It may be a long time until we return to large lecture halls and intimate graduate level seminars, and no one can predict when or how the current pandemic will resolve itself.
We have, however, learned a few things during this journey. Some of our instructional changes have been positive, bringing about new efficiencies and fresh perspective on learning measurement. And yet, all of us feel the pain of not being able to build and nurture personal relationships, which is the reason many of us got into education to begin with. There is a sense of deep and profound loss in not knowing if we’ll ever be able to return to a normal life of large gatherings and uninhibited interactions.
The question being asked now is if being held tethered by technology, being hostage to using it simply because we need it to teach will adversely affect education in the long term. We might be able to cobble together a solution for a semester or a year, but what happens after that? Many faculty are asking how, if we are becoming so reliant on technology now, will we ever fully extricate ourselves once we return to in-person instruction.
For Sara Clark and Dr. Dan Rockwell, faculty in the Oregon State University math department, it is pretty clear where that line falls between technology as an essential tool and technology that is frivolous or potentially hurts the education process.
“I think the way that I've chosen to use technology in my classes is to solve a problem or to make an aspect of my course better,” says Dr. Rockwell. Rockwell points out that if we stick to this problem-solution model in selecting tech, then the tool makes sense now and probably well into the future.
For OSU, the problem before COVID-19 began spreading from Wuhan, China, was in maintaining consistency and fairness in an 800+ student course with multiple sections, faculty, and TAs. Once COVID became a global pandemic, the problem of consistency and fairness didn’t go away. Instead they were compounded, because faculty and TAs could not be physically present to give exams, collect papers, or meet in-person with students.
Clark points out that the litmus test for tech’s value is to ask if the technology takes away from human interaction--which might feel ironic now that the pandemic gives us no choice. Tech tools, as she sees it, that the OSU math department uses solve problems. “The tech we are using is not removing where I would be talking with students. It’s actually enhancing that because we’re getting all of this data and feedback, and then we can go to them and talk about what we see in the data,” said Clark.
Certainly, much of the tech used in education has been of the time-saving sort, bringing greater efficiencies in diagnosing learning gaps or bringing more relevant content to learners in more prescriptive and personal ways. OSU has been using Gradescope by Turnitin to help them address the problem with grading consistency for a while, so what they’ve discovered now is a hyper-focus on why the tech makes sense, according to Dr. Rockwell. “We chose to start using Gradescope because we had large numbers of exams we needed to grade and a large number of people needing to grade them. And doing that with physical exams is just logistically hard to pass a giant stack of exams between 12 people,” he said.
There are other technologies OSU uses, too, such as student response systems. Rather than diminishing the number of personal interactions, student response systems increase their frequency. There are always students in a class who never raise their hands when asked a question, but for the teacher, this hand-raising process is an essential quick check for understanding because it gives immediate and actionable feedback. With student response systems, students remain anonymous, which solves the very common problem of being shy or embarrassed by potentially being wrong. “Before we had student response technology, more than a few students were reluctant to raise their hands. Now the entire class can respond, and we benefit from being able to have checkpoints in the classroom,” said Clark.
Clark explains that they have used Top Hat and they are now also using the chat features of Zoom as a student response system. “Regardless of what you use, this technology can give you checkpoints. I don’t think of this as technology that puts a barrier between us and our students. Rather, it allows us to see where they are at some point in time in our class,” she added.
Student-facing tech has also been integrated into OSU’s math courses before a course starts and as an individualized instruction resource during the course. ALEKS is the homework management platform OSU students use as they prepare to take a class or to brush up on skills throughout the course. It's technology with a clear purpose and connection to instruction.
“Math is a course that builds heavily on previous knowledge so when I think about technology’s place, one is to give students data. We used to have lots of students getting upset at the beginning of a course, feeling like they couldn’t do it or they were overwhelmed by this 50-question long review questionnaire we gave them before taking College Algebra,” said Clark “Now students get to the end of the course saying that ALEKS made them feel empowered and able to take control of their learning.”
With ALEKS, students find out what topics they have mastered in their homework, and they can quickly see what they need to review. “They’re not getting bogged down with 20 factoring problems when everyone has to complete the same exact assignment. Now, for example, a student might only need to complete three types of factoring problems, because that is what they need to review.”
And then there is grading, perhaps the most onerous time-consuming task. However, through tech, grading can be done much more efficiently while providing a rich source of metadata to improve instruction. OSU began experimenting with Gradescope by Turnitin years ago and found that it, along with several other tools, fit into remote instruction just as well as it did in traditional instruction.
Gradescope grouping of like answers generates insights into whether or not the instructional process is working. In OSU’s case, faculty can see into specific concepts taught across multiple sections. They then share these insights with their colleagues. Rather than divide grading by giving bundles of tests to faculty and TA’s, they divvy up questions so that faculty have deeper insights about just one or two questions. Gradescope takes the digitized answers and using AI, “reads” the image, texts, or numbers and bundles like answers together. The grader then assigns points to all the like answers in the group.
The commonality of these tech tools and the point that Clark and Rockwell made in this interview is that with these three tech tools, there were significant advancements to either improve relationships or streamline work - essentially problems that existed before COVID-19 and problems that still exist in a pandemic.
When we asked if they would have adopted these tech tools before the pandemic, Rockwell replied, “The pandemic forced our hands in many ways. We were forced into a situation where we had to adapt and change and learn. But that also presented an opportunity.” The opportunity he went on to explain was that if it worked while students were meeting in-person, it better work while they meet online. Those are the tech tools that will stick, not because they are sexy but because they make sense.