications.

  • lisette

    sorry, Dr. Shibley, correction.

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  • craigbellamy

    The article reeks of technological determinism and 'remediation'. It does more damage than good. It starts with the 'canard' of passivity then builds a flimsy deterministic argument upon this. Arguments like this were common in the 1990s and if the author had have listened to his lecturers rather than subvert them, he would have written a less 'passive' article.

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  • shelly

    How would this work with students who simply will not move beyond tightly directed tasks? My mainly international graduate students, many from East Asian education systems, want/demand/insist on tightly directed tasks and refuse to take risks. I doubt most would see this form of fabulously creative learning as anything associated with teaching.

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