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Monday, July 18, 2011

Technology Enhanced Learning

The biggest challenge facing the tertiary education sector, and particularly the technical education sector, is the dearth of high quality faculty. The experts tell us that with the use of technology, we can extend the reach of good faculty on one hand, and enable better learning despite poorer faculty on the other hand.

In the 80s and 90s, many attempts were made at recording lectures of faculty members. These lectures were initially distributed as video cassettes. As technology progressed, we started using VCDs and DVDs. Now, such lectures can be downloaded through Internet. Distribution of lectures through a television channel has also been tried (and continues even now). However, the quality of such videos left much to be desired. When these were recorded in a studio setting, the lack of students made it appear artificial. And when actual classroom recordings were done, the lights and camera angles left much to be desired.

When the video technology did not do wonders, the experts did not blame it on the quality of videos. They instead argued that the problem is lack of interaction. The questions that students may have had are not being answered immediately in this model, as the communication is one-way. So the videos could at best be used as supplementary material, just like books.

Without interaction, student would soon lose interest. They suggested that a classroom lecture should be beamed live to distant locations with at least an audio back channel for the remote student to ask questions. The interaction would make sure that there is sufficient interest in the remote students. The earlier such attempts were again beset with quality, but latest systems genuinely give remote students a sense of almost being part of the class. They can watch the lecturer, the board, and the presentation material, as clearly as the students in the local lecture hall. They can ask questions. They can be watched by lecturer all the time.

However, distance education based on video conferencing has its limitations. The cost is still high as all remote locations need to have decent quality cameras, and high quality audio. But that cost is rapidly coming down. The bigger problems are the logistics issues. The timetable of different institutions needs to be synchronized in some way for lectures of one institute to be available for the students of the other institute(s). This is not practical many times. The curriculum of all the institutes involved in such a setting will have to be same as well. Again, this may not be possible. Also, a lecture with an audience of 1000 students, whether local or remote, can not be truly interactive. So the video conferencing as an interactive mode of classroom does not scale up beyond a point. And, if interaction is going to be limited or non-existent, why spend significant amount of resources on this mode. Why not go back to what we were attempting in the 90s, video recorded lectures that can be played any time, any where.

There is another problem in this whole discussion. We started off with the premise that the technology will help extend the reach of good faculty, and will enable students to learn despite poor quality faculty. The good faculty has no incentive (and only disincentives in terms of increased workload) to extend his/her reach. And no body wants to admit that they are poor quality teachers. So, if playing a video in my class is an admission that I am poor quality teacher and hence I am showing a video delivered by someone else, then I will never show a video in the class.

So we need to develop applications of technology through which we can claim convincingly that it is helping the quality of learning irrespective of whether the local instructor is good or average. There should be no stigma attached to the use of technology.

Recently, I visited Waikato Institute of Technology, an Institute in Hamilton, New Zealand. There I watched an instructor teaching his class. He started teaching his class and during the class, he would take a break and show a video on a related topic. He had interwoven his own teaching and these videos so nicely that the overall learning experience was excellent. The videos were mostly searched from youtube. He told me that he spent a lot of effort in searching for videos on related topics. He would then watch parts of those videos, and after a painstaking effort, would choose those videos which perfectly blend with his own lecture plan. Of course, he was there to answer any question that the students may have. So it was not a passive session, but very much an interactive one. Showing such videos broke the monotonic delivery of the lecture, and therefore the students were more attentive throughout.

He also made another interesting point. He said that today’s generation is what he called the “i-pod” generation, which is always listening to music. That meant that they are listening to a different voice every few minutes, and they would get bored if they were to hear the same sound for 50 minutes. A video lecture of some other expert also caters to their need to listen to different sounds.

After this experience, I started visiting sites of the best universities in the world, and they all have lots of video lectures available for download and viewing by anyone in the world. I watched a large number of them, and realized that these were a great resource for learning. (I must add here that many of these would be inaccessible to our students because of the accent of the speaker.)

So a new model for enhancing learning using technology seems to be emerging. An instructor can now search for videos on a per topic basis, choose the best one, and play them in the class. She is available in the class for answering any questions. So there is interaction in the class. Since the instructor is not dependent on only one source, the differences in the curriculum are no longer important. There is no need to synchronize the timetable. The infrastructure needed in the lecture hall is only a projector, which is standard equipment today in most classrooms across the country. The instructor can download the videos on the laptop a priori, or if the Internet connection is good and is reliable, then they can be shown right off the Internet in the class. The downloaded content or the links could be put up on the course website, so that students can look at them again any time, any where. The videos can be short 5-10 minutes that is embedded into a larger lecture, or they can be 45-50 minutes, a replacement of the lecture (but with interaction with the instructor).

A significant value of the model is that it enhances effectiveness of both an average instructor as well as a good instructor. A good teacher too can use such resources from the Internet to enrich the experience of her students further. So there is no stigma that an average instructor would feel in using this.

The role of the local instructor continues to be very important. While in selecting the appropriate video lectures, she may take help from others, but is still responsible for delivering those parts of the course for which no good videos could be found. Also, she has to manage interaction in the class, answering all questions. Further, the assignments, projects, etc., are still her responsibility. So she continues to have the respect of the class, and that aids the learning process.

In summary, using selected high quality videos that are integrated properly into the teaching plan of an individual instructor, can enhance quality of teaching. A large number of free videos are available, and the infrastructure requirement are minimal. And hence, this could be a model for "Technology Enhanced Learning."

The largest repository of video lectures in India has been created under the National Program for Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). This is a joint program of seven IITs, and Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, funded by Ministry of Human Resources and Development. They have developed a large number of courses for engineering students. The biggest advantage of these videos is the familiar language/accent of the instructors.

The other good source for such lectures is MIT’s Open CourseWare (OCW). Massachusetts Institute of Technology has put all its course material on the web. One section of the website is OCW Scholar, where the lectures have been annotated, along with all the assignments and their solutions. There are discussions groups associated with each course, where any learner can participate. The content is so rich in OCW Scholar that MIT claims that it can be used by independent learners to gain knowledge. A large number of universities in the world are increasingly putting up similar course videos and other content on the web.

If one is looking for short 5-10 minute videos on a topic, then youtube is the best resource to search. For some topics, particularly Mathematics, Khan Academy has excellent videos, starting from primary school to college education.

There are lots of other resources, and I have only listed a few here. If you know of some really wonderful resource, please mention that in the comments.

Of course, when an institute or a university decides to encourage its faculty to use these educational resources on the web, they must understand that these resources (at least with the current technology) are to enhance learning, and not to replace the instructor.

Note: This is an edited version of the article that has appeared in the latest issue of EDU magazine, Teaching Tools for Generation iPod.


Jaya said...

A good faculty member would be able to use the new technologies to enhance the classroom environment. And good here means a combination of two things

1) Understanding of the subject
2) Ability and understanding of making the teaching process interesting and not put the students to sleep in the classroom and leave them bored of the subject outside.

But it won't solve the problem of lack of good faculty members. Those who aren't good, won't be able to do much with the new technologies and abundance of good quality content either.

Jaya said...

A good faculty member would be able to use the new technologies to enhance the classroom environment. And good here means a combination of two things

1) Understanding of the subject
2) Ability and understanding of making the teaching process interesting and not put the students to sleep in the classroom and leave them bored of the subject outside.

But it won't solve the problem of lack of good faculty members. Those who aren't good, won't be able to do much with the new technologies and abundance of good quality content either.

Dheeraj Sanghi said...

@Jaya, you are right. This is not removing the shortage. The poor quality faculty won't be able to improve their teaching through this. But my hope is that the average will improve.

mcenley said...

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