Effects of educational technology on teaching tasks

In yesterday’s article I proposed that the way to provide a great education at a lower cost is based on the concept of community:

Students have to feel they are part of a supportive and available educational community — as both givers and receivers of that support — as they strive toward personally relevant goals.

I then proposed that both project-based learning and students taking the roles of both learners and teachers are two important components of my proposal.

Today I analyze the specific tasks related to the teaching process, and then look at the effects of some educational technologies on those tasks. In the (I think) final post in this series, I will address questions that have to do with the quality of the resulting education and the relative cost of that education.

Tasks related to the teaching process

Does this bring back good memories?

Suppose your school has six sections of each core class, with each section having 80 students in it. In a traditional structure, a professor might be responsible for teaching three of those sections, so two professors would be needed for all six sections. Each professor coordinates with the other, but for his/her own sections the professor would be responsible for preparing the lectures, delivering the lectures, supervising and coordinating learning activities, communicating with the students out-of-class (either through email or office hours), monitoring any student projects and directing the teams, designing assignments and tests, and coordinating (or doing) the grading. It is assumed that, above a certain size, a professor would need assistance (in the form of a T.A. or administrative support) in order to effectively handle all of the tasks that are needed to be completed.

Do you know all of your students?

It takes a very committed faculty member to form a personal connection with 200+ students in a semester. Many times, because of prior commitments or whatnot, this is simply asking too much of the professor. In any case, let’s look at these different tasks in a bit more detail related to whether or not they are expenses that vary with the number of students or are fixed:

Preparing the lectures
Fixed. It really does not matter how many students are going to be sitting in a class — a lecture is a lecture.
Delivering the lectures
Varies with number of sections. Again, it does not matter how many students are going to be sitting in a classroom; however, if there are six different sections of the class, then it will take six times as long to deliver the lecture (if you are doing it live and in-person).
Supervising activities
Varies with number of students or number of sections. Many times a professor assigns exercises or activities for the students to complete as part of the learning or teaching process. One single professor can only supervise or provide feedback to a limited number of students.
Student communication
Varies a decreasing amount with number of students. Generally, each additional student requires a certain amount more time to handle individual requests and/or emails. As the number of students increase, the repetition among these messages begins to give some amount of scale effects because answers can be re-used. Office hours adds something of a step-wise nature to this relationship. With an increasing number of students, hours on additional days have to be set aside for those students who inevitably could not come to other hours because of their own conflicts or too many other students in line.
Monitoring projects
Varies directly with number of students. In many classes, this is where a professor’s expertise and experience will come most into play. As such, it is where his/her time can be in most demand. The result is that project work is only hesitantly given. Assigning the projects in groups can mitigate the investment, but it still can end up being quite significant.
Designing assignments
Fixed. It does not matter how many students are going to be completing an assignment. The professor must take time to design the assignment, but that time does not vary with the number of students.
Grading assignments
Varies directly with the number of students (similar comments to “monitoring projects”).

Effects of adding technologies to the mix

The educational process is moving out to the Internet

Now, let’s look at the effects on the above tasks if we add educational technologies to the mix. I’m assuming that the technologies are things like a modern CMS, Google Hangout, YouTube videos, and twitter. In addition (building on my suggestion from the previous post), I am going to assume that students take the role of teacher at times in addition to their traditional and on-going role as learner.

Preparing the lectures
Fixed. Using videos for some (or all) of the lectures will almost assuredly increase the fixed amount of time it takes to prepare for a lecture (compared with the traditional delivery model) because there are more and unfamiliar decisions to make in the design of the lecture.
Delivering the lectures
Fixed. Now, instead of being a variable expense of time, it is fixed — probably longer than one class period, but still fixed. Further, it can then be re-used multiple times, over multiple programs and multiple years if needed.
Supervising activities
Varies with number of students or number of sections, but at a lower rate per student. This is where the computerization of the activities and the availability of student-teachers (that is, students taking the role of teachers) come into play. Students who understand the activity (and who may have been blessed as being one who has reached an appropriate knowledge level) can be used to help tutor other students in the class. Teachers know better than anyone that actually teaching some material is the best way to learn about that material — why not pass along that benefit to students? Through the integration of students into the teaching role, I believe that a professor can supervise a greatly increased number of students during these activities.
Student communication
Varies a decreasing amount with number of students and, again, at a lower rate per student. With tools such as Google Hangouts (applied to office hours) and twitter (enabling asking and answering of questions by the twittersphere), I believe, again, that a professor can handle a greatly increased number of students, especially if the professor is able to create a feeling of community among the students.
Monitoring projects
Varies directly with number of students. It is definitely still the case that this is where a professor’s expertise and experience will usually come most into play. As such, it is where his/her time can be in most demand. However, I believe it is a mistake to forget the value of students who have successfully completed the class. In traditional project-based classes I have taught, I have used students who did well in my class to mentor students currently in the class. The mentors have to take a 1-credit hour class on mentoring techniques, so they get some official recognition for helping out. These mentors almost universally contribute to the success of my students. The use of these mentors definitely allowed me to more easily supervise more groups. I don’t see why moving the projects or students online would change this.
Designing assignments
Fixed. The same as before.
Grading assignments
Varies directly with the number of students (similar comments to “monitoring projects”). Same as above.

Benefits of adding technology

So, looking at the changes from the first scenario to the second:

  • For fixed-time activities, the time for preparing lectures will probably increase.
  • Delivering lectures changes from being a variable task to a fixed task. The benefits of this should increase as the number of students (and associated number of sections) increases.
  • Both supervising activities and student communications should take less time per student with computational support (and additional student involvement).
  • If students can be recruited to provide additional support, then both monitoring projects and grading assignments should take less per additional student when computational support is provided. Another way of saying this is that a professor should be able to indirectly monitor more projects and grade more assignments with a more computational process.

Wrap up

It appears that professors should be able to teach more students using technology than without. The questions still remain as to how quality will be affected and whether costs will go up or down. Again, I say that I plan to get to these questions in the next post. (We’ll see, huh?)

For now, what do you think about this analysis? Again, am I being too optimistic about the technologies? Am I missing some task in my analysis? Am I getting the effects of the technologies correct? Let me know what you think!

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