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CELT: It's More Than Technology

Pairing technology with best teaching practices in the Center for Engagement, Learning, and Teaching helped one professor find new answers to a simple problem.

by Matthew Ragan and Mike Caulfield

A Simple Problem

Dr. Susan Whittemore came to the CELT workshop last spring with a simple problem: she needed to take her student portfolios electronic.

Traditionally, students in Dr. Whittemore's endocrinology course had created portfolios of their work to showcase their research, notes, and final papers. But those portfolios had been paper entities, locked away in three-ring binders.

With some technical help, Dr. Whittemore hoped the portfolios could be more easily shared with peers and potential employers. It was a matter of technical convenience.

So, in early March, Dr. Whittemore found herself sitting in a workshop offered by CELT, the College's Center for Engagement, Learning, and Teaching. The Center, a new unit on campus, had been formed out of the old Academic Technology and Service Learning units of the College.

At least part of the idea of combining the separate units was a conviction that a 21st-century understanding of education had to have a 21st-century understanding of how technology is transforming both work and scholarship; furthermore, this understanding had to be woven into the DNA of the unit.

CELT team photo by Mark Corliss

The CELT team (from left): Matthew Ragan, Linda Farina, Jenny Darrow, Rebecca Hickam, director Sue Castriotta, Mike Caulfield, and Judy Brophy. (Peggie Partello and Betsy Rode were not available for the photo.) CELT is transforming the way technology is utilized on campus.

As the workshop progressed, Judy Brophy, an educational technologist with CELT, began to walk Dr. Whittemore and 14 other faculty members in the workshop through the features of a freely available wiki product called Google Sites.

While Sites was a good option for sharing portfolios, Judy also pointed out some other classroom benefits as well. Students could comment on each other's documents, build custom forums and file libraries, and collaborate with other classes or people outside of the class. Even traditional group work could be enhanced, with students working on a single document from their respective dorm rooms, each of their contributions being logged individually.

Dr. Whittemore stopped Judy.

"This is free? And I can do all this?"

"Oh, yes!"

Other hands started to shoot up.

For the next 40 minutes, Judy threw away her lesson plan, as she fielded question after question about how Sites might be used for net-enabled teaching. After the session, Dr. Whittemore stayed to ask about how other instructors at Keene State were using Sites for collaborative writing in their classes, about what peer-to-peer assessment looked like in action, and most importantly, about when she could come to CELT for one-on-one support.

Susan Whittemore and students photo by Mark Corliss

CELT helped biology professor Susan Whittemore use online tools to encourage student collaboration in and out of the classroom.

A Synergy Between Technology, Experiential Learning,
and Teaching Excellence

Good educational practice has always focused on creating spaces for discussion, engaging with real-world problems and real-world audiences, creating a sense of community and purpose, and balancing the needs of the individual student against the challenges of classroom instruction.

In theory, at least. In practice, such things were difficult to achieve in a classroom setting, and educational software tended to exacerbate these problems rather than solve them.

With the rise of a participatory and open Internet, this changed radically. New web-enabled tools created a world where technology, and particularly social technology, was not trailing education, but was actually modeling many of the practices researchers had been suggesting education needed to adopt: peer-to-peer assessment, collaborative writing, public reflection, and student-published research.

In a new world of collaborative and participatory tools such as blogs and wikis, software wasn't just adapting to the educational process; it was helping re-imagine it in ways that were breaking it free of the old classroom paradigm.

It's this new synergy between technology, experiential learning, and teaching excellence that CELT was designed to support.

The benefits are simple - by wedding the technology to data-informed teaching practice, technology can be used to enable instructional innovation and experimentation rather than be used to automate existing, outdated, and ineffective practice. And that has the potential to change everything.

Expanding Possibilities

Several weeks after the workshop, Dr. Whittemore came back to CELT with another request, this time for her summer course. With her portfolio problem on its way toward being solved, she was ready for bigger challenges: facilitating collaboration among her students.

Her plan was simple, but bold. Aware of the multiple benefits of peer-learning communities, she wanted to make some of the work students did for the class "open" - visible, via a website, to every other student in the class. Students could then reach out to one another for guidance and support as easily as they could reach out to the instructor.

Such peer-to-peer practice has been identified for more than three decades as a key to student success, and tends to prepare students better for the world of work, where most learning occurs in the context of peer-supported networks, not formal instruction.

While the idea was Dr. Whittemore's, it fit right into the goals of CELT: one of the key documents guiding CELT is the College's Academic Plan (Keene State Today, Spring 2010), which identifies openness and peer-learning as necessary components of effective learning environments.

Additionally, the staff of CELT is well-versed in open classroom and peer-to-peer experiments in education and includes nationally recognized experts on these issues.

Matthew Ragan, a CELT rich-media specialist who has worked on a number of peer-to-peer learning projects, took on the task of helping Dr. Whittemore map out the implementation, in consultation with other members of CELT. By the time they were done they had come up with a project that was ambitious, but still manageable.

The experiment was a resounding success. Students reported that the collaborative site helped them to learn the material better, and Dr. Whittemore noted how the presence of an audience for their work made them more attentive to detail.

"Since they knew others would be reading their work," she says, "they were more careful when looking up material." As an added benefit, the open nature of the site allowed Dr. Whittemore to see the progress of each student in real time and made it possible to identify issues much earlier than traditional tests or papers can.

Perhaps most importantly, the experience of peer-learning and teamwork will help the students when they graduate into a world that is less about formal instruction and more about learning through collaboration.

Dr. Whittemore has become a bit of an evangelist for the peer-learning method. After talking about her experience with her colleagues, this fall five sections of Biology 110 will be using similar tools and methods. Instead of simply being issued a study guide from the instructor, students will create a guide collaboratively based on a provided outline.

More Than Technology

The pairing of technology with good teaching practice is having an impact on Keene State's classrooms more than technology, experiential learning, or professional development could alone. In fact, in some of the best examples at Keene State it becomes difficult to separate these elements.

In one course, students used Skype, a free teleconferencing tool, to bring their knowledge of Asperger's Syndrome to a family in Mumbai, India, that had no knowledge of autism spectrum disorders.

Cases like this are experiential, a form of global service learning. They are also technological, exposing students to new ways of working in an interconnected world. And they follow some of the best pedagogical models out there, making use of the tendency of students to learn best when they teach others.

In another course, students published websites about their group projects on the economics of Fair Trade as it applied to individual countries, in order to inform consumers what the various impacts of Fair Trade products would be.

This project also combined experiential learning, technology, and best practices of collaborative pedagogy. Students in another class made video diaries on readings they had done, shared with each other via the web. The project was inspired initially by some of the media fluency work CELT has been doing, but soon was incorporating some of the best thought on using student reflection to help students personalize their learning and connect it in meaningful ways to their lives.

The central idea of CELT is that these are not issues that benefit from being separated.

While many projects start off with simple technical questions, the hope is that by placing those technical concerns in a broader educational and experiential context, CELT is able to assist Keene State's professors with what they really want: to create engaging and relevant educational experiences for all our students. Because sometimes a question as simple as how to get portfolios on the web can lead to much greater things.

In a new world of collaborative and participatory tools such as blogs and wikis, software wasn't just adapting to the educational process; it was helping re-imagine it in ways that were breaking it free of the old classroom paradigm.
About the authors:

Mike Caulfield '93, an instructional designer at Keene State, has worked in educational technology and design since 1997, which he calls the Late Paleolithic period in this field. Before taking this position, he was director of community outreach for the OpenCourseWare Consortium based at MIT. He is the co-author of KSC's current Academic Technology Plan.

Matthew Ragan, a California native, moved to New Hampshire in the summer of 2006. Before transitioning to the Center for Engagement, Learning, and Teaching he worked for the Keene State Upward Bound program. In his time at Keene State, Matt's work has focused on meaningful and transformative use of technology, both in and out of the classroom.