Have you ever spent eight hours re-making a tutorial or exercise that you just made the previous semester? (Me.) Or relied on an online resource for instruction that disappears right before you assign it? (Yup.) Or brought up an example in class and it no longer works because the program was updated mid-semester? (Sigh.)
Add a technology component to a course, and it will demand your constant attention, make you look like you don’t know what you’re doing at least a few times a semester, and eat up precious time when you should be sleeping. This turbulence caused by constant changes in technology is enough to make it feel like we’re drowning in updates and overhauls for a course, much less all the time needed to keep our own skills up-to-date. You may be the world’s best teacher, but this is how we end up teaching the technology first, instead of relegating it to a supporting role.
Technology-based courses do need more updating, require more time to teach, have a never-ending learning curve and will threaten to swallow your soul on a regular basis, but there are ways to help keep you sane and give you more control over how and when to update content. The processes I use for designing and managing active-learning tech courses work for any discipline, and can also help to improve all of your courses.
Strategically control the structure of your course
First, create a “map” of your course by defining or clarifying the major milestones, starting with the final assessment and working “backwards” to the smaller assignments (and eventually to individual lesson plans). This process is called “backwards course design.” If you’re now groaning that you don’t have time for a complete overhaul, begin with defining the final assessment and re-thinking what you want a student who has taken your course to be able to do.
How will that student be different by the end of the course? Can you define what a student will be able to do in 5-7 measurable and identifiable learning outcomes as your course goals? If all of that sounds unfamiliar, or just overwhelming, don’t fear. Many resources for this approach already exist, and your institution may have a teaching and learning center that can help you through this process.
What’s most important about creating this “map” is to share the final assessment and course goals with students from Day 1 and continually make the path to these goals as clear as possible to students during the course. It’s pretty easy to start out teaching photo editing using Photoshop and end up teaching Photoshop, which happens to edit photos plus a lot of other cool things. Technology has a way of muddying the waters and pushing us off target.
Don’t let technology drive the boat
You’re probably already dividing your course into sections or modules, but now take a little time to make sure each revolves around a concept associated with the course learning outcomes, and not just the tasks involved. This is a simple idea, but it’s powerful. When the technology begins to takes over, our course organization starts to sound like this: “We have two labs to teach Photoshop, and then we’ll spend the next three on InDesign.” Notice how the technology is in the driver’s seat?
An example from my web class: I dedicate roughly two class sessions to a module called “Images and Links.” The skill I want to teach is how to add images and links to a basic web page, but the concept is actually file structure. I may still refer to the module as “Images and Links,” but I need to keep it clear to myself and to my students that the concept – the takeaway – is not how to add an adorable image of a kitten with the image tag, but how files and resources find each other on the web.
As part of this module, I have an in-class demo linking multiple pages, a quiz on image file types, a worksheet on identifying the parts of a URL, a exercise on relative versus absolute links, an exercise about file structure on the web, a practice project, and a short lecture with some of the more technical details highlighted. It’s a lot of pieces and only some of them rely heavily on the specifics of how the underlying technology works. As the steps to add an image have changed with the introduction of HTML5, retina displays and responsive web design, I’ve updated the specifics for how to add that tag. But the overall concept for how files and resources work together on the web remains, and a good chunk of each learning resource stayed the same or required only minor adjustments.
Moving to a concept-based, learning-outcome-driven modular course design means more leeway for deciding when to change to a new version or when to revise the associated technology or materials. Tutorials will always need updates, but a large chunk of each module and lesson plan may not.
Part Two: On Thursday, we will explore using the Decoding the Disciplines method to identify where students get stuck learning technology. Identifying these learning bottlenecks and the mental tasks involved helps us design better lessons including technology and helps students reach course goals.
Erika Biga Lee is a lecturer at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing.