New Technologies, Pedagogies, and Curriculum: A Practical Perspective

Key Takeaways

  • The move from instructor- to learner-based education is a major paradigm shift that is both fueled and supported by advances in technology.
  • To successfully make this shift, institutions must encourage close collaboration between instructors and technology experts early on in curriculum design.
  • Infrastructure issues, including network and security are also key considerations, as is the choice of wireless or wired applications.

Randy Tritz, Partner and Branch Director, Shen Milsom & Wilke, LLC

Historically, educators and technologists have had little need to collaborate beyond ensuring that a network connection and basic equipment were in place and working properly. Today, however, a paradigm shift from instructor- to learner-based education that mandates a complete realignment of relationships between educators and technologists affects their ability to work together and the entire institution's success.

As we shift from an instructor-led space to a learner-based environment, educational institutions must adapt and embrace changing pedagogies and develop curriculum accordingly or risk obsolescence. Curriculum shifts include focusing on various forms of active learning, flipped classrooms, scale up, team-based learning, and problem-based learning environments. Other components — including course content, the physical environment, learner involvement, instructor guidance, and technology solutions — must evolve to keep pace with these changes.

Here, I draw on my 35 years of experience in and passion for both education and technology to provide insight into how the relationship between educators and technologists is changing, particularly as it relates to curriculum development.

Infrastructure Considerations

For the first time since the film projector was introduced into the classroom, opportunities exist for technology and curriculum to complement each other to enhance learning outcomes. Today, technology is in the hands of both students and educators, making it increasingly important for institutions to support pedagogies related to collaboration and the learner environment. However, marrying education modalities and technology can either enhance and complement or distract from the intended outcome. Avoiding the latter requires a keen understanding of the array of technology options available, their requirements, and how they support a particular curriculum, as well as how various options impact the institution's technology network.

Active learning classrooms have significantly greater impact on the network; issues to consider include speed, density, security, virtual LANs, and access both in front of and behind the firewall. Nearly all tools available in learner-based environments use network resources inclusive of pads, smart phones, laptops, and tablets that require access to local displays and collaboration and communication among teams both within and outside the classroom. When sharing files in a collaborative environment, some solutions assume that all users — including remote collaborators — are logged in and behind the firewall. This might not always be the case, creating a challenge for network security. Other products place all files in cloud services, moving secured files outside the network; they also let collaborators invite others to access files, which duplicates them in multiple folders and keeps a copy outside the firewall.

To be successful in either environment, behind or outside the firewall, network designers, AV designers, and instructors must work together to address security and setup of any potential collaboration software and hardware for a particular curriculum before the product is purchased (and possibly rendered inoperable due to network configuration issues). Further, design of interactive technology and networks must be collaborative across departments rather than undertaken in separate silos. Each network and AV designer and instructor team member must collaborative not only among themselves, but also in harmony with curriculum development to create technology and network solutions that further the curriculum without negatively impacting network security or offering inappropriate access to files.

Curriculum Development

Over the past 35 years, I have witnessed many early adopters of collaborative curriculum development tools who felt daunted by the concept of the classroom becoming an extension of technology as a predominant component of curriculum. This is understandable; never has the need for successful collaboration among educators, technologists, and CIOs been greater. Lacking this collaboration has led many educators to failure. Typically, they cite technology as the cause of this failure, due to its inconsistency, difficulty to operate or manage, or inability to meet educators' needs. If approached collaboratively, however, introducing technology into the learner-based environment can produce successful outcomes for all involved.

Not every curriculum within an institution is suited to this modality, however. By definition, for example, the collaborative classroom does exactly that. The learner and instructor assume substantially different roles, which changes the environment, the curriculum, and the use of technology. Learners and instructors act more as collaborators rather than taking the traditional teacher/student roles. The physical environment changes to allow both sides of the equation to move about freely. The acoustical requirements for the space consider the need for groups of learners to interact within pods throughout the space, and technology becomes distributed as opposed to being located at a focused "front" of the room (figure 1).

figure 1

Figure 1. Traditional classroom vs. collaborative classroom.

In the collaborative environment, instructor and learner work together to foster learning. This requires rethinking space and the application of technology to a resource. Distributed infrastructure, network access, and displays offer pods of learners the option of establishing focus within their groups as opposed to a singular display used by the instructor for the purpose of presenting information.

This collaborative space requires substantial revision of a curriculum to allow students to work together to develop solutions and engage among themselves as learners. Not all instructors or courses transition well to this high-energy, rather noisy, seemingly unstructured environment. In reality, structure within learning pods enhances the learning experience.

With today's interactive technology capabilities, selecting and designing technology prior to designing a curriculum should be second nature. Technologists and instructors can easily get caught up in cool technologies — new apps or tools that they introduce to the classroom and that students find interesting and engaging for a while. However, if the instructor hasn't defined why students will use the tool and developed a plan to employ it as an integral part of the curriculum, such apps and tools have no clear purpose and often fall by the wayside.

Indeed, the best examples of success I have encountered always start with a curriculum: instructors simultaneously develop and collaborate with experts who understand technology and network requirements to test, analyze, and support the collaboration tools required. This combination has consistently resulted in meaningful technology integration and successful learner outcomes. For example, a Midwestern university recently developed an interactive learning classroom using six learning pods with five positions each. During design, we recommended that the technology designers and architects engage the curriculum designers to fully understand the pedagogy intended for the classes using the space. Initially, the design team assumed that learners would work within their pods as completely independent teams, and then periodically present their findings to the rest of the class by physically moving to the instructor's station at the front of the room. By collaborating, the design team learned that these reporting sessions might occur frequently and not always formally. The less-formal presentation environment led to a technology design that allowed learning pods to report to the remaining class or directly to other pods, while each group continued to collaborate at their individual pods. This offered a much more fluid learning experience without the disruption that might have taken place otherwise. In this case the solution involved technology tools that allowed learning pods to address each other using a BYOD environment. As this example demonstrates, a successful collaboration places curriculum, educators, and learners as the starting point from which all else evolves.

Applications and Connectivity Options

With curriculum and physical environments planned simultaneously and early on, technologies enable both educators and learners to succeed. Although studying advancements and trying to decide which technologies to apply can seem overwhelming, working closely with a technologist who understands education and specializes in applying technology in learner-based settings can help educators choose the best technology to meet their specific goals.

Beyond the differences between wired and wireless connectivity (either could be viable), wireless solutions in the market can range upwards from simple one-user presentation devices that may be hardware- or software-based, such as Air Parrot, Chromecast, or AirPlay. These tend to allow one user to display their device on a single screen at a time. Annotation and collaboration are limited to the originating device displaying content. If a second person wants to display their content, the first person must disconnect their wireless connection first.

In contrast, the other end of the wireless collaboration spectrum can provide simultaneous connectivity for multiple devices to a single display while also allowing a number of these devices to be remote to the room. Several manufacturers have developed hardware-based solutions that also incorporate "AP" interfaces that can be downloaded for smart phones and tablets, providing a complete interface to the in-room solution. Additionally, many devices on this end of the spectrum will allow collaborators to "broadcast" their content not only onto the local display but also to other collaborators' computing devices both in the room and remotely, while also allowing multiple collaborators to annotate directly onto the shared content. This annotation can flow freely among multiple persons using different colors to identify users' notes and can be saved onto each device connected to the collaboration session.

The options between these two ends of the spectrum offer variations on these themes. This can cause most people's heads to start spinning.

Caveat Emptor

Occasionally, a wired technology solution offers learners a simple user interface that works without excessive impact on the IT network. However, such technologies might cost more than wireless alternatives. Also, while wired solutions can simplify network issues and the need to manage and update applications on computing devices, they can also raise issues related to the user's device and its connection requirements. Many new tablets, for example, do not provide output connectors because they assume wireless network ubiquity. Although a wireless solution might seem to level the playing field — as well as simplify infrastructure, reduce costs, and enable user collaboration without concern for hardware and connectors — differences between Windows, Google, iOS, Android, and other operating systems make collaboration a challenge in a BYOD environment. Several hybrid wireless options include one form or another of a dongle that plugs into a standard USB port. This solution also provides a free app for devices (such as smartphones) that prefer to function wirelessly. However, plug-in dongles often leave the room still attached to someone's PC, causing additional problems for the IT support staff.

Over the past two years, many wireless collaboration solutions focus on pedagogical design needs and offer a great palette of options, user interfaces, and flexibility for educators and learners alike. In addition to varying capabilities, however, different wireless solutions have different network interface requirements and user interfaces, which can limit how images are shared. For example, some solutions permit full or near-full motion between the originating computer and others, making annotation and collaboration a natural experience. Other solutions might provide only a single screen image, without manually refreshing the image on the PC, restricting annotation and collaboration among participants.

Ideally, each solution will be selected to serve the curriculum and content. If the wrong technology is picked, or if the network cannot accommodate the selected technology, instructors may believe their curriculum is limited to the type of technology selected. Further, with wireless solutions, the need to manage wireless network segmentation is staggering. Given the density of PCs and students' wireless demands (for data, audio, and video), even the best-designed wireless system can be challenged if it is not developed with the curriculum in mind. Newly emerging wireless access points can handle video and audio with a higher quality of service and density; however, the infrastructure backbone and active components must be adapted accordingly, or network resources can easily be compromised in terms of usefulness. In addition, increased density of WAPs and cabled connections will increase routing and switching density in the IT closet, which requires power and produces heat, making cooling and additional rack space mandatory.

The holy grail of hardware and software collaboration tools is to give users the ability to share, collaborate, annotate, document, and capture content in a ubiquitous, all-encompassing manner. The level of ubiquity a particular institution can afford is often dictated by the technology, implementation costs, and network management costs. The greater the function and ease of operation, the greater the cost. Institutions must therefore carefully balance cost, flexibility, and ease of use with respect to the envisioned curriculum.

Conclusion

Shifting to learner-based education requires substantial changes to lesson planning and curriculum design. Educators are no longer at the head of the classroom and in command; students no longer sit passively in their seats while taking notes. Students at Kansas State University created a video that exemplifies changes in today's students and the challenges they face — challenges that successful technology use can help mitigate.

Kansas State student video about students today (4:44 minutes)

As studies by the University of Minnesota, MIT, and Stanford in the recent past have shown, learner-based environments can have a positive impact on educators, learners, and the educational institution's reputation when curriculum design and technology selection are properly planned and executed.1

The question is not if institutions should consider employing a learner-based environment, but how. With the financial pressures on education today, creating successful active learning environments is an issue of survival. Students seek institutions that let them learn in new, engaging, practical, and collaborative environments. Prudent planning, testing, development, use, and analysis are sound places to begin this evolution.

Note

  1. Office of Information Technology, "Research on Active Learning Classroom at the University of Minnesota," University of Minnesota, December 4, 2014; ALC Pilot Evaluation Team, "Active Learning Classrooms Pilot Evaluation: Fall 2007 Findings and Recommendations," University of Minnesota, 2008; Stanford Teaching Commons, "Promoting Active Learning," no date; Sabine Hoidn and Dan Gilbert, "Teaching and Learning in Wallenberg Hall's Experimental Classrooms," Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning, May 2007; D. A. Cohn, Z. Gahramani, and M. I. Jordan, "Active Learning with Statistical Models," Journal of Artificial Intelligence Research, Vol. 4 (1996): 129–145; and Teaching and Learning Laboratory, "Active Learning," MIT, no date.

© 2015 Randy Tritz. The text of this EDUCAUSE Review online article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 license.