Bringing Teaching and Tech Together to Promote Active Learning
Elizabeth Charles believes the last new technology to really have an impact on teaching was the overhead projector. Its huge popularity in schools began building in the late 1950s, as teachers realized the advantages of being able to bring prepared material to class and modify it in response to class discussion. It was, in Charles’ words, a disruptive technology, forcing change in the way people taught and students learned.
“In the past three or four decades, technology has not been able to break through, or ‘be disruptive,’ in making changes in education,” said Charles, co-director of SALTISE (Supporting Active Learning & Technological Innovation in Studies in Education) at Dawson College in Montréal. In a phone interview she explained there is a long history of new technology being tried but not catching on to the extent that teaching changed in response.
Charles is co-researcher on one of 27 College and Community Social Innovation Fund research projects, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC). In social innovation, researchers develop new ideas or use others in new ways to tackle social problems. Charles’ study is focused on supporting teachers who use a form of instruction called “active learning” by encouraging them to make more effective use of new educational technology. It fits well with SSHRC’s challenges to identify “new ways of learning… Canadians will need to thrive in an evolving society and labour market,” and how emerging technologies can be leveraged to benefit Canadians.
Different disciplines tend to have their own languages and culture, which can leave some students feeling shut out; research has shown active learning is particularly helpful for them. If students actually do practical work on real-life issues such as gathering data on environmental problems, or on lack of access to social services, they begin to enter those new cultures and learn the language.
In active learning, the emphasis is on student engagement. Through group work — experimenting, solving problems, researching information and reflecting on what they’ve done, students learn in a more profound way than from lectures. But it’s very demanding for teachers, who must develop lessons and linked learning activities for students, as well as monitoring groups to keep them on track and being the ultimate class resource as well.
There are software programs and equipment to help; but many teachers can’t find the time to master those tools, let alone modify them to the particular needs of their students. The ultimate goal of Charles’ project is to give teachers tools to help them “orchestrate” active learning. If the work involved in teaching through active learning can be eased, teachers are more likely to disrupt tradition, and switch their practice.
The Community and College Social Innovation Fund grants encourage college-based researchers to work with partners, across academic disciplines and institutions and in the community. Charles is working with several other university and college academics, as well as school teachers and three commercial technology firms that make educational software.