Columbia colleges using new technologies to improve learning, communication

Friday, August 7, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 11:05 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Guy Wilson holds a clicker and explains the benefits of its use in a classroom at a seminar in the MU Memorial Union.

COLUMBIA — Danna Vessell says her job is a curious mix of geek and instructor.

The director of MU’s educational technologies department, ET@MO, helps teachers integrate technology in their classroom. “It’s important to have technologies that are good for teaching and not flashy,” Vessell said.


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The department tries to support technologies that faculty want to use, that are easy to use and are valuable for students, Vessell said.

Campuses in Columbia are constantly updating technology to improve student learning. Each campus has resources to help professors adopt new technology in their classrooms, but it’s up to instructors to learn it and make it available to students.

This fall, teachers and students at MU, Columbia College and Stephens College will have several new technologies available to better the way students learn and to improve interaction in and outside of the classroom.


MU: Capturing lecture

A challenge of working with professors is evaluating new technologies and determining how they can best be used for teachers, Vessell said. The faculty they work with are mainly volunteers, though the department tries to make technology easy to use and appealing to everyone, she said.

“Just seeing the different way that people use technology creatively in teaching and learning is kind of exciting,” she said.

One new technology is an update to Blackboard, a learning management system that allows faculty to post content, grades and quizzes. It will receive a new tool called “Learning Objects” that will add wikis and blogs to course sites, Vessell said.

Another new technology is Tegrity Lecture Capture, which “captures” the instructor’s voice and any other presentation materials used during class, Vessell said.

Science professor John Adams participated in a pilot program of the technology last year and plans to use it again in his two sections of Chemistry 1320 this fall.

Adams writes directly on his tablet PC and uses a portable microphone to record his voice. The software does the rest. All it takes is for the user to “download the software, hit the button and it records,” Adams said. Prior to using the technology, Adams recorded lectures with a video camera and uploaded the content to the Web.

Through surveys and conversations with students, Adams found the students who use the technology like it as a supplement to what they heard in class because they don’t want to miss anything. These are typically the students with the best grades, Adams said.

“People who don’t show up to class don’t look at the tapes,” he said.

It is useful for students, however, who occasionally miss class for student organization or athletic trips, as well as illness, he said. Ultimately, the goal is for students to learn the material.

“If they learn better in bed at 11 o’clock at night rather than 8 in the morning in class, so be it,” Adams said.  

It’s important for not only students, but also faculty to have the technology be accessible, Adams said.

“User-friendly is everything,” he said. “If something is too awkward for faculty, they’re not going to use it.”


Stephens: Software for students

At Stephens College, the biggest technological change this fall is the student self-service portal, which allows students to log in and enroll for classes by themselves, instructional support coordinator Zak Birchmeier said.

Another change is the GoToMeeting webinars, a tool for distance courses. The instructor can have a class discussion with students, and it “gives a live social presence,” Birchmeier said.

Stephens is also upgrading to a new version of Blackboard, which allows students to view information about their courses and keep track of their grades, he said.  

There are usually one to two people in each department who are initially interested in testing out new technologies, Birchmeier said. He holds regular group training sessions for instructors in Columbia. In other cases, he offers training via an online meeting or sends a document with step-by-step instructions.

“We have ongoing discussion about new tools we see and use each other as guinea pigs,” he said.

After a few teachers try the technology, Birchmeier lets other faculty know that it is available for use.

“Usually though, if there is a particular tool that will satisfy a need they have immediately, an instructor will jump right on it,” Birchmeier said.

This fall, the School of Design and Fashion at Stephens will update its Gerber pattern-making software for fashion students, said Monica McMurry, the school’s dean.

The fashion, interior design and graphic design programs constantly require updated computer software, McMurry said. Not only is the expense of the technology sometimes a problem, but making sure faculty know how to use the programs.

“To me that’s a major concern for us — keeping faculty educated and sending them on the right conferences and trainings,” she said.

Beth Climer teaches courses for Stephens’ online health information administration program. This summer, she attended a professional conference and learned more about available technology.

One of the programs Stephens subscribes to is Virtual Lab, which has a new update called Tableau that allows students to collect data on patients and use it, she said. This is the type of software students will encounter in the health care workplace, Climer said.

The conference helps explain how to use the new software, but teachers still have to work with it more on their own, Climer said.

“The main part is we’ve got to learn about it, and then we’ve got to incorporate it into our classroom,” she said.


Columbia College: Virtual learning

Upcoming changes at Columbia College this fall include piloting an online grade book and a new exam proctoring lab, said Kevin Palmer, chief information officer at Columbia College.

The Datatel Gradebook will allow students to look at grades online to check assignments and attendance. Palmer estimates 10 faculty will volunteer for the pilot, allowing about 450 students to test the software. If it seems to work for these students, the college will put it in full production for the winter semester, he said.

“Gradebook is a student- and faculty-driven initiative,” Palmer said. “Faculty want students to get information as soon as possible, and students want to check their grades as soon as possible on their own time.”

The new proctoring lab, in the former Columbia Photo building on North Tenth Street, will accommodate nursing and online students taking exams, freeing up the general purpose labs for other students, he said.

Columbia College is also starting to experiment with classes that are a hybrid between virtual and face-to-face, alternating days in-seat and online meeting days, Palmer said.

“One class meeting day may be in-seat where they are meeting in the classroom, and the other session may be online,” he said. “In essence, you are getting the best of both worlds.”

Keeping up with technology at the college has advanced in the past three or four years, Palmer said.

“That push has been because every institution in higher ed is looking to use technology in a better way that will help the student use technology to meet their needs,” he said.

Psychology professor Graham Higgs doesn't let his students use “distracting” technology such as MP3 players, cell phones or laptops in his classroom. He does, however, use and promote using Internet-based teaching tools, such as online grade books and wikis, Higgs said.

He uses a Web site to provide students with access to the course calendar and his syllabus. Because each classroom has SMART Boards and access to a computer, Higgs posts online quizzes and then projects them onto the SMART Board. Students can respond using clicker devices, which saves paper, he said.

Struggling with technology isn’t an issue, Higgs said.

Although Higgs thinks technology can be beneficial, it isn’t the only tool to help students learn, he said.

“Learning is not simple, and it basically involves paying attention and thinking and doing some creative examination of ideas and theories,” he said.


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