Excellence in Teaching and Learning: The Interface with Technology
UIC Council for Excellence in Teaching and Learning
Excellence in Teaching and Learning:
The Interface with Technology
A report of a faculty retreat
April 9, 1998
The Council for Excellence for Teaching and Learning (CETL) provides a mechanism by which faculty and staff can work collaboratively toward the improvement of instruction and advancement of learning at UIC. As part of this, the Council seeks to educate itself about the national, regional, and in particular, the campus teaching environment; gather and analyze local teaching and learning data; and use that information to make sound, well-informed program and policy recommendations.
In the Fall of 1997 the President of the University of Illinois, James Stukel, presented the campus with a vision statement concerning the role of technology in supporting the many activities of the University. CETL followed this with discussions about the impact of the statement on instruction. The Council members realized that there was not a clear statement of excellence in teaching and learning to use as a reflection point for discussions of technology.
Thus, it was natural for us to have a one-day, on-campus retreat to delineate standards of excellence in teaching and to discuss the potential impact of technology on teaching. In all of the discussion, we strove to stay clear of discussing the limitations of current technology. Instead, we tried to stay on the task of considering technology in the abstract as a teaching and learning tool. We hope this document provides both background and forward-looking statements to the entire campus teaching community.
B. Excellence in Teaching: A Discussion of Key Characteristics
For this portion of the retreat, we presented to one another examples of particular teaching activities that, we felt, exemplified excellence. We then worked to characterize the most important elements of excellence, with specific reference to our group of examples. As part of this discussion we found the following consistent elements. All are connected to more than one item that we include as part of the source data in the appendix.
- The classroom becomes a valuable place as the teacher enthusiastically embodies the material, and provides relevant, flexible learning experiences for the students.
Attention is given to learning processes, with a mechanism to garner feedback and make adaptations. We often go beyond the linear / verbal process in presenting content.
Intimacy (a safe climate for learning) must be achieved. This will involve seeing the students as individuals and creating an atmosphere where student anxiety and fear is minimized.
Personalization of the student /teacher and the student / content interaction occurs. These interactions are strongest when the teacher is true to himself or herself, when he or she is genuine, honest, and exhibits a respectful sense of humor. This is done even in cases where one-on-one instruction is not possible.
Responsibility and professionalism develops over time within the student. Individuals will do this in terms of their own growth and their use of a mastery over content. Teachers illustrate these qualities through role modeling and demonstrating the principles of life-long learning.
Honest assessment ("tough but fair") of student work is provided. In addition, students are told clearly what criteria will be used for evaluation.
A clear command of the material is held by the teacher, who can then shape teaching as a means of letting students gain command of subject matter.
What did this discussion tell us about excellence in teaching? The consistent theme is that an excellent teacher understands and directs the learning process. This is different from saying that the teacher is responsible for the learning itself: that lies with the student. Rather, excellence in teaching provides a studied approach to instruction that elicits, and then rewards, student efforts to learn. This takes experience and knowledge. But it also takes a deep-seated interest in success in the student gaining an understanding of the material.
C. Excellence in Learning: Bearing Witness to an
Faculty seldom observe the instant at which a student "learns" a concept or technique, and the process of learning a subject is so involved that students themselves cannot identify a "learning moment" definitively. Instead of observing this process, which is invisible to us, we observe changes in students’ understanding and behavior. When a student attains true command of the knowledge goals of a course then we can say we have witnessed excellence in learning. This occurs whether this course is at the level of an introduction to college discipline or within an advance professional curriculum. Student learning can be done under the direct guidance of a teacher, with peers, or in isolation. But it is uniquely the responsibility of the student.
With this in mind, we were able to discuss how we have seen excellence in practice and in fruition. Some themes include:
- Student acquisition of information, technique, and understanding. These comprise the "content" that is commonly assessed using examinations and student work.
Demonstration of diverse thought about a subject, either in the ability to solve particular problems in different ways, or in being able to analyze a topic from different viewpoints.
A commitment to quality work that indicates the student cares personally about the best presentation of the information. Intrinsic motivation takes over for extrinsic motivation.
Conscious overcoming of anxiety and other obstacles, whether they are associated with specific problems in learning or difficulties in approaching intellectual work general.
The creation of rich, nuanced questions and answers from within the student's own understanding, especially where the process of inquiry and investigation becomes a valued tool of learning.
Demonstration of learning across a curriculum, not just within particular courses. Only then can the student be known to move in areas of excellence as a broad thinker.
A summary view of this looks at student learning along a continuum. Good students can achieve technical mastery of the skills of a course or a discipline. Very good learners exhibit an understanding of the principles and methods of a subject. But the surest indication of learning excellence is acquiring a true practical mastery--the ability to apply both technique and understanding.
D. The Teaching / Learning Interface: Roles of the
Personal and the Technological
Our discussion of teaching and learning excellence stressed the importance of interactions between student and material, between teacher and material, and between student and teacher. Student-teacher interactions are also critical in assessing learning and the effectiveness of teaching. One advantage of faculty observing students working in small groups is that this affords a greater opportunity for observing the actual process of learning. With this in mind, we prepared a list of a number of ways in which technology can affect the teaching and learning process.
In thinking about the characteristics of excellence in teaching, a strong element of the personal appears. We felt strongly that to foster learning, interactions need to occur.
This is an argument for the important role of the teacher as person, organizer, expert, and guide. However, our "personal" focus leaves open very important questions about the timing and the location of the critical interactions. In addition, there are interesting possibilities that arise when one begins to ask about the students and their relationship to each other and to the established knowledge base of a discipline.
The group determined five areas where an individual’s learning can be aided by technology: distribution of information, interaction with information, simulation of reality, visualization of systems (an area difficult without technology?here technology pushes the boundaries of what can be understood in a profound way), remediation, and review of content.
Thus began our discussion, which flowed over several questions, more or less in sequence. These have been presented here as they occurred to us.
1. How can technology be connected to / added upon existing methodologies?
This is a very discipline-specific question. The answer for each discipline begins by looking at current practice. One approach begins with the text and the lecture, for these are the starting point for transmitting knowledge in traditional contexts. Technology in this case becomes an expansion of information: making its retrieval more consistent, perhaps providing hypermedia options to expand the material that is provided. An important point was developed to see technology as an extension, not a replacement, of the teacher-led classroom, whether that classroom is a lecture hall or a seminar room.
Even within this limited picture of technology and teaching, interesting possibilities arise. Computerization, even within a simple calculator, allows the efficient exploration of hypotheses in the manipulation and interpretation of data. This may provide an important place for student / content interactions that we noted were important in the personalization of the classroom. The relationship of the student to the content may be much richer if the student explores the way that subject is handled in diverse contexts, perhaps from around the world. Of course, the persistent problem of information reliability will, whatever the advances in technology, remain as a challenge.
2. Will student experiences of simulated environments enhance or limit their understanding?
One of the faculty mentioned the strong interest she and others had in case studies for student work prior to, and in the wake of, conventional classroom instruction. The interactivity of computerized instruction can be a preparation for the interaction of instruction with the subject matter beyond the classroom, the clinic, and the research environment.
It is easy to consider this instruction-by-simulation as leading to isolated activities on the part of students, but (see below), we anticipate that synchronous online activities and the use of online information sources will both become important modes of "expanding" the student.
Nevertheless, caution was suggested when we considered the strong impression of simulated experiences, especially those that are rich in sensory input. Will the tight focus on the technologically delivered experience lead to a neglect of "fuzzy, “gray,” or “unclear” information in real situations? Also, will different ways of visualizing information actually be hindered if the visualization is made so facile the necessary modeling (and associated assumptions) are forgotten?
3. How will technology allow / hinder the personal contacts we value in learning?
The nature of the "community of learners" is an important one, we have observed, for students. This community includes a leader, typically a faculty member, but some of the best teaching we recalled involved student-student interactions and work with the instructor assuming a secondary guiding role.
Technology advances the possibilities for communication to a point far beyond the campus and the classroom. National discussion groups, even national courses, are in interesting way to assemble learners from very different backgrounds with one another.
Within this part of the discussion, a host of associated questions arose as possible barriers. For example, experienced teachers have a sense of the ambiguity that is present in certain answers: a simple answer may not be adequate at intermediate stages in learning because mastery requires confidence, not just correctness. Electronic communication may dampen perceptions of the struggle of a learner, and this in turn may prevent valuable moments of intervention by the teacher.
Furthermore, the give and take of a live interaction has the value of flexibility. A skilled teacher may, if appropriate, scrap a lesson plan in favor of a tangent that can be well explored at that moment. Taking advantage of this "management of surprise" or “teachable moment” is an important skill for flexible, knowledgeable, and sensitive teachers. These opportunities may be lost because asynchronous technology requires the scripting of all presentation materials.
4. What are the psychological challenges posed by technology?
This discussion was started by a remark that we certainly know that human children normally require direct verbal interaction in order to learn, even in order to thrive during their pre-verbal development. This, of course, is a natural aspect of a verbal community that is part of our evolutionary heritage. Therefore, there are very basic questions of human psychology that need to be considered.
This is more than just an issue for child development. Learning by participating in the linguistic norms of a subject is critical in all of our fields. But this process involves experimentation with language in ways that become accurate and effective only over time. Will technological instruction provide the flexibility of accommodating the novice participant and the expert, applying the same subject-specific knowledge with very different requirements for communication? A naïve answer for a beginner is an incorrect answer for an expert, and skilled instruction must handle both on the right level.
These challenges also appear when we consider diversity as a goal of our educational environment. Bringing skilled students of widely different backgrounds takes, in our experience, enormous sensitivity and experience. In turn, teaching has a large effect on the affective domain of the learner, and the impact of technology on education's ability to inform and support individuals who are willing to participate in the society must be guided.
The retreat concluded with a brief consideration of how our discussion suggests novel questions to use in evaluating technology and the interface with teaching and learning. After discussing standard questions (is the instruction effective, is it something student like?), we considered that each of the points we discussed in part (D) is itself the basis for an evaluation program.